The revelation stuck me one evening last week at an amusement park.
Here was my seven-year-old niece Elizabeth, twirling around on a spinning contraption called the Tubs o' Fun. She was laughing and waving to her parents, uncles and aunts at an arcade in Rehoboth Beach, Del.
That child on the ride could have been me. In fact, I think my sister and I were among that tubs' first paying customers in its inaugural season back when Dwight D. Eisenhower was in the White House.
And as I glanced around Funland, full of its mostly unchanged, comforting sights, I realized this is the recipe for a successful family vacation.
Why is it that a Baltimorean's definition of summer vacation has to be rooted in repetition. The routine does not alter. We must have the same destination, the same accommodations, the same surroundings as we have enjoyed year after year, June, July and August after successive June, July and August.
I saved my dimes to ride the Tubs o' Fun when I was seven year old. My niece did the same this past week. It was the Kelly family's 43rd annual vacation at Rehoboth.
Perhaps it is because life has changed so much that we savor seven days, or a weekend, at the ocean where the boardwalk looks like a perpetual 1959. The sand is the same. The ocean waves are the same.
This trip is not like one to Disney World or Busch Gardens or Hershey Park. It is a comforting tonic for all the upheaval in life, a time out for some warm-weather reassurance.
We know the Grotto pizzas will taste exactly as they did in the past. Each year I return, The crust is identical, and so is the sauce and the cheese. Identical. Unchanged.
It is here that I can find a vanilla Coke for 65 cents. I can also get a lemon Coke or a chocolate Coke, flavored with Hunter's syrups. I can buy a box of Turkish paste, a candy that had lapsed out of fashion in the 1950s.
By 11 each morning, there will be a fresh batch of corn popped and bathed in caramel at Dolle's Candyland. A half hour later, the stainless steel arms of the salt water taffy pull machine will be tugging at the day's new wad.
It may be murder on fillings, but that's what dentists are for.
I know the scrapple will be grilled with a perfect light crust. I can go into the Corner Cupboard Inn and order kidney stew for breakfast. The dining room and its setting will be just as it was.
The lady at the cash register of Lingo's grocery store has been there since the days when breakfast cereal meant corn flakes, shredded wheat or oatmeal, and not much else. The wooden floor where she stands is the same. Back in Baltimore, we would demand state-of-the-art, check-out hardware. On vacation, it must be a perpetual summer of 19-something or other.
And I've never seen it to fail. Even the last hymn at the local church, St. Edmund's, never changes. It is invariably "God Bless America," with the organist playing it in a lilting waltz tempo. I guess I've been there on too many Memorial Days, Fourths of July and Labor Days.
Even the real estate agents practice a kind of courtesy. They know to reserve the same preferred room, house or apartment for returning guests each year. Many people dig deep into pockets and mail in their annual deposits for summer rentals while still strapped for cash in the post-Christmas period. Same location and same week are part of the ritual.
So are the at-home meals. My father slipped out to his favorite seafood dealer for soft crabs one day. A family friend showed up with a dozen live hard crabs just caught that morning. Of course, the bottom fell out of the box he was carrying them in. Hard crabs running around the kitchen floor is as much a part of a vacation as the nights spent on the Tubs o'Fun.
There is no explaining all this to the uninitiated. To outsiders, Ocean City, Fenwick Island, Bethany Beach and Rehoboth Beach are pure states of mind. Nothing great, just a resort.
But if you've grown up with it, try doing without it. Try giving up the ocean-side pizza one summer. Try not wasting $5 on some stupid arcade game. Try not watching the children on the paratrooper ride. Try not inhaling that peculiar smell that surrounds the Dodgem bumper cars. I'm not happy, really happy, unless I've had sand in my shoes and bed linen for a week or two this time of year.