Back to the Beach

I was going to write about summers in Truro this week, but then I realized Father’s Day is coming. So I’m writing about my dad at the beach. He died in August 1994, at Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis. That fact would be enough to permanently connect him with the beach in my mind. But I’d rather focus on happier associations.

Beginning when I was a teenager in the early 1970s, my parents spent three out of every four Augusts on the outer Cape. (The off years were election years, when Daddy coordinated the New York Times’ political convention coverage. The Republicans met in August.) We didn’t own a place, but rented. After trying out several places, my parents returned year after year to the same house, up a one-lane sand road in Truro. Blueberries grew near the steps, and the sunny deck where we hung out our wet towels offered a modest view of the bay. Sometimes we went to the bay beach, especially when the tide was out and there were young children around to hunt for sea creatures. But the preferred spot was Balston Beach, on the ocean side.

My mother could sit for hours just watching the waves, and would go into the water once or twice each afternoon. Daddy wasn’t a swimmer. He only went in if it got really hot, and then he would jump the waves as if trying to escape them, his arms stiffly angled at his sides. He didn’t like going barefoot, and would keep his sneakers and socks on until he was safely sitting in his chair with the blanket spread beneath him. In an olive drab musette bag from Marine Specialties in Provincetown, he carried his wallet and his keys, and something to read; he liked Dick Francis and Ross McDonald. As he read he would eat peanuts, burying the shells in the sand. And at some point, on most days, friends would arrive on the beach and position themselves around my parents.

These were classmates of my father’s from Harvard, colleagues from the Times, friends of friends they got to know over the years, people they socialized with back home, and folks they only saw in August. My dad’s job at the Times made him the go-to person for insights into current events. Working at the paper also gave him access to another valuable commodity: a seemingly endless supply of jokes.

In one of Daddy’s favorite jokes, a construction worker opens his lunch pail day after day, only to be disappointed by a peanut butter sandwich.

“Why don’t you ask your wife to make you something else?” His buddy finally asks.

“Who’s got a wife?” The first man replies. “I make it myself.”

In another joke, bystanders watch a desperate mother toss her baby from a burning building. A wide receiver emerges from the crowd, lunges, and catches the baby — then triumphantly spikes it. To tell this joke, my dad would stand up and act out all the parts: the terrified mother, the falling baby, the heroic wide receiver.

August still means Balston Beach to me, and Balston Beach means my father. As much as the light on the water, the sound of the surf, the spray of foam rising around the boogie board, when I think of Balston Beach, I picture my father in his element: surrounded by a circle of admiring friends, triumphantly spiking an imaginary baby into the sand.

Happy Father’s Day.

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