I grew up in a small town “down beach” from Atlantic City, on the same island. In those days, before casinos, the houses weren’t as expensive as they are now, and much like the rest of the island, it was a family-oriented resort town. In those days, most summer residents were second-home owners, not renters, who came every year after school was out, spending the whole summer there until it was time to go back to school and their other home, but most of the neighborhoods were home to year-round locals, who continued to live there even after having to rebuild in some way after one storm or another. Hurricanes, nor’easters, storms came and went, but the locals stayed and loved our island. We learned to board up windows, keep candles and matches in drawers, and ride out bad weather with respect, but not fear. We knew where to evacuate to on the mainland if necessary. Many chose to stay, usually, even for serious hurricanes like the storm of ’62, or later, Sandy. This was home. For years now, though, I have lived in other places, far from any large body of water. I have learned that for those of us lucky enough to grow up there, our island shapes us in ways that are hard to recognize until we find ourselves living in other places, far from the ocean.
Most of us on the island grew up playing on the beach in the summer, learning how to swim and be fearless, diving into the waves or surfing them with rafts, surfboards, or just our bodies. My friends, siblings and I grew up knowing how to find interesting shells, how to dig for sand crabs, where to find large mussels, clams and sometimes even channeled whelks (which we called conch shells, though they aren’t), which some locals cleaned and ate, steamed or barbecued. I learned to respect the ocean and not swim around the jetties or during rip tides, to look at the ocean and see when the currents were strong and what direction they were going in. I learned to identify a sand bar by the way the waves break before getting to the beach’s edge. I could swim and hold my breath under water not long after I’d learned to walk, and, eventually, to gauge approximately how cold the water was just by how quickly my feet and legs did or didn’t grow numb while wading through it. Even in the cold weather, as I grew older, I walked or jogged on the beach and learned to love the peace of a beach empty of people, of the joy in sharing the sand cushioning my stride with just gulls and sandpipers for company, the bits of shells crunching under my feet, the briny wind and spindrift swirling up from the waves.
The ocean is such a dominant force in the lives of islanders that its tides and rhythms become ours. Driving over the causeway to the bridge, and then home, from school or other business, I could always immediately tell the level of the tide and whether there would probably be flooding in certain areas if the moon was full and there had been a lot of rain. Would there be a lot of waves? Good surfing? Good fishing? Will there be a lot of clams or seaweed scattered at the wrack line? Will the air smell of them at low tide? I never thought of that as a fetid stink. It was just the natural smell of the ocean’s detritus. Will the lower areas in town flood? The tides determined the best time of day to walk on the beach, or go swimming in the summer. Certain streets always flooded a bit at high tide in certain kinds of weather, especially on the beach blocks and the streets back by the bay. Those were the streets always hit worst in a storm. Our house was on a beach block, but it was also one of the highest points on the island, so though the water would come up the street and flood the sides of it, our house and those around us were usually safe, though our basement sometimes flooded. Most houses on the island don’t have basements for that reason, but we loved ours because we had a shower down there where we could wash and change after coming back from the beach and not track sand through the house.
My orientation to the rest of the world was determined by where the ocean lay. The sun rose over the ocean, and home was always east. The Pine Barrens and then Philadelphia were always west of the ocean. The whole world was somewhere west, south, or north of the island, which was the center of the world. This seemed like a fundamental fact of life. When I left the island to live in other places, I found it hard to determine directions wherever I was. My inner compass still works best only when I am home, visiting my parents on the island.
In high school, which was on the mainland in the city of Absecon, I met many classmates who were not from one of the islands. The Catholic school to which my parents sent my siblings and me served families in a large area of islands and the mainland. I was sure the students from mainland areas envied those of us who came from the islands. I tried to be kind and not talk about the beach to them. Some had been to the beach only a few times in their lives though they lived only a half hour’s drive or so from one of the islands. I couldn’t imagine living like that. Later, I attended the Richard Stockton State College of NJ, which is located in the Pine Barrens, on the mainland, but close enough that I could commute from home. Many of my fellow students were from towns scattered throughout New Jersey, including the Pine Barrens, or places further north or southwest. I pitied them. How sad to live in a landlocked place like Vineland, or worse, a large, landlocked city like Camden, Philadelphia, or Newark. What did people do in the summer if they couldn't go to the beach? How terrible to breath air that didn't have the smell of the ocean. I did love the smell of the Jersey Pitch Pines that surrounded our college campus, and still do as I drive down the Black Horse Pike when I return home. But I have always been grateful to reach the causeway and drive through the marshes to the bridge. It became a lifelong ritual to roll down the car window and breathe in the salt air as soon as I turned off Tilton Road onto the Margate Bridge Causeway.
When I moved to Tucson, Arizona, to attend graduate school, I was lost though I loved the Sonoran Desert. I loved the mountains that seemed to provide borders by surrounding the city in a protective loop. Tucson was small enough then that it was more of a town than a city, so there wasn't much pollution, and it was pretty. The architecture was different from what I was used to, and I could drive straight down Speedway Boulevard into the mountains and the Saguaro forest where there were very few houses or people, just great hiking and beautiful views of the desert, mountains, and a sky the deep blue that comes from no moisture in the air. The sunsets were colorful and gorgeous because of the sand and dust, but the dry air is harsh and acrid. It burned my sinuses, and the sand and dust in the air made me cough; it took months for me to orientate myself by which mountains the sun rose and set over. Driving through flat sections of the desert outside the city at night, I imagined I was passing over the salt marshes of home. The flat ground was dark, but in the distance, the lights of the city stretched, like an island in the distance.
After graduate school, I moved to San Diego, thinking I could find a job in such a big city and live by the ocean, but my sense of direction was completely turned around. Now the sun set over the ocean, and the water was west, not east. And I couldn't afford to live on one of the islands there. I had to live further east in the cheaper areas, in the California desert, which has its own beauty, but not the lush, sometimes surreal landscapes of the Sonoran Desert. I had to drive long distances and battle bad traffic to get to one of the beaches and the ocean. But it was always worth it. I felt like I was home, until the sun began to set over the water. That was always disorienting. And the Pacific Ocean is not the same as the Atlantic. It is colder in summer, bluer, with larger waves, but calmer on most days. Its moods are not as seasonal. The Atlantic in winter is wild, harsh, and unforgiving. The area off the north east coast is called Shipwreck Alley because it is so rough that it has become home to many wrecks over the centuries, even in modern times. The Pacific does not have the same gray and dark, cloudy green colors. To me, the currents don’t seem as strong, as urgent, as compelling.
I have lived all over the world in pursuit of my career, mostly in land-locked locations. Perhaps the hardest loss to acclimate to in all of these places has been the absence of the sounds of the surf.
The sounds of the waves breaking on sand and jetties, of tides flowing in and out, were always in the background when I was on the island. Sometimes the surf was extremely loud if a storm were approaching or leaving. When those sounds became too loud, they could stir up fear or excitement. The waves sometimes roared and threw themselves at the shoreline in a frenzy of wind and currents. Or on calm nights, they lapped at the sand and called in a soft, varied rhythm, like some wild force momentarily tamed, singing softly. At night, especially in summer when my windows were open, the surf lulled me to sleep. Those were the sounds of the familiar edges of my world, of the ocean whose moods and storms literally and figuratively shaped and reshaped the world around me, the sounds of the borders that defined what was safe and what was not, where I could go, and where I could not. I could not sleep without those sounds.
For a long time, in order to sleep, I had to pretend that the sounds of traffic outside my window were the sounds of the surf and tides. Now I live on a quiet, suburban street in Pennsylvania. There isn't much traffic here at night, but in summer I hear a grand orchestra of insects and frogs outside my window, along with the occasional cat fight and birds. In the winter, the only sounds are the ticking of the clock on my bureau, the groans and whines of my refrigerator, and the occasional hissing of my hot water heater. Sleep is still hard. The silence is sometimes terrifying.