Friday, March 1, 2013

When Fear Was Fun

It's Flashback Friday, gang.  Why notRecently, I've been finding magic in unusual places.  Tonight's story, however, is real.  It occurred in the late 1970s, during one of my family's August trips to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.  It is sad.  It is creepy.  It is kind of gross.  And it is a childhood memory which simply refuses to leave me.

We arrived for our two-week stay, unloaded the car and helped Mom make the beds as quickly as humanly possible.  Then, all six of us headed down to the Boardwalk before our annual first-night dinner at the Crab Pot, to assess what was new since last year.  My brothers and I were mostly interested in mini-golf, arcades and rides, while our parents lamented the demise of the old chicken stand.  But something weird was in the air.  I didn't notice it until my older brother pointed it out, but then it immediately became palpable, even to my ten(ish)-year old senses.

Instead of the usual happily-milling crowds, we found a couple of hundred people gathered at the edge of the Boardwalk near Rehoboth Avenue.  They were all watching a hovering helicopter and several small boats very close to shore.  Three black-suited divers were in the water, disappearing for a couple of minutes at a time, just beyond the waves.  Word was efficiently passed from mother to mother that a boy had disappeared in those waves not two hours prior, and the operation was now focused on finding his body. 

They did not find a body that night, and the next day the search was called off. Grownups seemed sad.  The big kids were fascinated.  Little kids - like me and my younger brother - were spooked.  Playing in the waves had a new potential hazard, as we were sure at any moment a dead kid would brush against our feet.  Our father explained as carefully as he could just how a submerged body works - rolling on the ocean floor, potentially catching a current that takes it many miles away, and so forth.  Still, we were afraid.

We went about our vacation, but there was a haunted quality to everything.  Even the magical boardwalk, with its rides, arcades, cotton candy and Nick's Pizza, was different.  That body was out there in the ocean. 

We stubbornly went ahead with our nightly family walks on the beach, and there were plenty of chilling moments there, too.  Any odd shadow in the sand or surf looked liked a body, and some were quite convincing until proven to be otherwise.  I secretly hoped we would be the ones to find the body, and I assumed it would be at night, for maximum creepiness.  I gave myself more than one nightmare, thinking about it night after night.  What would it look like?  Smell like?  Would the eyes be open?  Would stuff already be living in it?  It terrified me, but it also lit a new spark in my young imagination, because it was real - finding that body was not impossible.  Now, I know boys are stupid, but rest assured, Mom made sure we all had the proper appreciation and respect for the fact that a boy - not that much older than myself - had been playing one minute and dead the next, that his parents were devastated, that it could have been one of us, and that it wasn't "neat."  Still, it kind of was.  It was electrifying, in spite of all the negatives.

About a week after the drowning, my brothers and I were in our beds in the awesome front bedroom of our rented Philadelphia Street house when a beach patrol truck (they weren't called SUVs, yet) roared past, headed toward the beach.  It was followed immediately by an ambulance (no sirens) and several police cars (again - no sirens).  We knew.  The body had been found.  Also, confirming our creepiest fears, it was found at the end of OUR street, where we'd been playing in the surf for a week, and where we had poked a washed-up jellyfish with a stick that very evening.

The fact that a boy had drowned was not fun, even to a little kid, but this vacation enjoys special status in my memory.  It was exciting to be that creeped-out by something real, at that age.  It gave our whole family a common ground we didn't often enjoy.  We were all spooked, and somehow that unified us - especially me and my brothers.  It wasn't exactly Stand By Me, but it was still very cool and utterly unforgettable.  Somehow, death had become magic.  Dark magic, perhaps, but magic nonetheless.

The only way it could have been more gross would have been for us to find the body.  The only way it could have been scarier would have been for the body to have never been found.  ::shudder::

There.  This concludes our flashback.  I'm going to go watch a bunch of cartoons or a Will Ferrell movie or something.  See ya!


  1. I totally get it. But it's probably because I grew up with Stephen's King's biggest fan for a mother. My oldest son watched a man die last year, a 4-wheeler accident, guy was hot-doggin' it without a helmet. My son watched the whole thing, including the gurgling last breaths. He was 16, so a bit older, and a writer in his own right, and my child, so I didn't worry when he said "I know this will sound terrible, but this is going to take my writing to a whole new level!"

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Machine Goddess!

      Wow. I'm not sure how I would have responded to witnessing Darwinism in its most brutal form, at only 16. But if it could take my writing to a new level... No. Wait. That's.
      So wrong.

    2. Yeah, that's probably why I am the only human on Earth he would ever admit that to. Because I get it. Death is like love. If you have never seen it or experienced it, your words will always tell on you.

    3. Hmm... Maybe that's why I keep writing about hate, and UNdeath. It's much easier! :)