A Cold Wind – Ocean City Boardwalk
by Mark Hahn
When I was 12 years old, I often went to Ocean City with my family. My friends and I would fish off a bridge behind some old motels. Ocean City was still a small but growing beach resort. There were only a few large hotels at the time. The town was dominated by privately owned mom and pop businesses. Originally, Ocean City’s only claim to fame, other than the ocean, was a rinky-dink boardwalk with rows of junk food stands, trinket shops and a saltwater taffy pull.
As a kid, I was mesmerized watching the brightly colored twisted and pulled sugary mass on the taffy pulling machine. I brought allowance money with me so I could buy a big bag of taffy before we left, but watching it being made on the boardwalk was it — the highlight of any night. I tried talking with the guy making the taffy, thinking he was as excited about the process as I was. I didn’t recognize that it was just a crappy job for him and that dealing with annoying kids like me was just one of the hazards of his work.
This is where my friends and I started talking about girls — checking out their butts and boobs as they walked by in their colorful 1970’s patterned bikinis. While fishing off the bridge, we’d watch the girls go by and wink at each other when we thought one was really cute. I was a small kid, with messy blond hair, wearing torn up cutoffs and a tee shirt. None of the girls usually noticed me.
One afternoon, I caught a bunch of puffer fish. They are amazing little things. After filling a bucket with them, I had the crazy idea that I could bring them back home with me and make a large saltwater aquarium in my bedroom out of old pieces of found glass. As a kid, I was always scavenging things from the garbage or pilfering scrap from local construction sites to make stuff. I always looked for my own ways of doing things.
The Japanese name for puffer fish means “sea pigs,” but I thought they looked more like some of Keane’s big-eyed pixie-waifs. They were ugly and cute at the same time — like a naked troll doll. I think I identified with them in some way.
A pair of really cute girls walked across the bridge and stopped to look at the puffer fish in my bucket. They asked me about them. I was really excited to show off my catch. I poked at one of the fish until it filled itself up with water like a balloon. The girls thought it was really cool. In showing off, I picked up the fish and held it for them to see. The cute girl most interested in my fish was much taller than me. I couldn’t help but look at her cleavage while we talked. I was nervous talking to a strange girl, but it went pretty well until the puffer fish spit out all its water right onto to her bare stomach. Both girls were horrified, screamed and stormed away in disgust. My friends laughed.
* * *
Until this year, I hadn’t been to Ocean City since the winter of eighth grade. At that time, my family was returning from a trip to Virginia when the weather took a turn for the worse. My dad thought it safer to spend the night in one of the few open motels in Ocean City than brave the treacherous drive back home to Columbia. There are very few open motels in Ocean City during winter — back then as today — and the boardwalk is completely shut down.
The rain had turned to snow and froze on the road. My dad almost lost control of the car several times before before we found the motel. Maryland has always been infamously ill prepared for winter storms since they are so rare here.
This was the last vacation I went on with my family while still being a kid. We were the only guests in the motel. My dad went to the store and bought junk food for the room and we holed up and watched TV together. It felt good.
* * *
This time in Ocean City, I walked along the cold boardwalk and remembered the warm times I spent here as a kid. I remembered the times before my dad had died — killed by a drunk driver — when I was still in high school. Part of me felt the connection I had with that little kid who played in the waves with his sister and caught puffer fish with his friends. Part of me couldn’t figure out how I had gotten to where I am now.
The icy winds of winter blow across all time and stir up so many memories on their way across the Atlantic. I guess all I could do was face the grief and emptiness I’ve experienced while listening to the waves crashing against the cold sandy shore. When I was leaving the beach, I found a perfect spiral shell in which you could hear the future. For all the countless hours I spent looking for such a shell as a kid, I had never found one until now. I gave it to someone I love. Some things are better to give away than to hold onto.