The beach. Each generation heeds its call.

ENDLESS SUMMERS

Each generation finds its own joys and meanings there.

July 05, 1998|By SARAH PEKKANEN

He stands facing the vast ocean, a tiny figure in a bright blue and green bathing suit, clutching a pink plastic shovel and matching pail. He watches families frolic in the water and sea gulls swoop through the sky. He stares, enchanted, as boats float by. He loves boats.

Then he looks at the waves. They are crashing down on the beach, coming at him with a terrifying roar.

He turns and flees.

This is Sean Hack's fourth trip to the beach. The first summer, he sat under an umbrella and ate handfuls of sand until his mother caught him. The next summer, he slept, lulled by the warm sun and the rhythm of the surf. Last year, he dug a hole in the sand and kept his parents busy filling it with buckets of water so he could splash around. He wouldn't go near the relentless, pounding waves.

But this is the summer Sean turns 4, and, suddenly, anything is possible. He used to be afraid of dogs, but not anymore. As he grows, so do the boundaries of his world.

Sean has always been fascinated by water. At home in Maplewood, N.J., he has to be dragged out of the bathtub at night, and he can spend hours dancing under a sprinkler. But he has never ventured into the ocean.

It isn't the water that frightens him; he loves water. It's the unknown. What if he went in, and something bad happened to him?

The sand, though. The sand is another matter. The minute he arrived at the

Rehoboth shore this morning, he flung himself face-down on the sand, rolling around like a puppy, luxuriating in the soft, grainy texture.

There is plenty to do here, a comfortable distance from the waves: He makes sand doughnuts and sand ice cream cones. "Mmm ... chocolate!" he says.

He shapes nine circles in the sand:

"Neptune, Pluto ... Jupiter is the biggest planet in the solar system," he announces. He buries himself up to his knees. "Is everybody watching?" he asks. "The show is about to begin." He kicks free, creating a shower of golden grains.

"Mary Beth," he asks his mother, "where is the big pink shovel?"

"Mary Beth?" his mother echoes, eyebrows raised. It is the first time he has called her that. She knows it won't be the last.

He is growing so quickly, always testing his limits. Someday soon, the boy will plunge into the ocean without a second thought, while his mother yells at him not to swim out so far. Someday, the young man will come to the beach with his friends, and maybe the waves will seem boring, compared to the boardwalk and bars. He might even bring his own children here one day, and teach them to shape planets in the sand.

The cycles of life roll inexorably forward, as steady, as sure as the waves. And as each generation grows into the next, the beach takes on a different meaning, its lure constantly shifting.

The beach will always have something to offer Sean. But first he must master his fear.

Older children are digging sand crabs near the water. They show Sean their floating foam water noodles. He picks up a bright-blue noodle and studies it.

When the children hold hands and walk into the ocean, he edges closer. He watches as they wrap their arms around noodles and kick their feet up behind them, splashing and laughing in the shallow water.

Sean is motionless. The waves are lapping near his feet now; the danger so close. A few more steps, and he'll be there.

"Wait!" he yells, and everyone turns to look.

He stands uncertainly.

Then he holds up his blue water noodle: "Here you go!" He tries to throw it to the children, but he isn't strong enough. It floats down near his feet.

He can't bring it to them; he can't get that close to the waves. Not yet. Not today.

He hurries back to his towel and digs his fingers into the warm, comforting sand.

Nyla Saleh studies Leslie Kaliner's face, as intent as a surgeon preparing to make a first incision. On the sink, a red and white plastic bag holds her tools: Clinique eye shadow, lipstick and a half-dozen sticks of eyeliner. Nyla selects one called pewter.

"Relax your eyes," she commands.

But Nyla traces only one eyelid before she realizes that pewter is totally, completely wrong. Shady gray is what Leslie's eyes cry out for.

"Take it off," she says, as other girls peer into the bathroom, awaiting their turn.

It's the last night at Rehoboth for the six best friends, the last night to cruise the boardwalk and giggle and point out cute guys. They need to look their best.

They've spent the whole day getting ready. They hit the beach at 9:30 a.m., determined to wring every drop of the sun's tanning power out of the day. They squirted lemons into each other's hair, and coated themselves with oil, and shifted their towels with military precision to stay aligned directly under the moving rays.

They barely dipped their toes into the ocean. The beach isn't about sand or swimming when you're on the cusp of 16.

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