We should have listened to Ralph. Ralph is a friend and lawyer who twenty years ago invited me over to Ocean City to look at a townhouse he had built. It had four bedrooms and all the amenities and a price of $15,000, with 10 percent down and a 30- year mortgage at 6 percent.

"Jeez, Ralph," I said, "this is a beautiful place, but that's a lot of money. We just bought a house; it cost over twenty-five thousand, and the payments are nearly two hundred a month. We can't afford to get into something like this. And anyway, this is way to hell and gone out at 54th Street."

"You can't afford not to. If the down payment's the problem, I'll put it up for you, no interest, pay me back when you can. I tell you, this place will pay for itself in rentals, and in 10 years you could sell it for twice the amount. Man, in a few years they're going to be building big apartment houses out here."

We should have listened to Ralph. Ten years later we stopped vacationing at his place because the rent had risen past $500 a week, and anyway it was surrounded by giant condominiums. The selling price then was $150,000. And Ralph was a millionaire.

Last year we listened to Don.

Don is a longtime friend and lawyer who said the way to keep from being taxed to death would be for about a score of us to pool our money and make down-payments on three beachfront houses in Virginia.

The houses went for a quarter of a million each, which was nervous-making because spring tides lap around the bulkheads and storm tides lash them. The question about all oceanfront structures, hydrologists and climatologists agree, is not whether a storm is going to come along and wash them away, but when a storm is going to come along and wash them away.

But the federal government in its wisdom insures resort property against such reasonable and predictable acts of God, and no end of people appear to be willing to pay more than a thousand dollars a week to stay in our houses. Even at that rate we expect a "negative cash flow" for a number of years, but it's money that otherwise would go to Uncle Sam, and we were getting tired of being just about the only taxpayers on our block. So we bought in, becoming something less than five-percent shareholders.

We figured we'd come up with the quarterly assessments for operating costs, spend a weekend or two in one of the houses during the off season, and, come April 15, write it off instead of sending it off.

Well, the first thing God did was, He plucked up a piling from somewhere in His great ocean and sent it along to visit the bulkhead in front of one of our houses. It turned out that the insurance didn't cover it -- there are limits to government idiocy -- and bulkhead replacement goes for about a thousand dollars an inch.

That took care of our operating capital, which was supposed to pay for people to maintain the houses. Last week, facing the season-opening Memorial Day weekend, we fat cats found ourselves scrambling to take care of winter's wear and tear, which on coastal property amounts to rack and ruin.

Mainly we needed to replace the steps and walkways that make it possible for people to get over the dunes and bulkheads to the beach. Don is the managing partner of our little band, and Don won't saw a board or drive a nail without first consulting his calculator. It is a large calculator, full of sines and cosines and tangents and vectors and moments of force and whatever.

Ron and I would lay out the boards the way we thought they should go, and Don would run inside and ask the calculator if it was okay. Disputes were settled in favor of the boards, which were doggedly irregular and imprecise, but only after lots of discussion. We delighted in those discussions, because while we were discussing we didn't have to be hammering and sawing.

When working on your beach rental property, according to the Internal Revenue Service, you have to slave away for eight hours a day or what you're really doing is having fun, which is a no-no. We ran about four hours a day past having fun.

The last nail was driven near sundown Sunday. Dripping sand and sweat, I staggered across the beach and hurled myself into the icy ocean, whereupon my back seized up tighter than a clam.

Stretched across the seat on the way home, I alternately moaned and mumbled, "We should have listened to Ralph."