Yes, we did end up homeless again, in the Ford LTD. We were working many hours at the local Burger King in the summer of 1982, and the manager let us park behind the building at night. Our few belongings were with us, and we sponge-bathed in the restrooms first thing every morning before work. One of the assistant managers would let us come over now and then to wash clothes and take a real shower, which is more than we got from family.
So many details of that time are foggy, but the things that stay with me are certain moments:
- Waking up one morning and counting more than 100 mosquito bites on my body
- Standing at my brother's door and having him shake his head. "No, you can't come in and shower or eat. I'm so sorry."
- Running the entire restaurant sometimes, just the two of us, proud as could be
- Making that decision for Pete* to go into the Marines
During that summer, we explored the beach as much as we could on little money. We relished the joy of Jockey's Ridge state park, its giant dunes hosting many tourists come to learn hang gliding. In 1982, the dunes were much bigger than they are now. Time and wind and many, many tourists have reduced the dunes to half the size they were 26 years ago. It's shocking to see them now, dwarf dunes compared to what they used to be. Like many things, the dunes have changed and have become a barometer of the change around them. Once, you could stand at the top and see both the sound and the ocean, bracketing the long sand bar that is the Outer Banks.
Fewer tourists came to the beach then, and the restaurants, hotels, and shops lived and died with the season: Memorial Day to Labor Day. Very few places remained open after Labor Day. Rather, the owners closed up, boarded the windows against the inevitable Nor'easters that would come during the winter, and went back to whatever they counted as "home." By the end of September, the beach was a series of ghost towns.
Listening to Robert Plant's "The Principle of Moments" on cassette as we sat on the beach in the moonlight, Pete and I talked about the future and where it might take us. We talked about the strain of living with his family and what we would do when he was in the Marines and I was in the Navy, because I was still planning to go. We worried whether or not we could get stationed together. My ASVAB scores were high enough for me to get any MOS I wanted, though that didn't include one that I found fascinating - nuclear submarines. Those were (and maybe still are) off limits for women. I wouldn't want to do that now, but then it sounded exotic, dangerous, and exciting.
The later it got in the year, the stronger the wind. The ocean, once placid, raised up in great, gray peaks, churning away at the vulnerable beach, and threw tufts of sea foam onto the sand. The tufts were quickly carried away across the dunes and into the beach road, tumbling like marshmallows as they picked up speed. We could scarcely hear each other's voices over the roar of the surf, but there was no need. Every word was goodbye.
Come October, it was time for me to go. I packed up what I needed, the few things I had, and took a few snapshots of Pete and his brother out smoking on the small landing next to the second-story entrance. The sun was just coming up, and they squinted into it, smiling. Inside, though, neither of us smiled. I had to leave the beach. I was going to stay with my mother for the duration of his boot camp stay. He promised to write me as often as he could, though he didn't know what to expect once he got to boot camp. Armed only with the stories of what it was like for his father twenty years prior, he was nevertheless pragmatic about it. Stoic. It was, he said, no big deal.
I must have cried for the first two hours of the trip. I remember the great sense of loss I felt as I crossed each bridge leaving the beach, first down to Roanoke Island, then to Ocracoke Island, and on to the mainland. Pete was further and further away from me, and who knew when we'd see each other again. Sure, there was a tentative plan, but neither of us held any certainty in our heart. By the same token, his family was further from me. I began to relax, even though I knew things would not be good with my mother. We sometimes fought over nothing, the natural progression of me getting older and her losing control. My baby sister still lived at home, too, and I knew it would be good to see her. She was 15 and had just lost Dad, to whom she was closer than the rest of us. I wanted to be around for her.
It was late when I got to Mom's. Already the sound of the ocean was a distant echo in my ears. No tufts of sea foam crossed the roads in her little town. I threw down my duffel bag in the front room where she kept her sewing machine and the twin bed with the squeaky springs. I had never felt quite so alone.
No cell phones, no email, no Internet family to turn to. It was, after all, before the age of all of this. And so began my long love affair with the mailbox, where - daily - I looked for a letter or a card. And daily I would hear my mother say things like, "Well, maybe he's forgotten about you" or "That's if he comes back." For fifteen long weeks, I heard these things and cried in my room at night. At that age and after all we had been through, I couldn't imagine a life without him.
And oh, how I missed the beach, my solace in rough times. I longed to jog down the dunes and walk by the sea for as long as my legs could carry me. Instead, I had the cracked sidewalks of a small Georgia town, littered with falling pine needles and brown leaves. The winter seemed bleak.
But a Christmas card came the week before the holiday. The sentiments were simple, but the message was clear. He didn't want me to go into the Navy lest we be stationed at opposite ends of the globe. He wanted to marry me and spend the rest of his life with me. It may not have been the most romantic proposal by the world's standards, but for me, it meant everything. I read it aloud to my mother and clutched it to my chest.
"Will you make my wedding gown?" I asked her.
In the next installment, I will return to the beach, at long last.
Peace - D