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Vacation Verses

The Retired

"Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace may be found in silence." …Max Ehrmann, "Desiderata."

Before I retired, I used to think retirement would be one long vacation. I looked forward to it; after teaching for 41 years, I was burned out. I had the same perception as President Truman; when a reporter asked him what he would do in retirement, he said, "I will go home to Independence and carry the suitcases up to the attic, and then I'll sit down in my chair on the porch. And after a couple of weeks, I will begin to rock back and forth, very slowly." So that's what I did. I cleaned out my office, hauled several truckloads of books, notes, journals and files home, stashed them away, and sat down on the porch.

The idyllic vision didn't pan out for me, and I don't suppose it did for Harry either. There was a lawn and garden to tend, plumbing to fix, eaves to clean…. Even the porch failed me; it needed to be painted, not sat on. One chore led to another, and I was as busy as ever; and by the end of that first summer it dawned on me that I needed a real vacation. At some point I wrote in my journal:

             Remind me not of grass to mow,
                  or weeds to pull, or beans to hoe,
                       or trees to trim or junk to throw
                            in sheds whose space was, long ago,
                                 filled up with things, outmoded so,
                                      their value only Ma could know;

We were saved when our son invited us to go to the beach. He and his wife were home-schooling their kids, so they had certain rules; chief among them was that television was limited to evening hours. Each child was expected to find things to do, so in addition to swimming, dolphin-watching, fishing and crabbing there were books to read, shells to collect and pictures to draw. There were regular sight-seeing trips; at the age of six, my grandson could name all of the lighthouses on the Outer Banks. No one had time to be bored. A vacation journal was kept, and each person was responsible for writing the record for one day. When my turn came, purely on a whim I decided to write it in verse. From then on it got to be a habit; each year I would find myself writing a poem of some kind. Sometimes it would be deliberately silly to amuse the kids; sometimes it would be more introspective. There was never any expectation that it was good poetry… after all, what would you expect from a biologist? But it was fun to do, and remarkably easy. There is something about the sound of the surf that causes words to rhyme and lines to fall into meter.

This year the trip was planned on short notice, and choices of affordable housing were limited. The drive from home was long, frustrating, tiring and full of reminders of advancing age; although we had driven there for the past 10 summers, we missed three cut-offs. When we finally found the place they had rented, it was in a crowded and commercialized part of Nag's Head. The apartment was adequate, but smaller and less attractive than the beach houses we had in previous years. And yet, sitting on the balcony and listening to the surf that first evening, I realized that this beach was not unlike those at Duck, or Corolla, or Topsail Island; it could have been anywhere. My mind makes odd connections, especially when it's tired; that evening, it wandered off and brought back some lines I had written several years earlier:

          The moon was full the night we came;
                    The beach and ocean looked the same
              As when we'd been here years before
                    And will be next year, too, and more.

Years before? The truth is that we had very few proper vacations until we retired. Before then, we had only one beach vacation, and at the time we had been married over 10 years and had all of our kids. Half asleep, I wondered what it might have been like if we could have gone to the beach alone, before responsibilities began piling up? At that point, words seemed to float up from the beach with the sound of the surf; all I had to do was write them down. The next day I gave them the title, "Beach Dream."

          We might have walked this beach before,
                    some long-forgotten day…
          Not likely, though, because our hills
                    were much too far away.

          We might have thought we'd walk on water,
                    care-free, hand in hand…
          We failed, of course, and laughed and kissed,
                    feet buried in the sand.

          We might have stood there in the surf
                    as sanderlings ran by,
          And watched gulls soar above our heads
                    and dreamed we, too, could fly.

          We might have built a castle, and
                    left dreams and wishes there…
          But wind and tide swept them away
                    like smoke-wisps in the air.

          My memory sees us… younger then…
                    not long ago, it seems…
          How could it be?... Ah, yes… I know.
                    'Twas last night, in my dreams.

Sea air has remarkable regenerative powers, and after a day's rest we were able to enjoy our normal array of activities. I made my usual trip to the Pea Island Bird Sanctuary and found 61 species of birds… an acceptable number for this time of year, allowing for the limits imposed by increasing deafness and declining visual reflexes. Carrying a telescope two miles in 90-degree heat while sharing my blood supply with mosquitoes was not as much fun as it used to be, but the ritual of finishing the trip with a bowl of she-crab soup at Sam and Ohmie's made it worth the effort.

There were walks on the beach, morning and evening to avoid the heat, and shells to be picked up and sketched, a book to be read, a mermaid to be carved on my walking stick, and dolphins to be watched; but what I enjoyed most was relaxing with a pipe or cigar on the balcony, listening to the surf and thinking. The sound of the surf was interrupted periodically by small airplanes going by, trailing signs that advertised places like Sam's Swimwear Shop or Dirty Dick's Seafood Bar; they always flew north. That made sense because if they went the other way the signs would be backwards; but it presented a logical conundrum. Somewhere to the north there must be a huge used airplane lot, or maybe a junkyard full of them; and off to the south must be a factory turning out a new plane every hour or so. I suppose the pilots must ride back south in taxis or shuttle buses, or maybe they have to walk. I spent one whole afternoon puzzling about this and never did find either a satisfactory answer or a poem to describe it.

The best thing about watching the surf was the pelicans. There were a lot of them this year; I counted 51 in one flock, cruising in an orderly line just above the waves as they looked for fish. Close up, they look lumpy and off balance, as if that huge beak should make them unable to get airborne; but in the air, they are amazing fliers. Their wingspan is nearly 8 feet, and they can glide a few feet above the water for surprising distances without flapping. It is hard to believe that something so clumsily constructed could be so graceful.

It was in 1927, the height of the "Roaring Twenties," when Max Ehrmann wrote the Desiderata. There was a lot of noise and haste in that era of bathtub gin, flappers and gangsters, but nothing to compare with the world we live in now. Today, noise and haste pile up throughout the year; the only way to reduce them is to get away. That is why I like to go to the beach. Packing the car, fighting traffic and missing turn-offs brings the pile to the tipping point, but when you get there you can sit down on the porch and look at the ocean and listen to the surf, and the pile begins to recede. By the end of the week the pile is completely gone, and you come home with the feeling that maybe you can get through another year after all.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith