The Outer Banks of North Carolina in the vicinity of Duck, Nagshead, and Kitty Hawk where we sometimes spent two weeks in the summer during those years when we were not able to join everyone else -- or chose not to -- in South Carolina at the family house in North Myrtle Beach.Feeling a bit nostalgic for family vacations of the past this morning. The Upper Midwest, the lakes of Minnesota, the forests of Wisconsin and Michigan, not to mention the Great Lakes are wonderful in their way, but it just ain't the same thing. Nope. This morning, I'm a bit homesick for the places along the Eastern Seaboard of the United States where I grew up, and where my family spent so much time in various coastal areas during the summers through the late 198os.
One of the places that was popular with the family when I was young, and throughout my mother's childhood and teenage years from the 1940s to the early 60s, was the Outer Banks region of North Carolina. The last year we rented a house here was in late August of 1984. The events of that visit unfolded like a French farce, starting with my teenage sister getting lost on the beach at sundown our first evening at the house during her impromptu walk to the Navy Pier up the beach, which appeared much closer than it was given its massive dimensions. The comedy of errors continued through the arrival of my uncle's in-laws Bobbi and Al -- who were perpetually soused and sniped at each other like the couple in the Edward Albee play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? -- and the related Spinach Fandango incident, which culminated in rather tipsy renditions of Carolina Moon and When the Saints Go Marching In. Bobbi, the story went, sang with a big band in Chicago during the first half of the 1940s and still needed an audience during her weaker moments.
Things limped along like that for the next ten days or so, finally coming to a premature end that year during Week #2 when the North Carolina National Guard cleared the area in advance of an approaching early hurricane that August. Meanwhile, Great Uncle Baxter and his notorious sourpuss of a wife Aunt Jewel, neither of whom should have been driving at that point in their lives, remained somehow blissfully unaware of the changing weather. The two continued their manic romp on the highways and byways that led to the Outer Banks from the central part of the state with their infamous "car full of melons," a huge 197os-era Buick or some similar vehicle that was a four-door boat. The car rode like one too if you were unlucky enough to get trapped in it with Uncle Baxter behind the wheel.
Great Uncle Baxter once drove this same car onto a busy interstate highway by going in the wrong direction up an exit ramp. He fixed his mistake, once he noticed it, by invoking his inner Steve McQueen. Uncle Baxter floored the accelerator, reached top speed, and drove with a clanking thud over the median strip that separated the three northbound lanes of traffic from the three southbound lanes as oncoming and passing motorist blew their horns, shook their fists, and made obscene gestures at him. It was almost like the chase scene in Bullit. My mother actually experienced this very ride as a passenger in the backseat during the summer of 1983 and lived to tell the tale. Stuff like this was hysterically funny to my almost 17-year-old self. Even now, it remains wryly amusing whenever those events from so long ago cross my mind. But back to the beach.
North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where Uncle Jack and Aunt Alma had their house, a sprawling 10-bedroom green and white place, where the extended family from up and down the eastern seaboard congregated for two-three weeks each July and August for many years from the late 1940s through the late 80s.
At other times, we joined the rest of the extended family in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where Great Uncle Jack and Aunt Alma owned a large beach house. Almost every summer for about 40 years, the extended clan journeyed from where life and careers had taken them up and down the east coast of the U.S. after the Second World War to North Myrtle Beach for two or three weeks each July or early August. Usually, Uncle Jack's brother Uncle Syd and his wife Aunt Martha (my maternal grandfather's youngest sister) hosted the proceedings, which included lots of Bridge games lubricated by plenty of scotch and sodas, mixed drinks, and the like. . . in the fine tradition of somewhat observant Episcopalians, Methodists, and one Southern Baptist (Uncle Syd).
There were usually three or four card tables set up in the large main room of the beach house, and the bridge games usually began in the late mornings, continued after lunch until the late afternoon siesta, and picked up again in the early evenings once the dinner dishes had been cleared away and coffee served. Often, Great Aunt Marnie and my grandfather (siblings) would call over Great Uncle Bob and my grandmother to play their hands for them for a few rounds, something the latter two disliked because they were the only two in the family who were not avid Bridge players. They always helped out their respective spouses though. Granny was a shrewd Gin Rummy player, however, and that cardgame was also played with great gusto now and then. Sometimes, the men would also, shall we say, make the games a bit more interesting by playing for pennies, nickels, and dimes, but Aunt Martha didn't really approve, so this happened on the QT.
Oddly, and as I have written before here at Classic Style for the Average Guy, there was never any audible swearing or ugly drunken behavior like seems to be the norm among so much of the populous in 2015. These family gatherings were pretty understated and quiet affairs all things considered. People were happy to see each other, or at least polite enough to pretend that they were. The family laughed together, shared stories, and took part in actual conversation with one another (no smart phones in those days). Great Great Aunt Polly (my grandfather's aunt) always told stories like The Crooked Mouths to the children. Adults and children napped in the late afternoons, with the former playing cards until the wee hours. We ate well, walked on the beach, swam in tidal pools when the tide was out, and overall enjoyed each others' company.
If there were ever any off color stories with blue language, the men retired to the beach well out of earshot of the ladies and children. The strongest words I ever heard come out of anyone's mouth during these gatherings was an expression Uncle Baxter used.
"Well, by Ned!" he would exclaim when flustered, surprised, astonished, or incredulous. The expression drove my grandmother and Great Aunt Marnie, who were close, crazy. Privately, they thought Uncle Baxter was about as sharp as a mashed potato sandwich.
And once in a while, we borrowed Cousin Geneva's cottage on Gwynn Island on the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia for two weeks.
Last, but not least, there was also Cousin Geneva's less grand cottage on Gwynn Island, Virginia, part of the tidewater region in that state. My chief memories of staying here include the delicious fresh seafood at a totally unpretentious, quick and dirty restaurant perched on some rocks over the water at the left end of the bridge in the photograph above. That and the thousands of rotting horseshoe crabs and jellyfish that would wash up on the beach.
There was also the Independence Day celebration in 1982, I was 15 that year summer, when we almost burned down the woods around the house with some roman candles, the one and only time my sister and I were permitted to have fireworks. One of the darn things fell over in the sand at some point in all of this, and we took hasty cover behind a dune. Good thing too. For a few minutes it was like having live ammo and tracer bullets shooting over our heads in all directions.
How the dry pine woods nearby did not catch fire and burn out of control, I'll never know. We were lucky. Whatever the napalm-like substance that shot out of those was, it remained glowing underwater for some time after the excitement died down, and we were able to came out and survey the damage. That particular episode, by the way, satisfied our curiosity about, and desire for, anything that goes "BOOM!" for the 4th of July.
And who could forget my grandfather's slightly inebriated late night run to the local Food Lion (or maybe a Winn Dixie?) back in the town of Redart, VA on the mainland? And the reason behind his foray? He went after a shopping bag full of cheap candy. Taffy, peppermint balls, stick candy, circus peanuts, Yoo-Hoo and Knee High sodas, you name it. That particular scavenger hunt happened in the wake of my grandmother losing her patience one evening with my grandfather's extended soliloquy about how delicious he thought -- so he said -- the steaks were that he had prepared outside on the grill for us that evening.
Unable to withstand anymore of that particular monologue, aided and abetted, naturally, by Granddaddy's usual triple scotch and water before we sat down to the table, Granny finally snapped. She placed her fork and knife on the edge of her plate, blotted her mouth with her napkin, and replaced it in her lap. She next looked straight at my grandfather and answered the rather direct question just put to her where the quality of the meat was concerned.
"No, Dave! These steaks are not good at all," she exclaimed through a North Carolina accent, softened by many years away from The South. "They're tougher than shoe leather and aren't fit to eat!" Granny's words hung in the air for what seemed like an eternity before anyone stirred. The rest of us around the table had to bite our tongues to keep from laughing, but she said what we all thought.
I should point out that the steaks in question came from half a steer Granddaddy bought earlier that spring and loaded into a recently purchased coffin freezer in the basement at home. Turns out the entire side of beef was that tough. No matter what Mom and Granny tried in the kitchen, and regardless of the specific cut of meat, the results were always the same. Yep. Like trying to eat an old pair of boyscout shoes. Tasted about as good too.
There was also the small matter of the speeding ticket that Granddaddy had already received several months before while driving in another part of Virginia. He always claimed it was a speed trap. The resulting ticket apparently went unpaid and would have meant big trouble legally and at home had Granddaddy been stopped that night by a police officer during his later candy run to the mainland. The trip followed on the heels of several hours spent on the sofa in the living room where he napped off the sting of my grandmother's observation about the true nature of the steaks and the residual effects of the triple scotch and water. Granny later unloaded much of the remaining meat on her cleaning lady, Emma, during the next year of so.
But back to the point at hand. Family vacations aren't made like this anymore, not to mention Buicks. The older generation, the perpetrators if you will, have all gone now. Our parents' generation are well into retirement and spread all across the United States with the notable exception of ol' Mom, who resides in Mexico now and speaks good Spanish at this point. The various cousins of my sister's and my generation -- now middle-aged ourselves -- have drifted geographically and emotionally. We are not close in the same way that the previous two or three generations were, and there won't be any more family gatherings at the beach quite like those of days gone by. There haven't been for almost a quarter century now if I think about it. That's a bit sad on the one hand, but the memories are priceless, and we still have those.