Revisiting rites of summer

Ocean City: Memorial Day weekend launches another season of sun, sea and boardwalk tradition.

May 27, 2002|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

OCEAN CITY -- You know summer has arrived in this seaside resort town when disembodied heads start appearing in the sand.

It happened yesterday, right on schedule, on the beach at Fifth Street by the boardwalk. Six-year-old Taylor Robinson of Baltimore pushed down her friend Derek Gilliam, 5, then quickly covered him up.

"He loves it," she giggled, piling it on. Derek seemed to agree, though he wisely kept his mouth shut as he was reduced to a heaving pile of sand. The water, he said later, was a little cold, but the sand felt just right.

About 200,000 people seemed to agree. They packed the town's hotels and beaches for the traditional Memorial Day weekend kickoff of the summer season. By Labor Day, 4 million more are expected here -- many of them, said Mayor James N. Mathias Jr., are following traditions set by parents and grandparents long ago.

"It's like a Norman Rockwell picture," said Mathias, cruising Coastal Highway in midafternoon. "People need that time under the beach umbrella with a box of caramel popcorn, and that's what we're all about."

Under sunny skies this weekend, children built towering sand castles, teens strutted the boardwalk, adults chased dimpled balls on municipal golf courses, and old-timers marveled at how so much -- and so little -- has changed.

Bob Dashiell, 76, sat on the boardwalk at Second Street yesterday and gazed into the teal ocean through prescription sunglasses. The Salisbury resident has been coming to this skinny spit of sand and tar since 1932, he said through mouthfuls of Fisher's caramel popcorn.

"My mother and father and whole family would come down here, and you wouldn't see a woman without a hat on this boardwalk," he said. "My mother wouldn't come unless she had a new hat and was dressed up."

Then, surveying the thong-wearing, body-baring crowd streaming by, he said with a laugh: "I feel sorry for some of these poor girls -- they don't have enough money to buy some decent clothes."

You know summer has arrived in Ocean City when the line for Thrasher's French Fries numbers more than 100 -- and no one minds at all. At the end of the line yesterday, a couple from New Jersey tried to explain the essence of Thrasher fries to two British friends who had never tasted them. "They're squishy and greasy, and you can get big clumps of them all at the same time," said Bill Ferara, 29, from Hoboken.

"Like chips?" asked Joe Smith, 28, the English fellow.

"No," Ferara said. "Better."

Inside the fry stand, manager Carl Hammond was supervising a staff of eight. They work one hour on, one hour off, lest the heat overwhelm them. They work fast, too -- peeling, dicing, cooking and browning the Idaho spuds.

"There is no secret -- it's just fresh potatoes," Hammond insisted, before allowing that even if there were a secret, he wouldn't give it away. For as long as Thrasher's has stood on the boardwalk -- 73 years -- people have lined up for its fries.

A large bucket now runs $7.50.

Meanwhile, the folks from New Jersey made it to the front of the line. They ordered a medium bucket and a couple of diet sodas, then doused the fries in vinegar. Smith's fiance, Gina Yannucci, was quickly smitten.

"The grease, the vinegar, the salt -- they're really hot, and really good," she said.

Smith concurred: "They're very good. They're as good as English chips -- I'll go that far."

You know summer has arrived in Ocean City when a new miniature golf course opens.

This year, it is Embers Island on 23rd Street, a 36-hole palace with a volcano, a pirate ship, sand traps and water hazards. The owner, restaurateur Jay Taustin, said he visited 75 golf courses from Massachusetts to Florida to find inspiration.

"You know what I know about golf?" he asked, then pressed his thumb and forefinger together. "I don't know golf. But I know fun."

He wanted to put on a show, a Disney-fied, Vegas-esque production. So twice an hour, the pirates do battle with the kids in the tree fort, with cannonballs (imaginary) zooming overhead and water (real) splashing into the air. Taustin also plans to shoot a real fireball out of the top of the 30-foot volcano every half-hour.

"We're still trying to work that out with the city fire marshal," he said. He wouldn't say how much the project cost but noted the sound and effects system was $500,000.

It seems to have paid off. Jack Wright, 71, and granddaughter Megan Neunan, 10, say it's the best course in town. And they should know: They play all the time, once getting in 126 holes on a single day.

Ocean City has at least two dozen miniature golf courses, with half that many real golf courses in the area. "It's becoming a mini-Myrtle Beach," said Wright, a year-round resident.

You know summer has arrived in Ocean City when Mayor Mathias stops wearing socks. No one else wears them, either. Dressing up in Ocean City means changing from flip-flops to sandals and maybe buttoning that Hawaiian shirt.

"It's a dream life," Mathias said. He is intent on keeping it that way. "People save all year to come here for a week, and our commitment is to give them the best vacation they can have."

On Saturday, the city gave out 15,000 American flags for a "Salute to the Services." People planted them along the 10 miles of beach and got in the act with flag bathing suits and flag towels.

Even the hotels -- which showed vacancy signs this weekend, given the slightly cool weather -- did their part. One hotel sign read, in its own graceful and economical way:

"OCEANFRONT EFF

CONT BKFST

GOD BLESS USA"

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