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A Beach Junkie’s Journey From Youth To Childhood

By Barry Dougherty

Growing up on Long Island allowed me to become a beach junkie. Not that I was one of those ever-so-tan teens who spent their summers frolicking on Jones Beach knowing the world was looking at them. I was more the lobster type, moving from Day-Glo pink to tacky plaid, peeling away every ounce of potentially tanned skin.
            In spite of my skin’s aversion to the tanning powers of the sun, I still became a beach junkie. I had the motivation and cravings junkies seek when they need something badly enough. I needed to get myself to Jones Beach any way I could.
            Such travel experiences became my rites of summer passage as I moved from childhood toward manhood. Each phase brought a new independence, and a new mode of transportation to my Mecca.
            As a child I was content to carve my niche in the back seat of my aunt’s 1958 Mercury convertible among my four siblings and an odd assortment of neighborhood friends and tagalongs. We would whisk down Wantagh Parkway with the top down, anticipating the vast beach treasures that lay just beyond the toll booths.
            Standing on the boardwalk ready to make the long trek to the ocean shore I was mesmerized by the huge wasteland of sand and dunes. After what seemed like hours of hiking on the hot, white sand, we would set up camp close to the rough ocean. Those waters were waiting to tie their hands around innocent legs and pull them to the sandy bottom, another rite of passage toward becoming a beach junkie: riding the waves.
            In later years, after mastering the sand, the ocean, the waves and the volleyball games, it came time to master the journey itself. Being driven by my aunt or parents was no longer “cool.” The teen years were now in full swing.
            Time to find other modes of transportation, and more important, time to convince Mom it was time too. Mothers play an important role in the beach junkies’ lives. They are the ones who get tired of dealing with sand everywhere, of packing lunches and steering us away from beach junk food. They are the ones who suggested getting the pool to keep the family at home and clean.
            I used my best persuasive powers to get my mother to let me go to the beach with my friends on my own. “All the other kids’ moms let them go alone” (she never fell for that one). “It will teach me independence” (little did I realize that was the problem). Whatever the deciding factor was I’ll never know but something tells me Dad may have had something to do with it.
            Being independent meant walking to the Wantagh train station and getting on the bus to Jones Beach with 50 other newly independent teens. We were on our own. The beach took on a whole new look.
            It seemed the families were gone and were replaced by the youth of Nassau County. I still was not of the golden tanned set, but I was well on my way to being kind of cool. Another coup was the completion of the bike path along Wantagh Parkway. Now I could ride my bicycle to the beach and control my own destiny.
            The bus and bike, however, were only temporary, and like my aunt’s convertible, would have to take their places behind my own car.
            Now, that was independence. I could load up the car with friends, food and drink and carry my beach craze to new heights.
            Even today, though I’m ensconced in the Manhattan lifestyle, Jones Beach still beckons me. As in my youth, getting there is part of the package. Now my trip is further and more involved.
            The subway to Penn Station to catch the L.I.R.R. to Freeport for the bus to the beach has become my pilgrimage. I can even make the trip alone, something I never would have dared in my partying past.
            I’m not the only one to have changed. The beach itself has shrunk. My trek to the water doesn’t seem so far from the boardwalk anymore, and the families are back again (perhaps they never left, but I tend to notice more now).
            I must admit, though, as the bus makes that familiar journey down Wantagh Parkway, I reminisce about trips gone by. Having gone full cycle in a life of summers spent traveling to Jones Beach, I only now appreciate that little niche in my aunt’s 1958 Mercury convertible. As the bus passes the vacant toll booths, I silently wish I hadn’t fought so hard to earn my independence, but then again that 1958 Mercury isn’t around anymore either.