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BOUND FOR THE BEACH AND FIT TO BE TIED

THE BALTIMORE SUN

I'll never forget my first trip to the beach back in . . . well, the

year isn't important anyway. We all climbed into the car, which was a Ford or Chevy, or maybe even a Buick. Then we drove on some road for a while until we came to this place where we stayed.

I think it was a bungalow. My sister insists it was a four-story apartment building. Whatever. It was probably near the ocean. I think we played and ate stuff we had brought with us and other stuff my parents bought someplace. I forgot what we did at night.

We were there, what -- two days? A week? I think I caught a cold. Then we went home.

It seems like yesterday.

The point is, every parent is anxious to capture precious memories like these for his or her own children.

Unfortunately, to actually get to the beach, the entire family must often endure a long car ride together, an agonizing ordeal that tends to generate the same stress levels as a jungle firefight.

Young parents, their hands still trembling from the experience, often ask: "Isn't there any way to keep the little dears quiet in the back of the Subaru?"

The answer, quite frankly, is no. Not since the days when cars had engine cranks and running boards have parents managed to . . . well, there is one way to ensure that the little monsters don't act up.

But it involves ropes and gags as well as an occasional blast of ether from a rubber gas mask. And most parents are reluctant to use this method, for fear their children will: a) grow up dependant on weepy, twice-a-week visits to an analyst or b) author a scathing autobiography in which the parents are portrayed in the same flattering light as Pol Pot.

Coloring books, crayons and the like will generally occupy the kids on the trip to the beach -- at least until you back out of the

driveway. Then the oldest will feel compelled to set the tone for the trip by insisting he needs the very crayon (usually magenta, for some reason) that his sister is using.

She, of course, refuses to surrender the crayon. He generously gives her to the count of three. She continues merrily coloring away. He begins counting loudly ("One . . . two, I'm not kidding, Jenny . . . !") then reaches over and grabs the crayon from her hand. She starts wailing as if someone had hacked off her arm.

Hoo, boy. Only three more hours to the beach.

OK. I'll tell you what I'd do in this case. I'd slam on the brakes and throw the car into one of those dizzying, 180-degree power turns you used to see on "Starsky and Hutch."

Then I'd gun the car back into the driveway, leap out and inform everyone with a snarl that the trip to the beach is off.

But that's just me. And people say I tend to overreact.

Some parents attempt to sedate their kids on long car trips with all manner of snacks: Cheez-its, animal crackers, fruit juices, etc. The thinking here is that as long as the kids are eating, they're not throwing bolo punches at each other or making faces at the dangerous-looking trucker on amphetamines directly behind you, or whining endlessly: "When are we gonna get there?"

Other parents keep the kids occupied by urging them to sing endless choruses of "Old MacDonald Had a Farm," mentioning every land mammal from aardvark to zebra. The problem here is that "Old MacDonald" is the single most annoying song in history (with the possible exception of "Bingo Was His Name-O").

After 10 minutes of quack-quacks and moo-moos and the like, Mom's entire body will begin trembling violently, while Dad will be fantasizing about stomping on the accelerator and slamming the car into the nearest bridge abutment.

Still other parents delight in inventing ridiculous car games for their kids, such as spotting interesting license plates -- as if a child would be riveted by the sight of a cheap piece of tin bearing random letters and numbers and the fascinating legend: New Jersey.

I remember complaining about being bored on one memorable car trip to Florida at the age of 8 and my mother saying: "Why don't you count the telephone poles?"

"Let me get this straight," I thought. "I'm in the back of a station wagon whizzing down the highway at 70 miles per hour. Trees, rocks, billboards are shooting by in a blur. The landscape looks like it's seen from the cockpit of an F-10 Tomcat on a strafing run. And she wants me to count the telephone poles?!

"What am I, a freaking Univac 2000?!"

Eventually, though, after a difficult journey that seems to rival the Lewis and Clark Expedition in duration, you will arrive at the ocean.

The sight will take your breath away. The sun will be shining brightly. The waves will be crashing majestically against the shoreline. The air will seem crisp and clean.

And of course, if you have any brains at all, you'll immediately get back in the car and go home. Because the ride, no matter how harrowing, will seem like a Club Med vacation compared to what is about to transpire over the next few days.

Most beach-goers quickly settle into a daily routine which looks something like this:

7 a.m. -- Rise and shine.

7:30 a.m. -- Begin packing for beach.

10 a.m. -- Finish packing for beach.

10:30 a.m. -- Arrive at beach; soak up dangerous, life-shortening ultraviolet rays.

2 p.m. -- Begin packing to go back to beach house.

5 p.m. -- Finish packing to go to beach house.

You talk about memories. My enduring memory of summer vacation at the beach is staggering twice a day across the hot sand, laden with folding chairs, beach umbrellas, plastic pails and shovels, coolers, radio, Castro convertible sofa, stand-up freezer and whatever else my wife wants me to carry.

One morning last year we were all ready to hit the beach when she asked if I had packed the camera.

"Listen, the last thing we need is a visual record of all this," I said. "As it is, we'll be having horrible nightmares for years."

When we're not packing and unpacking, the days take on a mind-numbing repetitiveness: acquiring fresh lacerations from daily pummelings by the surf, fending off horseflies the size of cocker spaniels and dining on sand-encrusted hot dogs and warm Kool-Aid.

As hard as it is to imagine, the evenings will be equally draining.

Around 7 p.m., most families like to swing by the nearest bank machine and withdraw a huge sum of money in preparation for hitting the boardwalk.

Oh, no question about it, after a long day in the sun, there's nothing more relaxing than making your way past an army of tattooed carny people shrieking: "Hey, you! Try to win a teddy bear! C'mon! Only a dollar for three throws . . . !"

Last summer, a wild-eyed booth attendant named Tex, who looked as if he wouldn't be terribly surprised if the police broke down his door at 3 in the morning to check for corpses buried under the front porch, persuaded me to play that game where you try to throw a huge basketball through a tiny hoop.

The grand prize was a giant stuffed panda. I bit like a rainbow trout that hadn't eaten for days.

In fact, I spent so much money trying to win the stupid panda that it would have been cheaper to go to a zoo, pull out a checkbook and say: "How much for Ling-Ling over there?"

After that unnerving experience, my kids persuaded me to go on a wonderful ride called Cobra, where you're strapped in a metal bucket that is whipped violently back and forth on the end of a steel bar.

You talk about fun. The idea is that centrifugal force propels your body forward while your head snaps back dangerously.

After a few hours of this sort of, um, entertainment, even the most adventurous family is generally ready to wind down.

Time to head back to the beach house to watch that rented video or the ballgame or . . . a ballgame! Boy, does that bring back memories!

I'll never forget my first ballgame. It was at Yankee Stadium. We watched Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra take batting practice, the bright sunshine streaming down as . . . no, check that. Seems to me it was Fenway Park in Boston.

Anyway, the game was terrific. The Red Sox won, I think. Or maybe the other team did. We got to eat all sorts of stuff, although exactly what escapes me now.

Afterward, we went to my aunt's house. Or maybe we went home.

Some things you never forget.

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