When the Tourists Go Home

Yesterday I decided to go to take my husband to the beach and had purposefully waited until after the holiday weekend in order to avoid the crowds.  When I arrived at the location that I had selected I was not surprised that there was plenty of parking and we were able to get the spot nearest the access gate, just steps away from the sand.  As I expected, gone were the rows of umbrellas, gone were the throngs of families with young ones and the young girls in their scantily clad suits and perfect skin.  The cars that just yesterday lined the sand as far as the eye could see where just a distant memory of summers last breath and hardly a car passed by on the beach.

Instead, I saw an elderly couple lounging in beach chairs under an umbrella, soaking up the sun with ocean air brushing against their skin while they turned the pages of an obviously good book.  I smile, relieved that they would not care that my body had grown imperfect with age and that I chose to wear a one piece suit with a skirt to hide those imperfections.  The next person I saw was a lone woman walking, ten years my senior, darkly tanned and comfortable enough with her body to still wear a bikini, though she was not perfect either.  Another couple walked together on the beach, they had to be in their late sixties, early seventies.  It quickly became clear that these were the locals.  The people who worked hard all of their life, now retired – average age sixty five to seventy years old.  All of them at home with the sound of the waves crashing in the background and the unmistakable smell of the ocean.  You could sense their love of the beach, though none said a word.

We set our things down next to a bright yellow canopy, something easy to spot from a distance.  An old habit from long ago was to look at the beach every few minutes to make sure I hadn’t drifted too far.  We walked to the ocean’s edge and did our silly routine of gasping as the cool water hit our ankles and then knees.  After a few more minutes of adjusting to the temperature, I got more courageous and let larger waves crash into me until I was wet from the shoulders down.  A strong but intermittent rip current pulled at our legs so we decided to stay close to the shore.  We frolicked and played in the waves just as children do.

Pretty soon a man about seventy years old came in the water not too far from us and he comfortably let the waves wrap around him.  As one wave was peaking, just before it curled down, he suddenly dove under the wave and came up the other side.  I was impressed, he wasn’t at all afraid – it seemed more like instinct.  Just as I was pointing him out to my husband, he turned toward the beach, catching the wave perfectly, arms extended straight forward and rode the wave all the way to the edge of the shore.  I couldn’t help but smile and marvel at this man’s skill.  He knew exactly what he was doing.  A few minutes later he came by to warn us of the strong rip currents and asked if I knew how to get out of one.  I assured him that I did and knew what to do.  He continued to find the perfect wave while we played in the surf.  Another elderly couple came in as well.  They kept to themselves but they were obviously having a good time, floating with the current and letting the waves crash in to them.  It suddenly reminded me of the movie Cocoon where these old people are swimming in a special pool, which aliens have charged with life-force and the old people start getting more youthful and energetic.  For a moment, I watched and forgot about their ages, they were having fun!  After a bit, the gentleman body surfer passed by on his way out of the water.  A large wave had crashed down on him and had roughly tossed him around.  “You did pretty well holding your own out there,” I said.  He nodded and continued on. These were not frail old people, spectating on the side and wishing for an earlier time.  These were people who lived life and were fully intent on continuing to do so.   We all had one thing in common, we loved the ocean.

As we were getting ready to leave the beach I had this sudden urge to go and talk to the body surfer, now sitting in the sun.  Leaving my husband for what turned out to be more than a few minutes, I introduced myself and found out that his name was William “Bill” Perry and he had been in Daytona since the 50s and had been a lifeguard on these very beaches.  I inwardly blushed about my comment of him holding his own, realizing he was most likely a far better swimmer than I.  We chatted about the history of Daytona, race driving and what the beach was like back in the day.

When I got home, I did a bit of internet research on him and found that he was one of a few people who began to surf in the Daytona/New Smyrna area, eventually popularizing the sport.  He also received a certificate of merit citation from the Red Cross for his life saving techniques and eventually was posted as the captain of the lifeguards during one of the busiest times in Daytona Beach history.  On one particular spring break weekend, there were over 70,000 beach goers on the beach and during the whole weekend there were only 12 minor rescues.  When he wasn’t actively life guarding, he was a full time student at Rollins College in Orlando, studying Social Sciences.  After eight years as a lifeguard he started teaching Social Sciences at Mainland High in Daytona Beach.  Now he is retired and doing what he loves to do – going to the beach any chance he can get.

What started out as a day at the beach brought to the forefront the old adage, “You are only as old as you feel.”  Sometimes the most memorable trips to the beach happen when you least expect them.