We Went for the Beach
By JANET DUDLEY-ESHBACH
My earliest memories include yearly
treks from our family home in Wilmington to Fenwick Island. I was born
in 1953, and I know from pictures that I spent my first days at Fenwick
when I was about 6 months old, when the beach was wide and the sand
dunes seemingly insurmountable.
Planning for our week or two of vacation
began well in advance. In hindsight, I’m not sure these trips were any
sort of vacation for my mother, who began the packing, shopping and
cooking days ahead of time.
The process of packing the car with
suitcases, food for the week, an inner tube and my bucket and shovel was
a real challenge. I would go crazy, bugging my parents, saying “Come on,
let’s go!” Finally, Dad would say the phrase I came to love, “To the
beach!” — and off we’d go. Back then, it was about a
travel time seemed endless. I never quite understood why we chose
Fenwick as our destination, as it was the farthest Delaware beach from
Wilmington. As a child, once the road signs began to appear for
Rehoboth, I got especially excited and wiggly. Those last miles through
Dewey and Bethany were interminable! The reward? Mostly empty beaches
and lower rental rates.
There were few restaurants, and no
nightlife, in Fenwick in the ’50s and ’60s, except for maybe Libby’s and
Warren’s. In any case, our family’s resources were tight, so we rarely
splurged on dining out.
I loved buying penny candy, particularly
Lik’ems, at the five-and-dime store. Today, old-fashioned candies can be
bought at the Seaside Country Store, and Ruth’s Sea Shell City still
does a good business, though it today is hardly the small shop it was in
the ’60s. We had no television or computers, so evenings and on rainy
days we read or joined in a card game, usually canasta.
My father recounts that in those early
days a rental house in Fenwick went for $50 a week. Because that seemed
like a lot of money, frequently we’d share a cottage with our neighbors,
the Spencers, splitting the cost of the rental. “Uncle” Harry Spencer
delighted in building things in the sand. No sandcastles for Uncle
Harry, though; he and Dad would get down in the sand and build us kids
elaborate cars and boats, big enough for us to sit in and pretend we
could drive them out into the ocean and all the way to Europe or Africa.
I still remember the cottages where we
most frequently stayed, and I occasionally drive by them. One is bayside
at the end of Farmington Street, where the water in the canal behind the
cottage was clean enough for a swim after a long, hot day at the beach.
One year we even floated about the canal in a small, plastic boat (more
akin to a large scrub basin). We kids stayed in the dormer-style attic
room. I remember that I frightened my Mom and Aunt Dot once by lowering
a plastic spider on a string through a knothole in the attic floor onto
a plate of food on the kitchen counter just below. I was delighted to
hear their shrieking upon seeing that large black spider on a dinner
Another favorite cottage still stands
oceanside on James Street. That place had a leaky roof, and I remember
on rainy nights strategically placing kitchen pots under the holes and
hearing the drip, drip, drip all night long. Until recently, the only
water in Fenwick Island was well water. At the James Street cottage my
father and Uncle Harry spent time each morning and evening in the
sand-and-dirt-floor cellar priming the pump so we’d have water in the
kitchen and bathroom. It eventually did flow, but it was hardly
drinkable, tasting of iron and other minerals.
We actively enjoyed the beach —
swimming, riding rafts, taking long walks, searching the seascape for
dolphins, digging for sand (or mole) crabs and threatening to put one on
our moms. Another favorite beach activity was tossing quoits, a game
similar to horseshoes, only played with rubber rings. I’ve never seen
another family play this game in the sand, yet over the years many have
stopped to watch us. I only wish we had bought some extra sets of
quoits, as today they are no longer available in the same form (seems
the federal government has deemed them a hazard to children!), and our
30-year old set is now dry-rotting. My mother was a “mean”
quoit-thrower, frequently showing the men a thing or two. She played
into her 80s.
We had just two folding chairs for nine
people. The adults took turns on the chairs, and most of us passed the
time on a beach towel or, better, right on the sand — still my
preference to this day. It’s hardly a day at the beach unless you have
sand in your hair, ears and eyelids.
We went for the beach. You couldn’t get
me out of the water, no matter what the weather conditions. Back then
there was no suntan lotion, no SPF. Instead, we lathered Noxema skin
cream all over our bodies. Later, we used Sea & Ski, one of the first
brands of suntan lotion available, though there was no sunscreen in the
product for years, so it did little more than moisturize our skin as we
baked in the sun. My father insisted that we stay out of the sun between
11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. This, of course, meant that we had to be the first
to arrive on the beach at 8:30 or 9 a.m., and we were frequently the
last to leave the beach at the end of the day. I could never get enough
beach time, and still feel the same today.
Though as an adult I lived for a number
of years in Mexico, with easy access to some of the world’s best
palm-lined beaches, I’ve always returned each summer to Fenwick Island.
When you have such wonderful memories associated with a place, it gets
in your blood. After all those years of renting, my husband and I were
fortunate in 1997, just before real estate prices went sky-high, to have
a house of our own built in Fenwick. We have brought our children to
Fenwick each summer of their lives, and now they, too, have Fenwick
running through their veins. Both are now lifeguards, and strong ocean
swimmers and surf-riders. I dream of one day taking my grandchildren to
the beach, teaching them how to jump the waves, just as my parents did
and their parents before them.
Though Coastal Highway is now congested
and few undeveloped lots remain in Fenwick, much has remained unchanged.
There is still no nightlife, there is never a problem finding a place to
lay your towel on the beach, and for the most part, the people are still
“small-town.” We still go for the beach. n
Janet Dudley-Eshbach is president of Salisbury University in Salisbury,
Md. She has been vacationing in Fenwick Island for all of her 50 years.
She and husband, Joe, have a home in Fenwick, and both their children
(Caroline, 17, and Joe, 19) are members of the Fenwick Island Beach