Childhood summers in a shabby beach town paradise
BY KATIE CROUCH
WHAT I REMEMBER MOST about growing up in Charleston was getting out of it. My childhood–such a beautiful, loaded word–trickled through the late seventies and early eighties. The city, at that time, was not a particularly bustling place. We had tourists, sure. Mostly nice, curious people from Ohio poking their noses in our garden gates. Still, in the summer the town literally became sleepy, in that the heat pulled us down to bed for long, sweaty, afternoon naps. Most houses didn’t have central air conditioning before the 1989 hurricane. Instead of the widespread, comfortable indoor chill we now take for granted, Charlestonians made due. We crowded into the room with the window unit, and if there were too many people in there, we went outside on the porch, found a shady spot, and waited for the sun to go down. My brother used to lie on the floor and watch the ceiling fan until he got dizzy. I liked to put my head in the freezer. Stop that, Mom would say. The ice will melt. Ice was important. We put it in everything. Water, milk, lemonade, gin. I’d say we put it our coffee, but those weren’t iced coffee days. In the summer, it was Coke in the morning, big 7-11 cups of it that left pools of condensation on the table and in the car.
I am 41 years old, and I am up early in Bolinas, California. I am remembering. I have just returned from a work trip to London, and I’m tired in a way I haven’t been in a long time. It’s that anxious sort of tired, when your body needs to sleep but it can’t because the heart knows something bad is going to happen. It was even worse in England, probably because of the massive distance from my five-year old daughter, who I left at home. I can’t say what this bad thing will be, as everyone seems healthy. My daughter, my husband, my parents. Yet every morning for the last two weeks in my luxury hotel room, I shot out of bed in panic, looking around in confusion. The anxiety lasted all day, so I overworked and walked around the city. Everyone was on the wrong side of the sidewalk, and the cars drove the wrong way, and the signs on the ground warned: Look Right! I was frantic to leave. This is the thing I’m trying to work out in my mind this morning. I’m home and everyone is safe and sleeping, but the dread, it’s still here.
The need to get out of Charleston in the summer, that was different. Heat does not cause anxiety; it brings on torpor. And so everyone had two houses; one in Charleston, and one at the beach or in the mountains where you could get some air. I need to couch this by saying my childhood was spent in the singular, moneyed hamlet that was South of Broad Charleston. I am remembering what a child remembers, with a child’s view. I now realized that not everyone had two houses. Not Henrietta, the Gullah woman who raised me while Mom spent her days at the university. Not Mr. Singleton, the man who boarded up our windows before storms. Still, the other families who populated my small world, they made sure they had somewhere to go. A mountain house. A dock near the water. A slip for a boat. "Where’s your other house?" we children would ask each other on the schoolyard. Lynnville. McClellanville. Pawley’s. Drayton. Sometimes a kid with divorced parents would shrug and say: We do time shares. But everyone, everyone went somewhere.
Each summer spot, of course, had its own flavor. Sullivan’s Island, with its rambling old houses, was where the aristocratic families nested. Isle of Palms had some old houses too, but Wild Dunes brought in new money families and renters. Folly Beach, well, that place was just a pure den of iniquity. As a teenager my mother barely allowed me to go, even in the middle of the day. My brother, in his wild days, spent a year there he barely remembers. Even on Sullivan’s, you could get a house cheap near the water, a plywood shack made mostly of screen. I wish I could say I was just being nostalgic, but these kinds of places just don’t exist anymore near Charleston. Hurricane Hugo blew them down, and if not, they’ve been pulled down by a bigger, slower storm that doesn’t have a good enough name. We just call it “Progress.”
Our other house was further afield–a whole hour by car–on Edisto Beach, a shabby stretch of houses and sand at the end of Edisto Island. This was seen by our South of Broad neighbors as an odd choice because of the distance and flavor, which indeed was more country than genteel. My mother found an old beach shack that had once housed officers during the Second World War, when all of the beaches were used as lookouts for German submarines. My dad bought it for $14,000, which included the house, the lot next door, and two live oak trees.
Our “other house” was four rows back from the beach. It was a blue box with a sagging roof, linoleum floors, and three tiny bedrooms. Frankly, it was a shithole, but it suited us. My mother filled the place with plastic furniture from Goodwill. There were no rugs, nothing you couldn’t sit on in a wet bathing suit. You could eat anything in any room, dogs were allowed in and out at all times. There was one shower the size of a coat closet. The water was lukewarm and smelled dead. Box fans ran at all times, so that the sound was not of the ocean, but of an ever-throttling airplane.
Edisto Beach in 1979, it was not charming. It was not arrogantly shabby. It was a place where the white South Carolina lower middle class came to drink while their children played and fought. The streets were mostly dirt. There was one paved road that ran down the center of the town. Trucks with monster wheels would cruise back and forth, their beds packed with drunken girls, their horns rigged to blare the beginning notes of Dixie. There was a bar called Coot’s Lounge where stabbings occurred with regularity. There were two restaurants, both of which served a limited menu of fried catfish, fried shrimp, fried hush puppies, beer, and liquor you could get in the back.
I am happy, if not proud, to report that in the decades since I have witnessed people drinking on beaches all over the world. Men in Nantucket Red shorts sipping Dark and Stormys, yogis downing Singha in Thailand. In Bolinas, we drink red wine because it’s foggy and we need something to warm our innards. Yet I’ve never seen alcohol prioritized in the way I remember it was on Edisto Beach in the 1970’s. It was a prolonged, sustained activity that anchored the day. The cycle began at eight in the morning. Beachgoers would shuffle down, pitching umbrellas and dragging coolers. No one had figured out the suitcase-on-wheels concept yet. We often had friends with us to help carry the goods, but if not, this essential item was dragged by my father. I remember the sound of it, the scrape against the road, that everessential ice sloshing. Inside: Miller beer, some sort of punch not for kids, Fanta, Tab, mountains of bologna sandwiches in plastic baggies, one or two of which ended up floating belly up at the end of the day. As soon as we hit the beach, coffee ended and beer started. There were children and we were tiny, so to solve that problem we wore lifejackets so we wouldn’t drown. If one of us was knocked down by a wave, we just relaxed and floated until someone noticed and fished us out.
And oh, the things we carried. I cannot remember the rest of my family’s spoils, but my hump included, at different points of my adolescence: a pink inflatable horse, water wings, the aforementioned lifejacket, an aluminum beach chair, a sodden towel, Betty and Veronica comic books, Teen/Sassy/Seventeen magazine, lip gloss, glitter lotion, lemons for my hair. Sunscreen was not required for anyone in the family other than myself, as I alone have pale, freckled skin. The SPF was eight and it stung and reeked of chemicals. The rest of the family wallowed in coconut oil or wore nothing at all. They turned a beautiful, almond brown while I burned and blistered. I kept trying to tan, despite the obvious. A suntan in the 1980’s, it was a thing of real value. Occasionally, my mother would bring graduate students down for the day. They would lather themselves up with Crisco, honest to God, it’s amazing to have this memory, not just a fictional idea but a brain imprint of a nubile Latvian scientist applying pig lard to her perfect skin.
The beach. You made your camp, you treated it like a home, you laid down and slept and drank and ate and came and went throughout the day, maybe to get more sand toys, or more chips, or more beer, or a different book. Weather-beaten, fat books. My father read Shogun. My brother read Dune. I read Flowers in the Attic. My mother read Neuron. Hours on the beach with a book, propping up on the elbows, then turning on your side, then stealing a chair when Dad went swimming.
I wore my first bikini at eight years old. This was normal. Everyone at Edisto started early in terms of the inappropriate baring of skin. I remember parades of teenage girls strutting up and down, glistening with oil and maybe Crisco, carrying beer in a Clemson coozy. My father’s eyes, face–hell, his whole body–would follow their asses as my mother studiously ignored his ogling. Because ogling was OK. You were supposed to ogle. Look at that, my father would say to my six-year-old brother when a good bikini went by. So much value went into a well-worn bikini and a tan. Therefore: my first twopiece, green on my skinny, white, snap-bean body. Seventeen magazine thrown open, legs spread-eagle in the sand. My mother glancing over, recognizing something I didn’t understand. You are not a teenager, she barked, handing me a tee shirt.
So much happened. Everything changed. Yet days at Edisto Beach, they hovered, they crept by. You could lie on a bed and read half a book, listening to the beat of the box fan, and then get up and there were still hours of beach time left. If your parents were fighting in the morning, by afternoon they were either napping with the door locked, or the battle had mushroomed into threats of divorce. And once we were teenagers, the days were just torture. We wanted to be somewhere else, Sullivan’s, Charleston, we didn’t know where, but please God somewhere to whet our longings. I had one single-afternoon-long romance with a farmer named Walt. We kissed on a raft, and the next day he went for Mallory from Orangeburg who was tan and filled out her bikini and had a beachfront house. I sat in my chair, watching them lord over us on her porch, and I wished and hated and wanted.
Am I romanticizing? Being sentimental? There were bad things. Awful things. My first corpses: a girl and a boy on a motorcycle, no helmets, headfirst into an oak on Highway 61, their deaths holding up Friday beach traffic. Don’t look, my father instructed, so my brother and I fought for window space and there they were, bodies, the pink froth of brains, a brown polished arm, long nails still glistening. There were parental battles, redacted. My brother and I betrayed each other weekly in ways I choose not to remember but still acutely feel. There was a black lab we all loved because she would chase the ball for hours. Was her name Sally? That Sally, she never gets tired! We all liked to go to the beach before a storm because it was grey and green and lusty. And one afternoon right before the rain our neighbors threw a ball into the ocean and Sally followed it, and the ball got caught in the current and Sally followed it, and the storm started and then Sally kept following the ball and we all watched and screamed for Sally as she became a black speck in the churning sea and then went on.
My brother and I, we grew up. We went to college. The other house remained in the family, but without us it was just an accessory. In the city, air conditioning happened. House prices went up. Families sold their Sullivan’s and Folly houses and used the money to rest easy. My parents held onto Edisto for a while, but their weekend parties were now just kitsch. I’d come home to my parents’ old friends drinking much less than they used to, sitting on the beach watching the ghosts of their children, everyone relieved to go back home to a comfortable bed. I can’t remember why or when my mother sold it. There was an episode where the family needed money, and once those sorts of things are over they are conveniently forgotten. And so the house went to another young family, who did a little bit to their other house but really they don’t seem very interested. I stop by when I’m out there and I peek in the windows. Maybe I’ve broken in once, as they haven’t fixed that loose screen. There is new paint and a better floor and a big TV. It still smells bad. There is an outdoor shower, which is an excellent idea that I can’t believe we never thought of ourselves.
My little girl is now stirring upstairs, and I am still tired, and I feel very far away from all of this. In a minute I will go up, I will get her dressed, I will make breakfast. But before that, this: I think when one grows up in the South, I mean, when one really breathes and bleeds it during the years she is becoming a person, that this has a lifelong effect. I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but it’s something. And sometimes, if circumstances such as love and work cause her to land far away, she might encounter unexpected, acute bouts of mourning.
My childhood on Edisto Beach was not perfect, but it was thick. And when I return, all I see is the good. The family, all of us, have taken to renting a beachfront house like Mallory’s every August. My husband, he tolerates our vacations there, but he points out what’s obvious to someone who spent summers on Martha’s Vineyard and Lake Michigan. That there are better places. Places without jellyfish, places with more diversity and culture and sailing and cooler air. The food is greasy, the houses look cheap, the sand is chunky, the people are drunk and loud. I don’t care. My brother and I, we shuffle down at eight and pitch our umbrellas. We roll down the cooler. (It has wheels.) We put our children in lifejackets so we don’t have to worry about them drowning. We sit there all day, reading and watching. And at night, finally, we sleep.
KATIE CROUCH is a novelist and essayist whose best-selling works include Girls in Trucks and Abroad. Her writing has appeared in Slate, McSweeney’s and Tin House. Born and raised in Charleston, she now lives with her family in Bolinas, California.