Growing up in Ocean City, I never thought of Bethany or Dewey or Rehoboth or Fenwick. They were just the Delawares.
So after reading Rob Hiaasen's "Bethany, my Bethany" (The Sunday Capital, June 28), I had to think carefully. In the years since childhood, I've danced in Dewey, eaten pizza in Rehoboth and written about those towers that line the coast to Fort Myers.
I know Bethany people, and I get their disdain for my ribbon of neon, concrete and traffic. Was Rob right? Could one of the Delawares really be the best beach town?
Ocean City is more than a place and that's its triumph. Sure, we screwed up 10 miles of white sand starting in the '60s and '70s. But that maniacal overbuilding created a puzzle box filled with memories.
Yes, I love vinegar on my fries, juicy pit beef and coin-fed amusements — a master of the arcades at 16, I parlayed this dominance to more free drinks than was good for me in grad school.
But there are morning bike rides too, coasting the boardwalk to the inlet and back in delightful indolence. Sunsets color the sky over Assowoman Bay in hues once visible only to a 14-year-old lying on the bottom of his boat and putting off the haul to shore for just five more minutes.
My Ocean City started at 28th Street, where granddad ran Hutzell's Beach Cottages from the end of World War II until he sold out in 1968. He was not a nice man, and family legend claims he paid for it by selling gas ration coupons during the war.
We loved the place despite his constant shouting about slamming the doors on his '62 Chrysler Newport. Perched at what felt like the edge of town, those cottages were lined with fragrant knotty pine and breathed humid ocean breezes through open windows. Meals were served on screened porches, dad reading a newspaper in the morning and drinking scotch at night.
Summers came one at a time. They all run together now — rolling in the surf until saltwater streamed from our noses or running the dunes on the Fourth, pausing only to light another in a chain that seemed a million sparklers long.
We moved down full time after the hotel closed, and my teenage Ocean City was one of endless rambles on deserted December beaches. Oh, the things I learned in living in a beach town.
You can ride a bicycle down Coastal Highway in November with your 9-year-old sister perched on the handlebars, but only if she's wearing a Girl Scout uniform and the traffic signals are set to blink yellow in unison.
Falling into the ocean from a stone jetty in February is not as cold as the walk home. Spit launched from the 20th story of an empty high-rise condo will disappear long before it reaches the ground.
I could describe how a can of Budweiser tastes poured into a glass so small you can fill it twice, but first you must drive a city bus crammed with people smelling of vacation. I can still plant a beach umbrella so it will never, ever blow away.
My spots for crabcakes with sliced tomatoes are gone. But the soft ice cream joint is still there — the Irish lilt of waitresses summering on student visas replaced by hints of Romania.
To be truthful, it's been years since I've spent much time in Ocean City. I know it's changed. So have I.
Fager's is still there, but the Paddock is long gone. Miniature golf still rules, but the line to see "Jaws" has vanished.
Which is the best beach town? It's the one you remember most.
Rick Hutzell is the editor of Capital Gazette Communications. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @hutzellrick.