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When beach socialization was a shoo-in

By LISA SMITH MOLINARI | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: June 19, 2020

“Mom, how did you meet people your age during your family vacation?” my 22-year-old daughter Anna asked a couple of weeks ago, during the 13-hour car ride to our North Carolina beach cottage. We would be picking up Anna’s college roommate on the way. Clearly, the girls were weighing their vacation social options. 
I dug deep into my faded memory bank. There were a few beach stories I would NOT tell her; however, I had had plenty of relatively innocent experiences in my youth that were worth recounting. The beach cottage had been in my extended family since 1979, when it was outfitted with groovy gold shag carpeting, matching plaid This End Up furniture and a circular red painted fireplace. That house was where I spent all my childhood family vacations, where I met my husband, and where we’ve taken our own family vacations every summer.
Three lots away was the Atlantic Ocean — sea oats, golden sand and green-blue water stretching for miles along the narrow, hurricane-battered barrier reef that runs from the Virginia border south to Duck, Nags Head, Hatteras, Okracoke, Cape Lookout and Emerald Isle. 
When adolescence descended and my social life became paramount, I kept a vigil from my beach towel or walked the shoreline, scanning the clusters of umbrellas and chairs for boys and girls my age. 
Considering the only telephone I had access to was attached to the wood-paneled wall of our beach house or two miles down the road in a phone booth, my only means of communicating was face-to-face interaction. After scanning the beach all day, adolescents, teens and young lifeguards would eventually approach each other, introduce themselves, and exchange any information about meetups happening that night. 
It was all I could do to get through dinner with my parents at the beach house. The thought of meeting up with other kids my age was so exciting. While I teased my bangs and frosted my lips after dinner, I would wonder, “Would I make new girlfriends to body surf with? Would I make an idiot out of myself at a volleyball game? Would I find summer love?”
One summer night after word of a bonfire had been circulated, I scurried out of the house barefoot after dinner. I was wearing a cropped white Maui and Sons T-shirt and a long pastel pink surfer skirt. Sporting a golden tan, I swished my long sandy blonde hair as I strutted the path to the beach. From the sea oat-dotted walkover, I saw the bonfire down the beach, glowing in the dusky night. I carried on toward the silhouettes of teenagers against the flames, feeling pretty, confident, full of hope for a fun night. 
About five strides later, it happened. 
Today, bonfires aren’t the only things prohibited on the beach. Dogs are no longer allowed either. But back then, one had to be careful where one stepped. Especially while barefoot. 
The foul substance oozed between my toes like Play-Doh through a Fun Factory squeeze machine. My mind raced with the potential humiliation I might suffer. But I just had to get to that fire. Missing the event meant social disaster, or worse, summer vacation mediocrity. 
I plastered a confident frosted grin to my perfect ’80s beach ensemble, and continued my stride. But at the last minute, I diverted to the surf, shouting playfully, “I just wanna see if the water’s warm enough for a midnight swim!” In darkness at the ocean’s edge, I plunged my fouled foot into the wet sand, scraping it furiously back and forth to remove the humiliating remnants. 
Not only did I attend that bonfire, I also miraculously escaped hook worm, and had a most awesome summer vacation.
Recounting these stories to my daughter and her college roommate, we realized that it’s harder for kids today to meet peers on vacation. Smartphones and social media have made spontaneous in-person interactions obsolete. 
“It may seem old fashioned, but try meeting other young people face-to-face while we’re at the beach,” I advised. “But whatever you do, wear shoes.”  
Read more of Lisa Smith Molinari’s columns at: themeatandpotatoesoflife.com