-- Goofy golf, stormy weather, seashell shops and long stretches of tranquil shore -- from the ridiculous to the sublime, it's all part of life at the beach --

Though I can't hear her, I know that the mother is telling her child, Don't build your castle too close to the water. The kid in Day-Glo swim trunks pays her no mind. He lets wet sand stream through the fingers of a half-closed fist and from the ground rises a lovely drip castle. The tide also rises as the boy builds away.

From the balcony of Room 411 at the Atlantic Sands Hotel in Rehoboth Beach, Del., I watch this and other mid-morning activities: surfers riding semi-radical waves to the shore; a bronzed couple playing paddle ball; and family after family strolling on the beach, taking in the June sea breeze, northeasterly and cool.

Come midsummer, a day like this will bring more than 100,000 beachgoers to Rehoboth, a town of only 1,700 year-round residents. Just 23 miles down Highway 1 and across the state line is Ocean City, Md. -- a community of 5,000 -- where more than 300,000 people can show up on a sunny weekend, transforming it into Maryland's second largest community, and undoubtedly its densest.

But just after dawn this morning, there were only a few of us combing the beach and staring out at the waves and beyond. As I walked along the sand, still spongy from high tide, I was reminded of the uncrowded beaches of my childhood, and I thought of what the beach has meant to my family then and now.

For my parents, first light was the best time to be near the ocean, and near each other. They would walk slowly, drinking coffee, holding hands. I doubt that they spoke about much; my father was not a talker. But he loved the beach and he loved my mother, and nearly every summer we would load up the station wagon and drive Great-Santini-style from Memphis to some, what was for me, exotic and distant shore -- Biloxi, Destin, Panama City or St. Petersburg on the Gulf; St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra or Boca Raton on the Atlantic.

Curious what I remember: stirring a Boca Raton root beer with a glittering gold swizzle stick; "sitting out" at a St. Augustine motel pool for sassing my father; playing cards with a grandmother in a Gulf Shores beach cottage; trembling as I bought my first Playboy in a Jacksonville Beach convenience store; kissing my first real girlfriend by the light of a Pensacola bonfire. Without a doubt, summer was my growing season, and beaches accelerated the process.

Until recently, I never understood why, if my father loved the beach so much, he didn't spend his life there. Hightailing it to the sea for a week every summer seemed to me quietly desperate and sad, and I vowed that when I got the chance, I was going to live on the beach.

And so we did. Early in our marriage, my wife, who is a painter, and I bought a dilapidated beach house on Tybee Island, a much-developed barrier island near Savannah, Ga., and for three years we lived there. Life by the sea was, as I had hoped, magic. We worked hard. She painted; I wrote books. We fixed up the house and we fell deeper in love.

Often we would invite friends from Savannah to make the marsh-lined drive out to the island for a late supper of shrimp or broiled flounder, salad and cheap chablis. After the meal we would walk around the southern tip of the island, where occasionally we could hear the whistle of a ship as it plied its way up the Savannah River to the city's port.

After our friends left, my wife and I would take one last walk along the sand, watching the world's ships come and go. We talked often of "living on the edge" -- not the metaphorical edge of oblivion, but the literal edge of the universe, with nothing but the sea and stars beyond.

It wasn't all starlight and serenity, of course. Like Rehoboth and Ocean City and most of the beaches I have really loved, Tybee Island had a funky, even tacky man-made element -- a lowbrow amusement park, a weather-battered parking lot right on the beach and several smoky bars not suitable for family dining. And it seemed that at any time of any day of any season, the weather could turn fiercely uncongenial. But we delighted in the turbulent winds and rains and high tides and even the hurricanes. At the beach, a friend once said, weather happens to you.

Other things also happen to you, as we found when career adventures pulled us inland. Perhaps we somehow sensed that we could not live at the beach forever. We moved to Arkansas, where the nearest beach is too far for weekend travel, and then to Bethesda, which for all its shortcomings has this going for it: The beach is only a few hours away.

So I make the pilgrimage, every chance I get. And when I go, I search out not the families who are vacationing from Annandale or Silver Spring, but those who have chosen to live by the sea year round. Hoping that perhaps by spending time with true beach dwellers, something in me will be rekindled.

"AT THE TURN OF THE CENTURY," MARY LOUISE Brueckmann is saying, "my father's mother came over to Ocean City in a boat with a cow. She rented a house, then started renting out rooms, and that became the Mt. Pleasant Hotel. Women were really the pioneers of the city. Most of their husbands were commercial fisherman and they were gone all the time, so the women were left at home to run things."

Brueckmann, 60, who is an assistant librarian at the Ocean City Public Library, was born in Berlin, just seven miles inland, but has lived on the beach since 1948. As we talk, she is sitting at the library's information desk. The light of the room is that of the sea -- bleached and clear. She is wearing a pastel-plaid blouse, large blue-circle earrings and a blue-shell necklace. There is something graceful, yet nonchalant, about the way beach people dress.

"There used to be fishing camps on the land between Ocean City and Assateague," she says, "but the storm of 1923 separated the two pieces of land and gave sport boats an entrance to the ocean. That was the beginning of sport fishing here, and really it was the beginning of Ocean City as we know it."

Ocean City as we know it: There's something less than inviting about the phrase. Stay away from Ocean City, I was warned when I told a friend I was going to the beach. Rehoboth is growing, but still quaint; Ocean City is overdeveloped. Being a lover of the beach, I can't understand why every inch of shoreline is not inhabited. But I'm thankful that it's not. Yet.

I'm not here, however, to argue the merits, or malevolence, of growth, and Mary Louise Brueckmann doesn't seem that concerned about it either.

"This," she says, "is an absolutely fabulous community." She says she loves living in Ocean City all year long and that the off-season definitely has a different feel to it -- though the off-season is getting shorter and shorter each year, and the tourist season longer and longer. "When I was growing up," she says, "the tourist season opened on Memorial Day, and when the last person left on Labor Day, you could shoot a cannon through the town and not hit a soul."

The recent influx of permanent residents has changed things some, of course. "When I was young, Ocean City stopped at 14th Street. When we took trips with our boyfriends up to 45th Street to the Brass Rail" -- a roadside tavern, long since demolished, where they served beer, steamed shrimp and oyster crackers -- "the cars really would get stuck in the sand, even though our parents didn't always believe us."

Just after World War II, Mary Louise was working as a telephone operator in Ocean City when she met Ted Brueckmann, a young Baltimore man recently out of the service. To hear her tell it, Ted didn't fall in love with the town immediately. "But I told him to stay for a year," she says. "He said, 'Why should I?' And I said, 'Well I hoped you would for me. And because there's no snow or ice during the winter.' That winter we had the worst snow and ice storm you've ever seen. We walked up on the boardwalk and saw snow and piles of ice from the Delaware River that were 15 feet high. But by then it didn't really matter. He'd gotten sand in his shoes, and we've lived here ever since. You couldn't pay him to move back to the city."

At one point she shows me a picture of young people on the beach in 1949 and asks, "Do you see me?"

Before I can speak, she points to a young woman in a two-piece swimsuit. "Bathing beauty," she says without blushing.

"AT MY AGE, IT'S ALL I CAN DO," SAYS MILTON FRIED, 80. "I can sit on the porch and watch the girls go by in bikinis."

It's late morning on Rehoboth Beach. Fried, the town's unofficial historian, is sitting in the living room of his two-story green and white house at 143 Rehoboth Ave. Wedged among knickknack, shell, bikini and T-shirt shops, the house is easy to miss. In Fried's driveway is a green and white Lincoln with vanity plates that read "MKF." Near the front door is a small, jigsawed wooden sign that reads "Home of Uncle Miltie."

"I've been burned, stewed and pickled, but never fried," he explains as he greets me at the front door, wanting me to get the name right. "It's pronounced freed."

The first thing I notice about him is that he's not dressed for the beach. He's got on dress slacks and a shirt with a fly-away collar and a pocket for his reading glasses. And the house doesn't speak of the beach either. Taller buildings on either side of Fried's home have stolen the sun from his living room. Still, the demeanor of the man is undeniably seaside. He's got nothing but time to talk about Rehoboth and living on the edge.

Born in Atlantic City, Fried went to work for newspapers as a young man, and in 1930 he landed a job as a linotype operator with a local newspaper. He says he had just one question for his employers: "Where the hell is Rehoboth?" When he found out it was a beach town, he told them he'd come down and try it for a week. "I stepped off the train into mud up to my ass," he says. "But I loved it here and I've stayed. I got married in 1931 and I live in the same house where my wife Ruth grew up."

The high point of his journalistic career, Fried says, was covering the Great Storm of 1962. He's especially proud that his weekly paper, the Delaware Coast News, scooped the city dailies when the storm made landfall. At the beach, remember, weather happens to you.

Fried lights up a filter-tip American, sits on the edge of the couch and runs a hand through his thin, slicked-back hair. "I can understand why people here don't want to see another Ocean City," he says. "But from the very beginning Rehoboth was a tourist trap. It was a family resort. And I think that's what it ought to stay -- a family resort. I love the traffic. I like the noise."

BACK IN OCEAN CITY, WES MCCABE, 23, IS PUTTING IN A night's work at Seacrets, a classic open-air, beach-cabana bar with teak pillars and a cedar-shingle roof. The bar is tucked away at the west end of 49th Street on Assawoman Bay. Until recently, membership had been limited to locals. This year the bar is open to all, but while a few tourists have discovered it, most of tonight's crowd, McCabe tells me, live in Ocean City year round. Behind the teak counter, McCabe, dressed for the surf in a light yellow shirt and white duck shorts, is drying off some glasses and hanging them, stem up, above the bar. "Everybody around here has a really good attitude," he says. And Ocean City has the "best nightlife of any place on the East Coast."

But McCabe, an Ocean City native, loves the beach life for other reasons too. He says he enjoys the months of inactivity, the chance to be alone and to fish and hunt nearby. I ask him about living near the beach in the winter. "When it's winter, you want summer," he says. "And when it's summer, you want winter." He says he gets enough "chaos" during the tourist season to last him a year.

"In July and August, on Saturday afternoons, a dozen or so boats will be anchored out there," McCabe says, pointing to the bay. "We open what we call the Rockpile Bar, down by the dock. And people come from all over in boats and on jet skis."

Seacrets opens on May 1 and remains open long after other local bars shut down, closing for the winter with a legendary Halloween party. "It's pretty crazy," McCabe says. "It's all local people. You're frowned on if you don't wear a costume."

I ask McCabe if he's affected by his town's rapid growth. "It's true," he says, "Ocean City has grown too fast, and lost a lot of its charm. But it's still a clean place. We don't have any factories around here. Now, the Chesapeake Bay is a whole other issue. They really screwed that up.

"But if I ever raise a family," he adds, "I'm going to do it in Ocean City. This town has the coolest people. With good morals."

ON THE BEACH I WALK PAST THE PLACE WHERE THE BOY in the Day-Glo shorts built his castle yesterday. The spot is smooth and perfect, the way he found it in the first place. I sip a cup of coffee and think about my father, who was probably never sad or desperate at all that he could not live at the beach. He enjoyed his work, his city, and I believe that if he had wanted to live at the beach, he would have.

But I also understand why he made an annual pilgrimage to the ocean, and why he took his family with him so he could, in his silent, subtle way, pass along what he loved to the people he loved.

The other day I talked to Mark Padgett, a park ranger at Fort Pulaski National Monument near Tybee Island. Each year, when the giant 300-pound loggerhead sea turtles lumber onto Tybee's beaches to lay their eggs, Padgett coordinates a large group of volunteers who work night and day to help protect the eggs once they are laid. Sixty days later, when the little turtles hatch, as they've done for thousands of years, they look for heavenly light reflected on the ocean so they can follow it back down to the sea. But there is a problem. Every year there are more and more electric lights from the beachfront businesses and beach houses that far outshine the moon and the stars. And the turtles are drawn inland toward the unnatural light. Padgett hopes that this year most of the hatchlings will be found, turned around and ushered back into the sea, and he hopes the city will outlaw beach lights during the hatching season.

Is it some primordial urge that calls us back to the sea time and time again? Is it love, or solitude, or a lust for liv- ing, or a quest for youth? Who knows? Along the short stretch of highway between Ocean City and Lewes, Del., there is evidence of all of the above -- uninhabited state park beaches for those who want solitude; water slides, goofy golf courses, roller coasters, taffy houses and Skee Ball arcades for those who delight in childish things; scantily clad sun lovers who eye one another with lust enough to set the sand afire.

This I do know. Like many beach hounds, I keep a shell in my house in Bethesda. On occasion I pick it up and think I hear the ocean. Heading back to my hotel in Rehoboth, I stop at a store, put a conch shell to my ear and hear something else. With the sounds of the real surf churning in the background, I swear the shell sounds like rush hour on the Beltway. But back home it still works as a touchstone, a mysteriously crafted souvenir that puts us in touch with something greater than ourselves.