You used to see at Rehoboth Beach these wonderful old-shoe houses, some in town, a few right on the dunes: weathered gray shingles with screened porches that went all the way around, where a kid could roller-skate on rainy days, and lots of windows upstairs, houses that were meant to be filled with children and terrible comfortable furniture and large wet dogs and sandy bathing suits on the porch railings, and indoors, on the bookshelves among the paperbacks, a row of antique thrillers with sun-faded covers. Where the hard-working mother discovered the only cleaning she needed to do was to sweep out the sand now and then, and where Friday evening was the high point of the week, as the hard-working father pulled into the drive bringing the odd forgotten item from home, some first-rate steaks from Magruder's and his own road-weary grinning tieless self.
There are such houses and such families even today at Rehoboth, Dewey, Indian and Bethany beaches, at Lewes and the other shore resorts. But they are hard to find. The simple fact is that the middle-class wives and mothers have jobs. You can't afford a beach house these days without a double income.
Besides, the big market is in condos. Bedroom, living room, kitchen -- all you need for a two-week vacation. And they're just right for singles.
Maybe it's not quite that simple. Maybe we are a different people these days. Look at downtown Rehoboth. They say a city distills lives, and until about 15 years ago the village was just the kind of place where you would expect to find those families and their large wet dogs strolling in the cool of the evening.
There was the drugstore with its crinching screen door where the fathers would bump into each other after church Sunday morning, picking up The Times. The not-quite-chic little dress shops where you found that rather nice bathing suit for your niece when she lost the strap of hers. The five-and-ten, still and forever a magnet for small children. And on the corner of the boardwalk, facing the sea, the classic saltwater taffy place with its name written large in Spencerian script. You could get ice cream there too, of course, and fudge. Something about fudge and resorts -- we want to believe that all fudge is homemade, and probably it was here, originally.
Downtown Rehoboth today is the most ludicrously unpleasant honky-tonk this side of Gatlinburg, Tenn. On weekends the sidewalks are packed with cross-looking bright-red people in bathing suits eating disgusting mixtures from little paper plates, dripping ice cream from their chins and noses. The traffic moves like sludge while pedestrians, neurotically overprotected from babyhood, meander insouciantly among the cars. The drivers are furious because the local police give out parking tickets day and night, Saturday and Sunday too, and if you don't pay within 48 hours they double the $5 fine. Rehoboth Beach is nationally famous for its parking tickets, if for nothing else.
During the day, planes zoom the beaches every few minutes, towing streamers that advertise pizza joints. At night, boats anchored just offshore carry large readerboard ads in blinking lights. Everything, the landscape, the sea, the very sky, has been violated.
This is the sight that awaits the driver who persists long enough in the solid-steel crocodiles of cars that creep into town all afternoon and evening on summer weekends. When you get done with that line, there is another in the restaurant, sometimes even if you have made reservations. Then there is the line to get out afterward.
People people people. They park in front of the residents' homes and walk in their flip-flops lugging plastic chairs and hampers to the beach, straggling armies of them, flowing steadily around the houses, down the streets that stub off at the dunes. And back in the evening.
But of course, that's just downtown. You don't have to go there. And though many of the wonderful old-shoe houses have been torn down to make way for condos, and the dear old Henlopen Hotel has gone to apartments, you can still find signs of the remembered Rehoboth. There are still fathers who park their families at the beach all summer and commute on weekends. It helps to be a bank president.
The William Blomquists have been coming to Indian Beach for 10 years, and before that they rented a place in Bethany for four summers. Blomquist, president of Perpetual Mortgage, drives out from his office in McLean or the house in Chevy Chase on Friday afternoons, returns early Monday.
"You have to leave before 8 a.m.," he said, "or you run into incredible crowds. Some friends of mine fly out, but I never do. You have to go to Ocean City, and it gets complicated."
His wife Diane and the three grown children, Brian, Kristin and Jay, customarily spend all summer at the beach, from Memorial Day to Labor Day. This year Brian, 23, is working on his master's thesis, and the others have summer jobs. The family tries to come back for the occasional weekend in the fall.
It's a charming house, white clapboard, hidden from the highway on a cul-de-sac and just a dune away from the sea. There are three bedrooms and a detached guest house with a loft that sleeps eight. The porch roof has been made into a deck for chaise longues. White curtains blow in the salt breeze. There is a Jacuzzi ("we had 11 kids in that thing one time"), a big stone fireplace in the airy living room, duckboards over the sand.
You don't catch the Blomquists driving into town in low gear on August Saturday nights. "June's our favorite month," said Diane Blomquist. "You can go to a restaurant without reservations. And there's parking. Just come off the beach and do what you feel like doing. In July and August you have to plan ahead. Most of us here own our own places. Some rent out for July but they're here the rest of the summer."
There is still the beach network. It is as old as the beach. You see these people day after day, so you know they aren't just weekenders, and your children play with theirs in the surf. It's the children who make the contacts. Then, drinks on the porch. A cookout. And before you know it the kids are running in and out of the house in their bathing suits and bare feet, staying over for supper, getting treated for jellyfish stings, rushing around underfoot until you almost can't tell whose are whose.
"We were all the same age," said William Blomquist, "and now our married kids are starting to come back here. There's maybe 30 of us we see all the time. Some we see back home too, some we don't."
The house is always full of guests. The only real rule is: Guests of guests may not bring guests. One family has been spending summers with them for years.
"Kids come down and they aren't sure where they're gonna stay," his wife said, "and they know the guest house is always open. One weekend when Brian wasn't here we found two boys we'd never even met. They said it was too hot in their place and they knew we wouldn't mind."
Diane Blomquist never gets bored, she said, "because I do the same things I do at home -- the groceries, the laundry, cleaning, cooking. The life here is very casual, but the numbers are large."
This is an elegant way of saying that she copes with crowds, throngs, hordes and multitudes of people day and night. Think about those 11 kids in the Jacuzzi: Surely they dropped their suits somewhere; surely they wanted something to eat; surely they left the bathroom a shambles.
Every Saturday night there are the cocktail parties, always very short. "But it's much less formal than it used to be. Even 10 years ago, when the original owners were here, it was a different world. They all brought their help, live-in servants. Family retainers. You could smell the biscuits baking and the chicken frying on Sunday mornings, and in the afternoon, you'd see them all out in the parking lot, off duty, you know, they'd meet out there and talk."
When it rains, the Blomquists do what everyone has always done at a beach house. "We read a lot," said Bill Blomquist. "We have a lot of games. Trivial Pursuit, backgammon." (An ongoing backgammon game is laid out on the dining room table this very moment.) "The movie houses run matinees on bad days, which is nice. The main thing is that at the beach with your kids they really are here, they're not off somewhere."
During his summer weekdays in town he eats out a good deal. The loneliness was worse when the children were little. "He calls me quite a bit," his wife said. "Wants to know where the scissors are, what drawer, things like that." He also makes rather ambitious video movies, and this keeps him busy, along with his golf.
People who own vacation houses will never admit they feel chained to them. The Blomquists, who take winter vacations and business trips to Hawaii and Rio and the Virgin Islands, note rather wistfully that they've never gone to New England in the summer. ("We couldn't rent this house out. We'd have to take everything out of the medicine cabinet. Our towels are here, all our supplies.") But what they've got is not so bad. In fact they are about to build a new place next door, on the dunes.
Construction work: It's the badge of the beach towns. There is money to be made, and these days a lot of people say they can't afford not to think about that. For some, vacations are a luxury left behind in childhood.
"Normally we rent out by the week," said Ann Marie Guthrie, who, with her husband Graham, owns four houses at Dewey Beach. "This year we rented the big one for the summer, the five-bedroom place, to a group of yuppies in their thirties. It hasn't been so great. They stay Sunday to Friday and then sublet it to singles for the weekend. They've had as many as 15 people in there."
The couple bought four houses as a unit, fixed up three as rentals, working all winter. They added a second floor to the fourth and spent their summers in it. Later they sold those and bought four others, bigger ones, across the street. Running these has become for Ann Marie Guthrie almost a full-time job.
"We do it all, we rent 'em completely furnished," she said, "and it's an inordinate amount of work, a lot of juggling. We save the 15 percent agent fee that way, but I have to spend the whole summer out here, from June until our daughter Andrian begins school in September. After school starts I commute weekends. We start off with the ads in the paper in February and close at the end of October."
Guthrie is so busy with her rentals that she has to make appointments to meet her friends on the beach.
Her husband, a former Dewey Beach town commissioner, commutes all summer. As a way of life it has gotten out of hand, and the Guthries have put their beach properties on the market. They have a place in Boca Raton, Fla., and they hope to move there in a year, continuing to summer at Dewey Beach.
So the American vacation changes, and the landscape changes along with it. Houses continue to be built on the dunes from Ocean City to Lewes. Many are on stilts, because the sea chews insatiably at this sand shore that was never meant for building. They are big showy houses for big incomes, with mock-Victorian octagonal windows and turrets and gables. Nary a one has a porch that goes all the way around.