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On the beach


You could hear the Firebird at the top of the island, gunning it, picking up speed, grinding gears. Already it had sped past twice, streaking silver down Canal Street and spinning southward toward the pier. This time I went out to meet it, stood in the center of the road in my matronly black one-piece, legs locked, hands on my hips. The car down-shifted, puffed hydraulically and stopped. I walked to the window, grim as the highway patrol. A boy sat at the wheel, his tan genuine, his hair bottled, his driver's license so new it steamed in his back pocket. There were three others in the car just like him. The conversation went something like this:

Me: Y'all need to slow down, you're going to hurt somebody.

Them: (Silence as they looked at each other, wide-eyed, cheeks puffed out in smothered explosions of hilarity.)

Me: Really. Take it easy, OK? There are little kids in the streets.

Them: Yeah, OK.

Me: And bunny rabbits, too.

Them: (A startled pause) Bunny rabbits?

Me: (Wincing at my tactical error--there were cottontails everywhere on the island, doe-eyed skittish animals whose ears, once the creature becomes roadkill, have an awful way of standing straight up out of the pulp.) Yeah, and people on bikes and babies in strollers and kids walking around, lots of them.

Them: (Politely dismissive, since I'd now become, with my bunny rabbits, Exhibit A in their case for ignoring anyone over 40.) OK, sorry.

Is there anything more pathetic than a middle-aged woman damping down the enthusiasms of youth? After the boys had pulled away, turning sedately at the cut-through to the main beach road, I stood a minute longer in the street, trying to recall a time when I might have roared down the streets of Sunset Beach in a silver Firebird, sun-struck and free beneath a soaring blue sky. Briefly there came a memory of a battered Ford station wagon, a sandy box of eight-tracks and the unctuous, fragrant scent of baby oil. Then my children stomped onto the porch of our beach cottage, calling down to me in a panic, frantic with the latest emergency: a stuck-shut bottle of pancake syrup.

Things, as they say, are different now. Just seven short years ago, in the year 1 BC (Before Children), a good day at the beach meant lying half-asleep in the sun, reading a Josephine Hart novel and drinking those pastel drinks with little paper umbrellas sticking out of them. Now a good day at the beach is one that ends with all my children alive and more or less intact.

I ask you: When, exactly, did it get so scary? Wasn't our childhood--yours and mine--a time of extraordinary freedom? I don't recall my parents fretting over me and my brothers during summer vacations. They did not assault us with sunscreen and anti-eastern equine encephalitis bug repellant; they did not lecture us on how to survive a cross-current or float upright in a Red Cross-approved swim device. Our trips to the beach went something like this: We pull into the motel parking lot and right there, the engine still running, Mom and Dad jump out, pull swimsuits from the back and point in the direction of the ocean. And that would more or less be the peak of their usefulness, except for providing the occasional bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Now that my generation is standing in the salt air with its own children, dangers seem to lurk everywhere: sunburn, jellyfish, speeding cars, rough surf, lightning bolts, heat stroke, jet skis--perils that branch and multiply, all roads leading to the Urgent Care office on the inland highway. Down at the beach one day, a woman claimed she'd spotted a "pervert" lurking around the boardwalk; somebody else said there'd been a "mess of jellyfish" in the surf earlier that day; a third said she'd read that an ordinary inner tube can capsize, trap and drown a child in less than two minutes.

I sat on my beach towel, trying to absorb the last one. Was it really true? What was her source--Redbook magazine or the Centers for Disease Control? Were we talking a freak accident or statistical probability? My daughter's swim floatie, patterned with smiling sea turtles, lay like a coiled snake in the sand. I wondered how quickly I could deflate it, throw it into the dunes and pretend it was lost.

A 9-year-old boy was killed yesterday in Monrovia. A mortar or grenade or something exploded in a vacant lot in front of a hospital, and there he was, and then there he wasn't. They said when they collected the pieces his hand was still clutching a bag of food he'd collected for his family.

It was one of a hundred such stories this summer, stories from faraway places like Palestine, Botswana, the Democratic Republic of Congo: small boys killed in crossfire, in suicide bombings and retaliatory shellings; toddlers orphaned by AIDS or malaria; little girls raped and killed, maimed by fighting, left homeless. Hundreds killed, thousands injured, tens of thousands left to starve. They are the words and pictures and numbers from which we turn away--flip the page or the channel, write a hasty tax-deductible check--lest they turn us to stone.

Or worse, lest they throw light on our own paltry fears, the sometimes ridiculous anxieties with which, in the absence of any real threat, we shroud our lives. I'm reminded of a Saul Bellow character, a prosperous Chicagoan who, visiting communist Rumania, is detested for his soft life, his meager worries. It is both the blessing and the curse of our country's prosperity that we are reduced to panic over a school of jellyfish--just as it is a sign of our detachment that we respond to the threat of terrorism not only with horror but with indignant disbelief. Never before have we so perfectly filled the role of Bellow's inappropriate American, "incapable of learning the lessons of the twentieth century; spared, or scorned, by the forces of history or fate."

This is not to argue against protecting our children from stinging sea creatures, only to point out that huge numbers of us have now climbed so high on the pyramid of need the air has gotten thin. The idea, as I recall it from Psychology 101, was that the more thoroughly our basic needs of food and shelter are met, the freer we are to fulfill the higher longings of the soul. Released from grubbing for our lives, released from fear, our lives are meant to expand and soar.

And yet, standing on the beach this summer with other parents, all of us presumably getting our basic needs meet, it didn't feel that way. Even the least neurotic among us was fretting about something, if not the kids the stock market, the ozone alert, the increased incidence of mosquito-borne illnesses. Fear gives a small thing a big shadow, yet we are loath to relinquish it. If we can't find the beast in the closet we look for it in the basement, to feed it its grim bits.

In one of those hundreds of sad news stories this summer there is one I remember in particular, a short piece about a West African mother whose children cross treacherous territory each day to attend a makeshift school and play with other children. Wasn't she frightened? the reporter asked.

Yes, the woman said. Everyday there are bullets and soldiers.

Why do you let them go then? the reporter asked.

Because, the woman said, to keep them locked at home, always afraid, would be the surer death.

You live with the risk?

I live with my faith.

It is faith, of course, that we are lacking, though to say so sounds at best quaint, at worst absurd. Faith. The wonder is that a West African mother, struggling to keep her family alive in a war-torn village has it, and soars above the mortar dust--while those of us sunbathing on a tranquil beach crouch beneath our bright umbrellas, afraid of the sun, of teenagers in cars, of a Code Orange terror alert, of a child's inner tube.

Meanwhile the children bob through schools of jellyfish, pick flowers in the minefields. My daughter is 3 and genuinely believes (she has said as much) that a speeding car cannot harm her so long as she holds her trusty magic wand, the one with pink feathers and silver streamers. My 6-year-old son stands chest high in the waves, convinced he is invincible. He is unimpressed by the gruesome accounts I offer of bodies pulled from the churning surf. I've tried rip-tides, Portuguese Man-O-War, sharks and giant prehistoric crabs, but he still makes his way farther and deeper into the waves, roaring Beach Boys songs and shaking his bushy-bushy blond hairdo like a little Thor. In the vaulted innocence of his heart, he keeps the faith. EndBlock

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