“Robert Francis Walsh, you get out of that water right now or so help me God …” My mom never needed to finish those kinds of sentences, and she certainly never needed God’s help to carry out a punishment. However, it was always a chore to get her youngest boy out of the water at Jennings Beach in Connecticut while the sun was still up.
Growing up in a family with seven kids, the beach offered the space and privacy that a house crammed with nine people could not. In large families, you realize quickly that privacy is a relative thing, especially when the only room with a lock on it is the bathroom (and even that can be easily opened with a nail file). Rather than equating privacy to being alone, you begin to associate it with blending in and going unnoticed. It was easy to lose yourself in the throngs at the beach amid the laughing and screaming of hundreds of other kids.
The best part about the beach was the water, however. Long Island Sound has never been known for its cleanliness, suffering from years of sewage plant overflows and high tide lines littered with medical waste. Because the media made more of these mishaps than was justified, there were usually far fewer swimmers in the water than you would expect. Swimming 20 yards out was truly a solitary experience, since most beach-goers only took quick dips and then raced up to the shack to shower off.
Floating contentedly in the frigid, salty water by the buoys while the lifeguards tried to whistle me in, it was only place in the world where I felt truly alone. It was easy (and fun) to ignore the frantic lifeguards from the shore when you were feeling a calm that you could never experience at home.
I had learned many of the tricks of maximizing my beach time from my older brothers and sisters, and had become a master of extending each trip to Jennings to the fullest. The trick was to understand the theory of escalation.
Because of the size of our family, even a trip to the local beach involved so much planning that we might as well have been invading the beaches of Normandy. It was always easy to get ready, because every kid will pitch in when they want to get where they’re going. Getting ready to leave was a different matter altogether.
She spent hours gathering up her kids, collecting trash, throwing out trash, packing up the cooler, finding and packing up the balls and floats, drying out her kids, shaking out the towels, shaking out our shoes, and trudging back to the car — where the final shaking, drying, and packing into the car would begin.
Because there were seven of us, however, it was easy to stay out of sight until the last moment. Inevitably, my mom would notice me missing, and the eternal game between parent and child at the beach would commence. Any child who struggles to stay in the water “just a little bit longer” ends up attempting it in four stages.
Stage One involves temporary deafness: don’t face the shore and splash around a lot, as this will lend credence to your story when you later claim that you didn’t hear her screaming like a banshee at you from 15 yards away. If she is in a good mood she might not feel like yelling, in which case she’ll head back up to the rest of the family and continue packing while sending someone else out to get you. If not, you’ll be at Stage Two.
At Stage Two, you turn and feign surprise but acknowledge that you understand her and that you’re coming in. This must be done swiftly, as she will stay and wait for you if she gets too upset. As soon as she turns her back, you just slowly bounce and float your way toward shore. This is often good for at least another 10 minutes, although my brother Chris once managed a 23-minute return from the buoy.
Moving to the side instead of toward shore will ensure that you are at least in a different spot each time your mom sees you — the illusion of progress is often enough to appease the over-burdened mother. If not, you must act quickly!
Stage Three is the moment of truth: if played improperly, you will have a very long car ride home. If your mom realizes that you are simply 10 yards down the shoreline instead of shaking the sand from your suit, you have to play your trump card.
“I lost my ear plug!” you yell, looking worriedly at the water around you. It’s not what you lose: it could be a ring, a Frisbee, a Spiderman action figure — just make sure you don’t go out there empty-handed. This is pretty much the last stalling tactic in your arsenal, so you really have to sell the acting job.
Stage Four is a mistake that I’ve never been foolish enough to commit myself although I have seen many other kids attempt it — unsuccessfully. Stage Four is when the kid simply says, “No.” Your choices are very limited here unless your parents are naïve enough to bribe you back to shore, in which case you probably don’t even have to bother with the first four stages at all! If not, you either start swimming toward Long Island in the hope of starting a new life, or you swim back to the beach to await your sentence. Regardless, if you were in my family, then life would never be the same …
I’ve got my own family now, and my wife and I still go back to Jennings Beach. I still feel a sense of privacy and serenity in those waters that I can’t feel anywhere else, even when I’m alone in my house. I remember why kids love to stay out there as long as they possibly can; there is a power in floating in the water and staring up at the sky, a perspective that one belongs.
Even with only two people, it still takes too long for my wife and me to pack up to leave the beach. My hearing has gotten worse as I’ve gotten older, but even I can hear the pleas from my wife as she stands on shore and tries to get me to swim in. “Robert Francis Walsh, you get out of that water right now or so help me God …”