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Editor’s note: The best things in life, and at the beach, are free

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I enjoyed a too-short weekend with my extended family recently at Ocean City, Md. There were 21 of us, old and young, all sharing a motel right on the boardwalk.

A group that large might seem unwieldy most places, but in OC we barely drew a second glance. Phillips doesn’t take reservations? No matter, in we walked. Miniature golf? Grab a club.

As big a bunch as we were, we were just part of the crowd, swallowed up in a sea of people in various states of undress.

Rarely has a year passed that I have not hit the Delmarva shore, and I have never stopped marveling at how something as simple as a sandy beach has morphed into an ever-growing commercial colossus.

The seashore economy obeys its own rules. Weirdly, it makes perfect sense to me that on the boardwalk an establishment as ubiquitious as Starbucks is absent, yet there is no scarcity of pizza, henna tattoos, and T-shirts offering “Free Hugs.”

My introduction to the seaside’s peculiar attraction came early when my parents would give me a bagful of spare change and set me loose.

Oh, how I would wander up and down the boardwalk trying to decide how to spend my small fortune. No matter how much I had it was never enough. And yet, I learned I could make my quarters go surprising far if I slowed down and thought before I bought.

A little industriousness never hurt either. My brother and I would spend a fair amount of time under the boardwalk, near the arcades, hunting fallen coins. We’d check the coin return slots of Coke machines, pay phones and pinball machines, and bargain madly with the carnies to play just one more game or ride one more ride.

Later, I discovered the wonders of the all-you-can-eat buffet, and Ed’s in Dewey Beach, where half a barbecued chicken, pickles and a roll could be had for $3.25 (it is $6.75 now).

Over time, though, I came to understand that the real entertainment, whether it is riding the waves, watching the world pass by or sitting under the sun with a good book, is free.

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