(Originally posted in the Stratford Star and Fairfield Sun newspapers on March 22, 2012, in my “Walsh’s Wonderings” column.)
As seagull calls echo across the empty beach, I revel in the fitful sunshine that warms my face in spite of stiff March winds. While the calendar turns slowly toward spring, the melodies of summer can be heard just underneath the breeze. If I try hard enough, the sounds of a youth spent at these shores bubbles to the fore: “Robert Francis Walsh, you get out of that water right now or so help me God…”
My mom never needed to finish those kinds of sentences, and she certainly never needed God’s help to carry out a punishment. However, it was always a chore to get her youngest boy out of Long Island Sound while the sun was still up. Growing up in a family with seven kids, the beach offered the space and privacy that a house crammed with nine people could not. People in large families realize that “privacy” is a relative thing, especially when the only room with a lock on it is the bathroom (and even that can be easily opened with a nail file). Privacy was the ability to lose myself amid the laughing and screaming of hundreds of other kids at the beach.
While Long Island Sound was never known for its cleanliness when I was growing up, it was an oasis for me. Because the media made more of the occasional sewage overflow than was justified, swimming twenty yards out was truly a solitary experience. Most beach-goers only took quick dips and then raced up to the shack to shower off. Floating contentedly in the frigid, salty water by the buoys while the lifeguards tried to whistle me in, this was only place in the world where I felt truly alone. It was easy (and fun) to ignore the whistles of the frantic lifeguards from the shore when feeling a calm that I could never experience at home. As a result, I was rarely in a rush to leave.
Maximizing my beach time was a study in delicate escalation. Because of the size of our family, a trip to the beach involved planning one might expect when storming the beaches of Normandy. Gathering our things to go home was worse. My mom could spend an hour gathering her kids, collecting trash, packing up the cooler, balls, and floats while drying out her kids, shaking out the towels and shoes, and trudging back to the car… where the final shaking, drying, and packing into the car would begin.
In a family our size, however, it was easy to stay out of sight until the last moment. Inevitably, my mom would notice that I was missing, and the game would begin. Any child who struggles to stay in the water “just a little bit longer” ends up attempting it in four stages. In the interest of any of our younger readers who might need some pointers, I’ll outline them here. Stage One involves temporary deafness: face away from the shore and make a show of splashing around a lot—this will lend credence to your story when you later claim that you didn’t hear your mom screaming like a banshee at you from fifteen yards away. If she’s tired, she’ll give up and send someone else out to get you. Congratulations: you just bought yourself another five to ten minutes. If not, you’ll arrive at Stage Two.
At this stage, you realize she’s not going away. It’s best to turn and feign surprise, as if to say, “Oh, were you talking to me?” Acknowledge that you understand her and that you’re coming in. This must be done swiftly, as she will stay and wait for you if she gets too upset. As soon as she turns her back, slowly bounce and float your way toward shore. This is often good for at least another ten minutes. Moving to the side instead of toward shore will ensure that you are at least in a different spot each time your mom sees you… the illusion of progress is often enough to appease the over-burdened mother. If not, you must act quickly!
Stage Three is the moment of truth; if played improperly, you will have a very long car ride home. If your mom realizes that you are simply ten yards down the shoreline instead of shaking the sand from your swimsuit, you have to play your trump card. “I lost my ear plug!” you yell, looking worriedly at the water around you. It’s not what you lose: it could be a ring, a Frisbee, a Spiderman action figure… just make sure you don’t go out there empty-handed.
Stage Four, like DEFCON 2, is an escalation that should never occur. Stage Four is when you simply reply, “No.” Your choices are very limited here, unless your parents are naïve enough to bribe you back to shore. If this is the case, you probably don’t even have to bother with the first three stages. If not, you either start swimming toward Long Island in the hope of starting a new life, or you swim back to the beach to await your sentence. If you were in my family, you had a better shot at survival if you tried for Port Jefferson.
Even as the chill air brings me back to the present, I feel the pull of this wonderful body of water. No matter how old I get, I appreciate the beauty of the Sound as warm weather approaches. My hearing has gotten worse as I’ve gotten older, but even I can hear the pleas from my wife as she stands on shore and tries to get me to swim in. “Robert Francis Walsh, you get out of that water right now or so help me God…”