Ocean of freedom

Senior week at the beach lets new grads test their unchaperoned wings. Not all fly.


Ocean City -- That first-ever sip of coffee can be a bitter jolt. That first swig of beer might not have been all you hoped for, either. But remember your first taste of freedom?

Now that's good stuff, right from the start - edifying, empowering and, assuming you're using it right, no nasty aftertaste. It goes down easy. It leaves you wanting more. Just ask Rachel Kline.

"I love it. I just love it," said Kline, 18, on her first unchaperoned trip away from her home in Baker, W.Va. "Nobody telling you what to do, being able to do whatever you want - I just love freedom."

Kline is one of an estimated 100,000 graduating seniors - known locally, colloquially and maybe a tad pejoratively, as "Junebugs" - converging on Ocean City during the next three weeks to celebrate the end of high school and the beginning of adulthood.

With that many teenagers trying out their wings for the first time, some feathers will inevitably fly, and some crash landings are imminent. In the next three weeks in Ocean City there will be plenty of youthful indiscretions and possibly some life-altering mistakes. Police will have their hands full, hotel owners will become part-baby sitters and oldtimers will shake their heads and wonder what this generation is coming to.

But nothing will alter a cycle that has become as predictable as the tides - that annual rite of passage known as senior week.

"This is the calm before the storm," Casey Peters, owner of the Surfside 8 Motel, said Thursday. He, like other Ocean City merchants, knew exactly when the hordes of graduates would start pouring in (two days ago), when their numbers will peak (June 10-17), and when they will leave (the last week in June).

At East Hardy High School in West Virginia, seniors finished May 26, and 14 of the 52 members of the Class of 2006 headed for Ocean City the next day - most of them after long and serious talks with their parents about responsibility. Six, including Kline, were sharing a single room at the Surfside 8.

By the end of the week, Kline had visited her first nightclub (H20, an under 21-club), danced at her first foam party ("People dance much more raunchy here"), made her first bungee jump (at Trimpers Amusement Park) and was sporting a brand new tattoo across her lower back. (Don't worry, Mom, it's only henna.)

She'd passed on an opportunity to get her navel pierced, refrained from the binge drinking going on around her and, all in all, thinks she handled her newfound responsibility well, considering "where we're from is really, really small and rural, and we've never experienced anything like this."

"My mom was really worried when we left, but now she has mellowed out a bit," said Kline, who called home every day. "I think our parents would be proud of us. We've cooked for ourselves, and we've done our own laundry."

And it only took one warning before they fell into line with Peters' house rule for high school grads requiring they notify the motel office whenever an unregistered guest visits their room.

"That keeps it from becoming a party room. The party room can turn into a nightmare for you," said Peters, who has been in the motel business here for 15 years and is known to do a little partying himself. "I don't run a gestapo ship by any means, but I pay attention to what's going on on my property."

Unlike some Ocean City hotel and motel owners, Peters has always gladly accepted high school graduates as guests, and he charges them a relatively reasonable deposit - $25 a head. Others charge as much as $400 or $500 - the maximum state law allows.

Peters hires an off-duty Ocean City police officer to work security during senior weeks, and while he keeps an eye on his wards, he doesn't see it as his job to ensure that they don't drink - only that it doesn't get out of hand. Hence the rule on room guests.

Among the clutter in his motel office - amid the reservation slips, tourist pamphlets, Band-Aid boxes, cans of wasp killer and bottles of hydrogen peroxide - was a note left for him by Kline, written on the back of a paper plate that resembled a graduation cap, left over from an earlier party:

"We have 2 guests in room 24," it said, "and the Chinese delivery guy is bringing food."

For the boys next door, freedom's waters were a little choppier.

Sixteen of them, all of whom will graduate this week from a high school in Maryland - they pleaded that neither it nor they be named - were packed into the second floor of a beach house. Most had been making use of the supply of beer and alcohol they had brought with them on the trip, purchased, they said, by older friends back home.

One drank so much, and got so sick, that the previous night's designated driver (or "DD," as they called him) took him to the hospital, where a state police officer promptly cited him for underage drinking. Another had been cited for public urination.

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