Lake Norman & Mooresville

Beach trips are vacations and a way to build memories

My family used to rent a little cottage each summer at Long Beach, N.C., which now is called Oak Island.

The four-hour drive always seemed much longer. In the days before portable DVD players and video games, my brother and I managed to exhaust all our entertainment options - a few coloring books and a pack of UNO cards - within the first hour.

Then, the only option was to watch the rows of corn or tobacco go by as we traveled along the state roads.

It seemed like we would never get there.

Finally we reached the island, where each of the beachfront houses had its own name: the Southern Comfort or the Beach Ball. Ours was the Shipwreck, a modest gray cottage named for the nearby spot where a wooden ship had met its demise. There was still a bit of the wreckage on the beach.

At least a dozen people were along for the week: Mostly family, but sometimes friends of the family who didn't mind being crowded in with us. It worked out roughly that each household got its own bedroom. My brother and I shared a pallet on the floor below my parents' double bed, while others, who weren't so lucky, had to take the couch.

My great-aunt was in charge of meals; we never went out to eat.

There was not even a grocery store on the island, much less a restaurant.

Instead, Aunt Anne packed her car with enough food to feed everyone. We had big breakfasts with homemade biscuits and country ham, big dinners with fresh-caught seafood and corn-on-the-cob.

As for lunch, no one thought much about it. The kids were too busy playing on the beach. The moms watched the kids, and the dads and uncles and sundry friends went deep-sea fishing.

If our mothers insisted, we might come in for a quick sandwich before racing back down the long wooden walkway, over the dunes and out to the ocean, where we would dare each other to go ever deeper, ride ever-bigger waves, stay underwater longer than anyone else.

If we were lucky enough to secure the Shipwreck for the Fourth of July, then we brought a paper bag full of firecrackers and small fireworks. One year my dad managed to set the entire sack on fire. We ran for it and ended up having the best fireworks display ever.

As I got older, I learned that other people's beach vacations, if perhaps a bit safer, weren't always like ours.

Some people went to the beach to play golf or go shopping.

Some kids, heaven forbid, even eschewed the ocean in favor of a hotel swimming pool.

We had no hotels at Long Beach. The front row cottages barely rose above the grassy, sandspur-filled dunes.

As time went on, those cottages, including the Shipwreck, washed into the ocean. Our little gathering, too, eventually disbanded.

We kids got older, had families of our own and tested other modes of vacation - the mountains, perhaps, or foreign travel - even a hotel with a swimming pool.

The curious nature of the beach is its almost immediate yet subtle impermanence.

Neither our sand castles nor our cottage is still standing. Even the beach itself goes by a different name.

And although not much is the same, my idea of a beach vacation will never change.