This is Rissers Beach, Nova Scotia:
This sheltered piece of heaven on the province’s South Shore is only a fifteen-minute drive from where I grew up. It was my ‘home beach’. We only had one car, and my dad worked just down the road from Rissers, so all summer long, at least once a week, we’d plan for a beach day.
Beach days in the early 80s were a very different proposition from today. I realized this last night, as I was thinking about taking the boys to Rissers this weekend and idly writing a list in my head of all the things we’d need… or even how many hours it would be “safe” to spend on the beach in the sun. Today, I wouldn’t dream of going to the beach for an entire day without a cooler full of ice, sandwiches, a variety of fresh fruit, lots of drinking water, an entire bottle of sunscreen, a blanket, towels, sand toys, bucket hats for everyone including me, a cell phone with a charged battery for emergencies, cash for the canteen, a book… I’m exhausted just imagining toting all of that luggage from the parking lot to the beach itself. I’d need a wagon. WHY DON’T I HAVE A WAGON.
When I was a kid, this would be how much notice we’d get for a beach day:
6:30AM. Birds twittering. Mom sticks her head into the room and says “get up, kids, we’re going to the beach today. Put on your bathing suits and come get some breakfast.”
7AM. Mom would grab a single tote bag with three towels and a couple of peanut butter sandwiches in it. My sister and I – hatless, in sandals and bathing suits – would each grab a bucket and shovel. We’d go.
That was pretty much it.
Rissers is a bit of a funny setup, in that the parking lot is on the opposite side of the road from the actual beach & park. To get to the beach, there was a six-foot culvert under the road, with a boardwalk guiding you from the parking lot. We called the culvert “the tunnel” and it was just the coolest thing ever when we were kids. It was dark, and damp on all but the very hottest days of summer. When a car went by overhead, the vibration thrummed on a deep frequency you could feel more than hear. If you talked, your voice echoed, sharp and loud. My sister and I would always run ahead, yelling our heads off in the tunnel to hear the echo, and then we’d hide out of sight at the other end just so we could jump out and yell “BOO!” at mom when she emerged. Every time. For years. I’m sure that never got old.
We’d hit the beach bright and early, just as the lifeguards were setting up. Mom would wait until they planted their flags, signifying the “actively patrolled” area, and then she’d set up camp outside of this zone. We’d spread our towels carefully on the sand, marking our territory, and weigh the corners down with our sandals. There was no sunscreen. I don’t remember sunscreen becoming a feature until the late 80s, and even then it was applied once, when we arrived (and then we promptly ran into the water, probably rinsing it all off immediately anyway). Sometimes she played with us, sometimes she didn’t, but I just remember the whole glorious beach opening up in front of us, a day of endless possibilities and freedom.
When we were in the water, we had a tendency to drift a bit with the current. Every so often we’d look toward the shore, and sometimes we couldn’t see Mom anymore, because we weren’t in line with our patch. We’d slog back and wave. Sometimes we’d play with other kids we ran into, but more often it was just me and my sister, our two buckets and our shovels, building massive sand castles and trying to position them in just the perfect place so that the surf would fill the moat we’d dug around it. We dug deep holes at the water’s edge so that the sun could warm the water a bit, and we’d lie in them, letting the waves slosh up over our legs. We’d stand ankle deep and marvel at how our feet would gradually sink beneath the sand. We’d find long pieces of kelp and run up and down the sand, trailing them behind us like ribbons.
At lunchtime we’d eat the peanut butter sandwiches. We would always have sand on our fingers, and the sand would get everywhere, and it would grit between our teeth. We’d leave all of our stuff unattended and walk back up to the canteen, where there was a bathroom and a water fountain. Sometimes, on rare occasions, we’d get an ice cream.
By the time we wandered back to our stuff, the beach was jammed, and I loved gazing at the people. Coconut tanning oil was a big thing in those days. The whole beach reeked of it. There were lots of women who came to the beach like a religion, every day, wearing the tiniest possible bikinis and oiling themselves for the ritual of the tan. Sometimes they came with a guy, and he’d be wearing a banana-hammock Speedo because that’s what all the guys wore in the 80s (my dad included!). He’d usually have a cooler full of beer cans, and he’d be sitting, drinking beer and smoking, while his lady sizzled on the towel next to him. I wondered then, and I still wonder now, just what the smoking men were getting from the whole experience.
There were lots of transistor radios. A few people had beach umbrellas, and the older folks usually brought folding lawn chairs, the kind with an aluminium frame and woven nylon seats. Huge sunglasses were much in evidence.
By the time we finally went home at the end of the day, we were exhausted. We’d usually stop at the lake near our house, for a final swim – it was the easiest way to rinse off the sand and salt water. I tried this with my kids once, and they were just baffled. “Won’t we need a shower when we get home, anyway?”, my oldest son asked, sadly a veteran of too many lake closures for high bacteria counts and a mom who always gets them to take a bath when we get home from swimming.
So many of my memories are at that beach, and as a teenager, the adjacent campground became a big part of my summers, too. I had my first beer in that campground, at 18 – three whole swallows before an RCMP officer busted us and poured all of the beer out on the ground. My girlfriends and I used to get a campsite and cram into an ancient canvas tent we scrounged, and once we were there for a full moon; we spent half the night on the cold sand, just gazing at it, stunned into silence by the silvery light.
Now I’m homesick. Guess I’ll be taking the kids (and my wagon) to the beach this weekend, after all.