The Shell Lady wells up thinking about it. Summer is coming to an end, and so is life at the Ocean City Campground, where many of the same families have camped the same way for decades.
At Lot 17 on Thursday afternoon, 80-year-old Anna McCabe sips an oversize glass of iced tea under the awning of her patio at her 32-foot 1979 Terry trailer. The Baltimore grandmother is paging through a dozen photo albums with her two daughters, Kathy McCabe and Peggy McCabe White. The photos go back through their summers spent here, back to 1984, when she and her husband, Larry, started coming to the campground.
In some of the photos, folks are posing by Anna's fence, which became a repository over the years for hundreds of seashells draped in fish netting. It was a sight, those conch shells, oyster shells, all sorts. Everyone knew they could swing by the Shell Lady's patio to hang out. If you were lucky, there'd be tomato sandwiches and wedges of cantaloupe.
Anna and her daughters have already taken down half the shells. They haven't gotten to the carved sign above the shed that says "Live, Laugh, Love" or the little wooden frogs amid the hostas and marigolds with signs that say "Bye Bye."
Closing the campground, that's been the saddest thing for Anna since Larry died here of a heart attack in '86, the summer after he retired. They're trying to sell the old trailer for $5,000, which included the 2005 season's rent (around $4,000), but that's moot now. If they can't sell it, they'll have to pay a company to hack it apart and haul it away.
Conversations turn into a list of sadness. "How about Mr. Ray? He lives here all winter and he still rides his bike everywhere," says Kathy. "The Butlers have been here for 35 years. And old man Charlie Parker, who feeds the ducks?"
"And Uncle Joe, he's not taking it well at all," says Peggy, 54, who drives up from Atlanta to come to the campground. "He's really sad."
"He's not taking it well," echoes Kathy.
"No, he's not taking it well," repeats Anna. The message lingers.
John Waters could have made a movie here, a kind of Frankie-and-Annette eviction-slash-love story. Located at Coastal Highway and 70th Street, the campground is hidden from the six-lane highway by the Dough Roller pizza and pancake house in front. Across 70th Street is the Bonfire Seafood and Prime Rib all-you-can-eat buffet, with a sign boasting that it is "over 100 feet" long.
On the bay side, behind the campground, new three- and four-story condos, going for $600,000 to $1 million, rise on what once was an overgrown wildlife island. The condos are the object of scorn among longtime campgrounders, for all the usual reasons.
If you like to camp by the beach and you drive an RV, this is one of the last remaining slices of paradise. There are the state-operated campgrounds on Assateague Island, about 10 miles to the south, and at the Indian River Inlet just as far north of Bethany Beach, Del. But those tend to cater to overnighters and tenters who stay a weekend or week. Most of the Ocean City Campground regulars here returned every year and stayed the entire summer, a community spanning decades.
The rumble of surf, colorful umbrellas and squealing children at the beach is only a couple of hundred yards across Coastal Highway, close enough that you can smell the salt in the air.
Wilma Thomas, 64, has run the campground for 18 years, booking reservations, handling problems, selling toothbrushes, soap, sunscreen and common RV repair parts -- things campers forget, then need right away. She lives in the house connected to the office with her black Shih Tzu-Lhasa apso named Blessing.
Thursdays are busy days. Fridays and Saturdays, it's like a parade of overnighters. But the "seasonals" -- the 117 or so longtime residents like Anna McCabe -- they're the ones who worry Thomas. "We've got a lot of people who are very unhappy about it," she says.
The owners sold the property back in April, and Thomas says she knew about it a couple days before the seasonals found out. They each got a certified letter, sort of like an eviction notice. They were told they had to be gone by the end of October. The campground will close once and for all by Nov. 20.
Mid-Atlantic Shore Properties, the Baltimore company that owned the campground, hasn't disclosed its selling price for the 2 1/2-acre bay-side property. Richard Berman, whose family owns the company, did not return telephone calls.
Down the narrow 5 mph asphalt roadway winding through the Ocean City's 200 campsites, trailers of brands like Sandpiper and Wilderness are parked on neatly landscaped spaces marked by lot numbers. Pride of ownership is evident. There are carved family-name plaques, beachy gewgaws like ceramic sea gulls or wooden lighthouses decorating every spare space.
Sylvia and Jimmy Yeager are out on their patio, passing time. They've been staying the summers here for 31 years, and their two daughters have their own trailers at the campground.
"I'm going to sell it or donate it to Goodwill," says Jimmy, 67, of his 27-foot trailer. He's wearing an Ocean City Captain cap and suspenders holding up his shorts. The trailer's too old to move to the Treasure Beach campground on the Delaware mainland, where the Yeagers and about 20 other regulars say they are headed. Most campgrounds won't accept older RVs. (Too shabby, is the implication.)
"Ocean City used to be for the families and the children," Jimmy adds, recalling Fourths of July when everyone moved picnic tables into the middle of the campground streets and held a huge celebration together. "Now it's for the condos and the rich people. It's all greed and money. I guess that's the way of the world."
The end-of-the-season picnic has been canceled because of "lack of response," according to a note on the office bulletin board. Lot 137 -- a bay-side 40-foot spot, where sundowns across Assawoman Bay had once been postcard-quality, before the condos came -- and Lot 18, next to Anna McCabe's place, are empty spaces now. Weeds overgrow the edges of gravelly rectangles that mark where the campers stood, like chalk outlines at a crime scene. Skeletal pipes for electricity and sewer hookups are bones protruding from a grave site.
Chris Beebe, the sandal-wearing maintenance man, drives a golf cart through the grounds, doing chores. "Some of them," he gestures toward the trailers, talking about the people who live here, "this might even break their hearts and they'll never make it out of here."
By afternoon, seven newly arrived, high-spirited weekenders are tipping back drinks and getting rowdy at the picnic table outside their motor home. They're partying like there's no tomorrow. Little do they know.
Mitch Redcay, 23, from Lancaster, Pa., puts the final touches on his tent setup while his girlfriend heads to the cinder block bathhouse to slip on her swimsuit.
"This is great. Cheap and close to the beach," says the shirtless Redcay, a recent grad from the University of Pittsburgh and a first-time camper here. His brow wrinkles when told that this is likely his last time.
"Is there any other campground in Ocean City?" he asks.
"No," Kathy McCabe tells him. "Assateague is the closest, some on the mainland."
"It's a shame," he says.
Nobody's been around long enough to remember when the campground started -- sometime back in the early '40s, when Ocean City proper didn't expand past 15th Street and this was the boonies.
Some of the old-timers have been here long enough to remember when sea gulls and sand fleas were the main occupants past 45th Street.
"Ocean City's in my heart," says Joe Hauf, who has been camping here the longest, since 1948. He used to be the camp maintenance man, after he retired from working as a lineman for the Baltimore gas company. He isn't related to anyone here, but everyone calls him Uncle Joe. A small but strong elderly man with long gray hair combed straight back, he sits on the cluttered screened porch of his 32-foot trailer with his blind 17-year-old Shih Tzu, Queeney TuTu, the radio tuned to easy-listening. "But, you know, there ain't nothing to do," he says. He wanted to protest to a higher power, but "these people here said, 'Joey, you're fighting a lost cause. You can't beat money.' "
Hauf still hurts from the news. "When I go to bed at night, I'm thinkin', where do I go?" he says, shooing Queeney TuTu back into the screened porch as he steps outside. He shakes his head stoically, looks around the campground like it's the last time ever, and smiles. "Aww, it'll be all right," he says. "Good and bad, it all comes out in the wash."