Tuesday, August 17, 2004

You can never go back again (you’ll get tetanus.)

Our annual beach trip has come and gone in a freakish accelerated time warp. One minute we were frantically packing, the next minute we were back at work. Ten days vanished into thin air, though I can only recall sitting on the beach once or twice. What the heck happened?

At least we made history this year; one ill-fated event will stand out in our minds for years to come. This was the year we returned to the O. Resort, where my family vacationed when I was a child. I wanted to show my husband and children the place where I had frolicked on the playground, eaten free outdoor breakfasts, and splashed in the wonderful pool and ocean. The resort even had a fishing pier with a game room and grill! We planned to spend a weekend at Mommy’s old stomping grounds before checking in at Grandma and Grandpa’s beach condo on Sunday evening.

At least I had the presence of mind to warn my husband about the potential squalor of the rooms.

You have to realize that this motel was built in the fifties, so the rooms are cinderblock and industrial carpet. I assume they’ve gotten mildewed through the years, but we won’t be spending much time in the room anyway.”

I couldn’t have possibly envisioned that our room would be a safe haven amongst the barrage of peeling paint, rotting wood and jagged sharp edges.

We glimpsed our first view of the place Friday evening, as the car crested the island bridge. The motel’s pale green towers still bore the resort name on top, spelled out in huge orange letters. As a kid, those orange letters had spelled out a Hollywood-like greeting to the North Carolina coast. As an adult, I was incredulous that the structure was the same “sea foam” green, and that the resort name was still aloft in its orange grandeur. “There it is, guys, there’s the motel I stayed at as a little girl!” I chirped. My husband whispered under his breath, “A Mo-tel. Yep, it’s definitely not a Hotel...” I cuffed him on the arm and began answering my daughter’s flow of questions regarding the number of pools at the motel, the size of the playground, and who would sleep in which beds.

Here’s the synopsis I gave of my beach experience at the O. Resort:
-I began staying at the resort with my mother, brother, aunt and cousin in 1968, when I was three. (Our extended families had shared a nearby cottage in the years before.)

-While the kitsch motel was not a “resort” in the traditional sense, it provided a number of resort amenities. There were “watermelon parties” every Saturday, where supercold slices were doled out beachside for a messy yet refreshing treat. White uniformed cabana boys clamored to serve you a free poolside breakfast. They’d also set up free beach chairs and umbrellas, or monitor playground activity. (The family lore relates how “Jesse,” who must have been fifty or sixty, would take my hand and help me find my motel room when I’d get lost.)

-The beachside playground was akin to Disneyland, as far as we kids were concerned. There was a paved bicycle course and plenty of tricycles, Bigwheels and bicycles to ride. All play structures were painted a jaunty blue, red and yellow. There was a cinderblock playhouse called the “Sand Castle” that beckoned for you to come inside and do puzzles, or read books. Oceanfront, long chained swings with red wooden seats swayed lazily. A tall wooden fortress equipped with metal “spyglasses” served as a lookout for pirate invaders by sea. The playground was flanked by a kidney-shaped pool that included a walled off area for babies. (The pool even had a slide, oh my gosh, no other pool I’d been to had a slide!) The de rigueur shuffleboard was next to the pool for moms and dads, though mischievous lads might joust or fence with the aluminum cues. Various kiddie toys dotted the lawn to fill out the feast of youthful playtime.

-Moms and Dads could rest easy, despite the young'uns dashing to and fro. Surveillance cameras located throughout the resort beamed video of children at play to parents resting in their hotel rooms. You tuned your TV to a certain channel, and ‘Voila’--you could make sure Billy and Cindy were playing nicely with each other on the playground.

My reminiscing wound to an end as we parked in front of our room. Clotheslines with rainbows of various swimsuits hung along the breezeways, as they had when I was small. And surprise! The room was clean (and clean smelling), though the artwork on the walls had obviously been there since 1959. We quickly dumped the bags in the room and went to explore the grounds.

I was dumbfounded. No, make that flabbergasted. Many of the toys, rides, and play structures I remembered were still there. I don’t mean similar ones, I mean the same freakin’ ones. The “Sand Castle” playhouse was still there, yellow flags aflutter on the roof, and a plastic gray Bugs Bunny moldering on the outside wall. The other wall housed a mildewed Mickey Mouse knock-off that weirded me out as a child—it was even weirder thirty years later. The playhouse had a broken puzzle and few scattered books, and the kids found it interesting for half a second or so. We moved on towards the bicycle path.

Or should I say, paved pothole path. Rusted trikes, some with seats, some without, lay strewn about for orphans to risk life and limb on. (I hope no parent would have let their kids ride on those deathtraps.) We moved towards the brightly painted playground with fear and trepidation. My daughter could not bear to leave the multicolored structures untouched, so we would run a few steps ahead of her, looking for rusted metal or splintered wood. The playground seemed to be in surprisingly good shape, so we relaxed our guard a little and let the tykes scramble and cavort.

All seemed well until my daughter climbed to the top of a spiral slide that appeared to be homemade. You heard me—a wooden, spiraling slide thirteen feet tall, with sections that didn’t join together evenly. A drunken eighth-grade shop class drop-out had gotten the contract, apparently. My daughter whooshed down the monstrosity before we could warn her to stop. She caught air on the first turn, threatening to fly off the contraption entirely, then rolled like a pillbug down the spiraling disjointed planks. She plopped in the sand with wails and tears, so we headed towards the beach to escape and soothe.

Our perspectives brightened a bit after that, and the evening continued with moderate success. We strolled on the pier after dinner, with the warm breezes lulling the little guy to sleep in no time. We headed back to the room to put him down for the night, and were greeted by the sunburned family lounging next door. Their twanging chatter outside our room precluded the baby’s sleep, so we headed back to the pier for some more salt air opium. By eleven p.m. the yokels and our children were asleep, so we breathed a raggedy sigh of relief and quaffed beers outside our room in tense silence.

Day Two confirmed my worst fear: we were in hell. Let me rephrase that; this “resort” had gone to hell, and probably was going to take us with it. The fun began with the “free breakfast” served poolside. (I had fond childhood memories of getting up early and going to the outdoor buffet to gather a plate of gooey cinnamon rolls.) Alas, the free breakfast had been reduced to kiddie cereal and rancid yogurt. Oh and by the way, don’t you DARE take a foil topped cup of orange juice back to your room, or try to make off with one of the cracked, putrid green trays—there were two signs declaring the punishment for such infractions:

Sign #1:
Guests seen taking extra orange juice or milk to their rooms will be asked to check out immediately.”

Sign #2:
The breakfast trays are inventoried each morning. Trays are to be promptly returned to the breakfast area.”

The sign-happy rulemakers missed one important detail; how about a sign that reads, “Parents, rest assured; our high chairs are inspected at least once a decade!” (Maybe that sign fell down?) ...My son immediately let out a wail upon being inserted into his faded plastic high chair. Apparently, his hand grazed a gaping, jagged-edged hole in the chair armrest.

The dive bombing of yellowjackets ensued shortly thereafter. Though I caught the most threatening wasp midair with a napkin and squished him, my husband gave me a rolling-eyed look that said he’d had enough. His gaze remain glazed over the rest of the day—as we wallowed miserably in the smelly pool edged in mildew, as we numbly chased our sleep deprived toddler wailing miserably across the beach. By dinnertime, two anaconda-mad children were spitting and hissing at a war torn Daddy, who was valiantly trying to cook hamburgers in the fire-ant infested grilling area. Big kudos to Mommy for sharing this magical place with her family, eh?

The nightmare drew to a bleary end Sunday morning, after a second sleep-deprived night. Rain battered the motel when we awoke. By the time we had packed the car, the little ones had a big dose of cabin fever. No worries. Checkout completed our parole from this Bastille of insects and rotten wood, sweet freedom at last! Since children are blessed with evaporative memories at times of great stress, perhaps the kids weren’t overtly scarred from the experience...perhaps they saw the place through the optimism of a child’s eyes? (Perhaps the memories will surface in adulthood therapy?) As for my husband and I, we certainly found a new appreciation for Grandma and Grandpa’s rented beach condo.

But have we really learned our lesson? Only time will tell, since Daddy has fond memories of a vacation spot called “White Lake.” His boyhood summers were spent swimming in the crystal clear waters, and toting shiny quarters to a waterside “pinball arcade”. We’ve talked about renting a cabin at the lake, so the children can experience the joys that Daddy experienced, way back when...

Who knows? We may have a ball! Or, we may need a family discount at the psychiatrist’s. I’m willing to take the chance, if only to get his mind off Mommy’s failed attempt to relive her childhood.

Nota Bene: In retrospect, we certainly could have demanded our money back the first night and spared ourselves the experience. Indeed, we endured way more than we should have, in the name of “family fun.” The only defense I can offer, is that I was in denial...

“That which does not kill us, only makes us stronger”, right? Which reminds me, I need to get our tetanus shots up to date before we visit White Lake. -vj