Arriving late is the cool thing to do at the beach

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Ocean City -- I've gone to the beach to try to beat the heat.

I had to go somewhere. Maine seemed like a long drive. Switzerland was a little pricey.

In Baltimore, it's 95 degrees for like the 17th consecutive day. It's so hot that Cal Ripken refused to play anymore unless they let him wear cutoffs and a tank top.

So I packed up the car, laid down 200 bucks a night for a room with plastic cups in the bathroom and an ocean view.

The view is great. In fact, as I look out my window, I can see sea gulls dropping from the sky from heat prostration.

It's about 90 here. And the anticipated cool ocean breeze feels like something off the Sahara. I don't know whether to buy a bathing suit or a camel.

Here's my trip to the ocean so far: I'm huddled up against the air conditioner, sucking down that Freon like it's nectar.

Yes, I'm afraid to leave my room.

Don't get me wrong. I love the beach. The ocean speaks to me.

I love the beach, hate the sun.

Hate the heat.

Give me California beaches where it's 75 degrees and they've got cliffs and you don't feel out of place if you bring your own cell phone.

Better than that are the English beaches. Take Brighton. It's 60 there, on a good day. The only ones in the water are fishermen, or fish. You don't take a suit; you take rain gear.

For most people, though, the beach is a different experience. They go for the sun. You know these people. You may be one. Belong to sun-worshiping cults. Own George Hamilton decoder rings. They missed the news about skin cancer -- they were probably out sunbathing.

I did venture out briefly to examine this phenomenon. There were a couple of things I noticed.

It's crowded on the beach. Maybe "sea of people" is the wrong metaphor for an ocean beach, but you know what I mean. In some countries, lying that close to strangers in a state of relative undress can get you shot.

The beach brings the expected crowd. There are many, mostly young, women, lying on towels, tape players blasting in their ears, paperback books bleeding into the sand. They're the ones with the spritzers, spraying lotion on themselves, almost in time with the waves. They don't use the big umbrellas. It's just them and the sun and maybe the local burn unit.

The young guys, the hard bodies, are more likely to be strolling the beach, looking for young women. These guys are hard on middle-aged men, some of whom make clear the need for that thin pill.

I keep the T-shirt on and hope that works. But if your body is no longer hard, it's still probably basically tattoo-free. Which has to make you feel good.

The beach is the best place to examine the tattoo craze. It seems like everyone under 25 has one. At the beach you can't hide that turtle on your chest or the butterfly on your thigh. No more "Mom" with a heart and an arrow. These are people who never had a Harley.

They've got tans, though.

I don't want a tan. I want cool.

By the time I got back to the room, I was shvitzing like Albert Brooks in "Broadcast News."

There are only two times to go to the beach in this weather -- before 10 or after 4. The thing is, anyone who leaves his room before 10 while on vacation either has small children (who beg you to take them to the beach and then, almost immediately, beg you to leave) or is nuts.

By nuts, I mean people who like to hike or meet the sunrise or eat salads even while on vacation.

I'm not nuts. I head down around 4, maybe 5. I take a book and something cool to drink. The beach is emptying out by then. Children need to change. Parents need a break. Teen-agers need to plan their night on the boardwalk. Young adults need to visit happy hour. Later, they'll all meet at the all-you-can-eat buffets.

The wind's still blowing about 40, but it's getting cooler. The remaining small children have to be tethered.

I go into the water, like Bruce Dern in "Coming Home." I ride waves. I float. I stay, like when I was a kid, until I turn literally blue, till my teeth are chattering so hard that fillings are flying everywhere, till hypothermia has just about set in.

Then I sun-bathe, in a fashion. I sit under an umbrella, wrapped in towels and wraparound shades, sipping something cool, and reading a soothing book, maybe something about nuclear winter.

What heat wave?

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