So I took his advice and wended my way to Wilmington. As I approached the city, listening to some oldies on XM Sirius radio, I couldn't help but remember coming down here in the 1980s to one of my favorite vacation spots -- a remote, almost-untouched beach about 20 miles outside of this port city on the Cape Fear River.
Back then a friend of mine -- an older colleague at work -- bought a little cottage up on the dunes, courtesy of her son, who had recently moved from the New York area to Raleigh, and he'd persuaded his mother to invest with him in some beachfront property.
The place sounded intriguing, so my wife and I decided to take a vacation there. We went in September -- this was either 1981 or '82, long before Route 40 was put in -- driving down 95 through Washington, past Richmond and Rocky Mount, until we cut over on the back roads, past some tobacco fields and cotton fields, through the military city of Jacksonville, NC, and then out to the beach.
We found the cottage along the beachfront road, perched up on the dunes overlooking the beach and the Atlantic Ocean. A little front porch, two small bedrooms and a living room with a kitchen on one end. Old appliances and linoleum on the floor, a few dented-up pots and pans in the cupboard. No television. Out back was a screened-in porch that spanned the back of the house, just steps from the sand. The screens wore a constant covering of moisture, blown up from the sea below.
|The porch overlooking the Atlantic|
We'd rented the place for a week. We spent five days lying on the sand by day, sitting on the screened-in porch by night. There was no connection to the outside world. For dinner we'd walk down to the pier and eat fried fish, Southern style, and on the way home in the dark we'd see the crabs scurrying across the moonlit sand.
Every day, the surf rose a little higher. We heard that a hurricane was coming. Local authorities advised tourists to evacuate, but we thought it would be fun to ride out the storm at the house.
I loved wading into the ocean, then catching the waves and body surfing to shore. But I remember on the fifth day the waves broke with a force that scared me. We talked to some locals. What did they think about evacuating? Well, you never know, we were told, it could get bad.
We finally decided to leave, a day early, to make the long drive home. We later heard that the hurricane did skirt the barrier island, but caused minimal damage.
Two years later, we were back at the cottage. This time we made it a family vacation. First, my wife's brother came over from Atlanta for a few days. After he left, my sister came up from Florida. And by that time my wife and I had a young daughter, so we were loaded up with toys and buckets and shovels, along with extra sunscreen and hats and all the paraphernalia that young families bring to the beach. I still remember taking my daughter by the hand and walking along the beach; wading into the water; building enormous sand castles; burying one another in the sand.
We went one more time, but could only go during a week when the cottage was booked up. But by this time, now the late '80s, a condominium had sprouted up at the end of the island. So we booked into the condo, where we had a pool and two bathrooms and other comforts that a family -- now four of us -- would appreciate. But the condo was back from the water, with no salt spray limning the screens, no sound of the surf lulling us to sleep at night.
After that trip, the kids were growing up and other activities took precedence, and we never went back. We took vacations closer to home because the kids didn't like the long drives; and then the kids started going to camp.
|The ocean cottage used to be yellow|
Would the place be the same? Or was it all developed by now? I found the main road on the other side of Wilmington. As I approached the turn-off, I saw a big high school back off the road. That wasn't there before, was it? As I turned onto the beach road, leading out to the barrier island, I saw a shopping center, complete with a Lowe's big-box store. Then I came to the bridge over the Intracoastal, and that looked the same. As I drove down off the bridge and rolled into town, I saw the pier straight in front of me, with the same old bar and grill.
But what was that wall of buildings, just to the north? I saw a lineup of half a dozen four-story condominiums blocking a view of the water. I turned down the beach road, and saw new homes built on stilts, one right next to the other. I drove to the end of the road, about a mile, and could not find our cottage. I turned around, and spied an old man tending a little park on a corner. I stopped and asked him if he'd lived here a while.
Yes, he assured me, he had.
|The submarine tower, now with decks|
I asked him if he knew about the old cement submarine tower. Was it still here? I couldn't find it.
He explained that the tower had been bought up by someone who built a new house around it, incorporating the tower into the house. It was just down the block, he said, pointing somewhere along the solid line of beachfront homes.
I slowly drove along the beach road, down and back, until I spotted it. Yes, I could see the cement tower joined to the wooden house. Nearby were a few older homes, low and squat next to the new and much bigger beachfront homes.
And then, there it was, looking a little run down, with paint peeling off the porch. I had no idea if my friend's family still owned it. I'd lost touch with my friend after she retired in 1996. That was 15 years ago. She might even be dead by now, I didn't know.
But there was her cottage, bringing back those memories of a time gone by, when the beach was a lonely solitary place, cut off form the rest of the world, and I was young and and newly married with little kids, and I thought I had all the time in the world.