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Holiday reunion attracts regulars to Ocean City hotel

THE BALTIMORE SUN

OCEAN CITY -- They've been coming to the same downtown hotel for weekends, holidays and vacations since before they were married in 1957. And Labor Day 1995 is no exception for Pete and Betty Cloud, whose history at the Belmont-Hearne on Dorchester Street stretches back almost four decades.

The shaded front porch with the white rockers and the view of the Boardwalk still draws them down the three flights of stairs from Room 38, "their" room. No matter that they own a condo over at Harbor Island -- they rent that out to others. The Clouds stay at Kate Bunting's hundred-year-old hotel each and every time they drive from Kennett Square, Pa., to Maryland's beach.

"We're going to try to stay up there some year," Mrs. Cloud says of their condo, bought five years ago. "But I don't know how we'll handle it. There's too much going on here!"

The hotel looks -- and operates -- as if it were an oversized single-family house. As the Clouds, a couple in their 50s, sit on the porch this Saturday morning of Labor Day weekend, there is a steady stream of people, most of whom they know from previous visits.

Jasmine Johnson, the 2-year-old daughter of front-desk clerk Sabrina Wallace, wanders out at intervals to look over the group and chatter as children will, bottle firmly in her mouth. Now and then, her mother comes out to scoop her up for a diaper change. Mrs. Bunting's 6-year-old grandson, Trey, runs in and out. An arriving guest stops to greet the Clouds.

"Did I hear you have a little one?" Mrs. Cloud asks Tammi Barber, of Boyds, who has arrived with a child in tow. Yes, Mrs. Barber says, Peter is only 3 months old. But not too young to come to the Belmont-Hearne, just as his 35-year-old mother has since she was a child.

"We won't be able to make the pig roast this year," Ms. Barber says regretfully as she heads into the cool, dark lobby to check in.

The pig roast is a tradition at the Belmont-Hearne started by the Clouds 15 or so years ago -- no one is sure just when. Two weeks after Labor Day each year, the Clouds bring a whole hog -- 200 pounds, head, hoofs and all -- down from Pennsylvania. They also bring a cooker built by a friend of Mr. Cloud's from two 55-gallon oil drums.

The cooker is set up in the parking lot behind the Belmont on Friday night. The Clouds and friends who come with them for this event every year stuff it with a mixture of bread, apples and margarine. Four charcoal fires are built in the bottom of the cooker, and the pig goes on the spit about 10 p.m.

Mr. Cloud and anyone else with the stamina monitor it. "You have to stay up all night in case you have a grease fire," Mr. Cloud explains, adding that beer, hot dogs and hamburgers are available all night long.

At dawn, Mr. Cloud hands off the hog duty to someone else, and he goes to bed for four or five hours.

Then, around 6 on Saturday night, the hog is ready. Mrs. Bunting provides the rest of the meal -- potato salad, coleslaw, applesauce, iced tea and coffee, rolls and apple pie for dessert. The feast draws around 100 people, the Clouds say.

"We've had people come down the Boardwalk, smell that hog and come on down the alley!" Mr. Cloud says with obvious delight. "Can't beat the hospitality down here."

Dressing for dinner

The conversation turns to how to dress up the hog this year. Dress it up?

"Kate dressed it up the first year we had it," Mrs. Cloud explains.

Mrs. Bunting went out to the meat locker where the hog was kept the night before the roast and gave the hog a baseball hat, a deck of cards and a cigarette, then sent someone to wake up the Clouds at 3. a.m. because "something was wrong with the pig."

One tradition rooted and twined on another, and now the hog gets dressed up every year. Current events usually provide the inspiration, sometimes national -- Simpson trial Judge Lance Ito is one candidate this year -- and sometimes local.

When Mrs. Bunting's daughter Amy got married a few years ago, the hog got a bridal gown and veil to mark the occasion.

Pictures appear of that bridal hog, and Mrs. Cloud's eyes suddenly fill with tears.

"I can't look at these pictures -- we've lost too many of them, too many people gone," she says to her husband.

And indeed, several people who are in the photos are dead -- this one's wife, that one's husband. And Ralph, the Ocean City butcher who used to help prepare the hog for cooking, died a few years ago -- and the roast that year began with a memorial service for Ralph, a speech or two and a lot of fond toasts.

But there will be other friends, some new and some old, at the roast this year. Craig Schneider, visiting for the week from Pennsylvania will be there, he says, as he sits on the porch of the Belmont and looks at the pictures from other years.

Sunrise proposal

Mr. Schneider, a 31-year-old electrical engineer from Pennsylvania, is a relative newcomer -- he's been coming for only three or four years. But he quickly found a niche, too: he brought his fiancee down last year, and proposed to her on the beach at sunrise. It was the best-kept secret in the hotel that year -- Mrs. Bunting, her daughters, the desk clerk, other guests all knew and it was a long wait to Thursday for all of them.

Now Mr. Schneider comes to the Belmont each Labor Day to spend a week. This year, he's brought his fiancee and his sister, and they're sharing Apartment 4.

Kari Koester from Arlington, comes to the Belmont every year for Labor Day as well. Now 53 and a technical editor for the National Park Service, she's been coming to Ocean City since she was 2, when her mother brought her down. For the past 15 years or so, it's been the Belmont, although her mother is 95 and doesn't come with her any more.

"It's like family here," she says contentedly, drawing nods of agreement from the others on the porch. "We were invited to Amy's wedding."

Engagements, marriages, births, deaths -- lives intersect and intertwine in the Belmont-Hearne's 34 rooms and five apartments.

Traditions, like the people who observe them, die -- until two years ago, when Mrs. Bunting's health declined, meals were served in the dining room and guests got acquainted at breakfast and dinner tables.

That tradition is gone, but the Clouds' pig roast seems to serve the same function, uniting people whose only initial commonality is an affection for the Belmont-Hearne.

Ocean City has changed much in the three decades that Mrs. Bunting's hotel has been home to the Clouds and others.

But on this sunny Saturday, with a whisper of fall in the air, there is a sense that some things don't change, no matter how many condos are built along the sand. The ritual of vacation at the Belmont is alive and well for this generation and the next.

And the pig roast is only two weeks away.

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