Hellos from down the ocean

Way Back When

Book: Author Bert Smith takes readers to the beach with his collection of postcards from the water's edge.

May 29, 1999|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Who cares if summer's official start isn't until sometime in June? Everyone knows that it always begins with Memorial Day weekend and ends on Labor Day.

And by the time the three-day weekend concludes Monday evening, some 300,000 carloads of ocean-bound holiday revelers will have traveled over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, renewing an annual ritual not unlike that of spawning salmon who return each year to the rivers and streams of their birth.

And maybe some of those visitors to Ocean City, Bethany and Rehoboth will steal a quick minute this weekend to hastily scrawl the cliche postcard message that has survived the ages to family members, friends or lovers left behind at home: "Wish you were here. The air is fine and so is the ocean."

With those tantalizing words in the back of his mind, noted Baltimore postcard collector Bert Smith, whose earlier postcard book, "Greetings from Baltimore," was published by Johns Hopkins University Press two years ago, has chosen this time to take readers on a nostalgic vintage Technicolor postcard trip to the fabled ocean resorts of Maryland and Delaware and summers past.

In the introduction to "Down the Ocean: Postcards from Maryland and Delaware Beaches" (Johns Hopkins University Press, $29.95) Smith writes, "Some of the happiest postcards are those saved or sent from our summer vacations at the ocean. With bright or faded images of the beach and sun and short messages like `the weather's hot,' `the water's cold,' and `the fish are biting,' these colorful souvenirs can instantly take us back to warm breezes, hot sand between our toes, and the smells of french fries and fresh saltwater taffy."

It's been nearly 50 years since the Bay Bridge opened, thus cutting the trip for shore-bound motorists who for years had to drive through Elkton and then down the spine of the Eastern Shore.

In earlier years, travelers crossed the bay by ferry and then boarded waiting trains of open-window day coaches pulled by steam engines. Their melodious whistles blew for rural sandy grade crossings as the train swayed on its determined way through fragrant stands of loblolly pines.

"Whatever the method," writes Smith, "as the car rolled one last mile over the Sinepuxent Bay bridge into the old section of Ocean City, all eyes were peeled to spot that line of welcoming surf. Brown-shingled cottages, fishing boats, and white clapboard apartments came into view. All happily declared, `Let the vacation begin!' "

They jammed into guest houses and cottages, as well as into such fashionable hostelries as the Plimhimmon, Henlopen Hotel, Commander and George Washington.

Along with hastily scribbled messages, cards from these places often had the senders' room windows identified to make the folks back home more than slightly envious.

Cards showing restaurants, amusement piers, boating and fishing scenes depict a certain primitiveness that has since vanished, especially in the case of Ocean City, whose skyline has been transformed with the erection of tall condominiums and hotels and where auto traffic is now at volumes worthy of New York's Times Square.

Happily, Rehoboth and Bethany have fared better, and much of the old seaside family vacation feeling still endures.

Smith has included in his wonderful retrospective a number of postcard whimsies, such as a nighttime view of the Ocean City boardwalk from the Coast Guard station.

With moonlit gray clouds floating above the ocean and street lights burning, the postcard shows a beach filled with bathers and others sitting under beach umbrellas.

"You can almost hear the ragtime pianos of the pre-World War I years," writes Smith, "as you turn over a softly colored card of the old Atlantic Hotel and read the greeting put down in an elegant, flourishing hand, in real ink that flowed from a fountain pen in 1910, or imagine crowds jitterbugging to the joyful jive and swing of the big bands in the 1940s when you see a Technicolor linen-textured card of Rehoboth Avenue, with its wartime message hurriedly scribbled in pencil."

Pub Date: 5/29/99

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