Another summer begins in this 108-year-old oceanfront town and, in many ways, it feels like all the other summers.
So much summons the past -- the scent of roses and homemade fudge and sea air, the breeze blowing the sea oats against the sand, the sweet 16-year-old girls behind the counters at the ice cream stands and candy stores, the summer romances beginning in the afternoon at the beach and blossoming at night along the boardwalk.
It starts with Memorial Day weekend, and it ends with Labor Day weekend, and then it starts again next Memorial Day. Some things change -- the old brick hotel on Rehoboth Avenue is now the T-shirt factory ("You Name It, We Print It Instantly, Over 2,000 Desings") and a Ralph Lauren Polo store just opened on Rehoboth Avenue -- but the feeling in Rehoboth is one of timelessness, of rituals repeating themselves with the summers. There are no high-rises in Rehoboth Beach.
The same families from Washington and Bethesda and Baltimore and Wilmington and Philadelphia return each summer to their houses along narrow streets that are shaded by pine and oak and maple trees. They go to the beach together, and they meet each other at the A&P, and they fish together, and they have drinks and eat dinner at one another's homes and, as they grow older, they watch their children grow up together.
Among these families are the Chases from Chevy Chase and Bethesda, back for their 42nd year. Nicholas Chase, 68, who has a house one block from his son's house here, was introduced to Rehoboth in 1939 by his former law partner, and his family has only missed part of one summer since then, the summer of '56.
Nicholas Chase's sons, Stephen, 42, recalled that summer with a wry smile; he was part of the reason for the family's brief absence. "We were tired of coming to Rehoboth. We said we didn't want to come that summer. My father got mad and sold the house and went to Vermont. I had a job as a baliff in the municipal court. After three weeks, I said, 'the heck with it, I'm going to the beach.' I quit and came down here and rented a room. My parents came back in August and rented a house." Soon, they bought another house.
When the Chases first started coming to Rehoboth, a town that began as a Methodist camp meeting place. Most of the roads were dirt, and the loblolly pines were so thick you couldn't see the sun after 1:30 in the afternoon. Only about 600 people lived in Rehoboth year-round then. Today, about 1,700 people live here all year, and while the old wooden cottages with the wrap-around porches still dominate, there also are modern houses with skylights and glass walls. The loblolly pines are dying.
Stephen Chase owns a two-story house with a cellar and an attic and a wrap-around porch that always gets a breeze, built of redwood and yellow pine in 1922 and rented, one summer a long time ago, to Pearl S. Buck. His wife Toddy and their three children -- Nicholas, 13, Mary Alice, 16, and Laurie, 19 -- spend the summer there, and Stephen commutes from his job as general manager of a Washington data processing firm to Rehoboth on weekends, just as this father did before he retired.
"Friday night, I'm trying to beat out the traffic on the Beltway like everyone else," he said Saturday morning.
His children have summer jobs in Rehoboth, just as their father did, starting at age 7 when he collected return bottles for $1 a day. At age 12, he became a $28-a-week beach boy. He set up the big striped canvas umbrellas and the wooden lounge chairs that families rented for $35 for the summer in those days, and for a 12-year-old it was, at times, a high-pressure job.
"They had three rows, and everyone wanted to be in the front row, and they blamed the beach boy if they couldn't sit there. I had to referee all those adults," he recalled. When he as 18, he became a $35-a-week lifeguard.
This summer Mary Alice has a job at the Corner Cupboard as a maid or a baker -- she isn't sure which yet. Laurie, who managed the tennis courts last summer, is working at Browseabout Gifts on the boardwalk. Nicholas is cutting lawns; he already has 10 lined up, at $5 or $6 a lawn.
On saturday the plastic that keeps out the pollen still hadn't come off the porch windows for the summer, but for the Chases the old rituals already were repeating themselves. As Stephen and his wife, Toddy, sat drinking coffee at their dining room table, their friend John Hughes, son of Nicholas Chase's former law partner, walked in, barefooted, a tall, tanned man in cut-offs and a T-shirt that said "colorado."
"Can I borrow your shovel?" askd Hughes.
He got the shovel from the garage and headed for the beach, to put up the net for the volleyball games the Chases and the Hughes and all the other families who go to the beach at the end of Columbia Avenue play all summer.
John Hughes liked Rehoboth so much he left Washington altogether in 1964. Now, in addition to running the summer volleyball games, he is running for mayor of Rehoboth.
Young Nicholas Chase goes fishing and waterskiing with John Hughes' son, Bobby. He keeps his 14-foot outboard at the Henlopen Acres Yacht Basin, where his father kept his boat as a boy. Nicholas mowed lawns Saturday morning. He was somewhat reluctant about the job; it was a hot, sunny day, suitable for fishing or waterskiing or swimming or any number of activities other than mowing the neighbors' lawns.
All the Chases love Rehoboth, but Nicholas is perhaps the most enamored. "Nicholas is trying to find schools here," his mother said. "He's researched all the public and private schools."
One block away from his son and grandchildren, Nicholas Chase was recovering from the morning's activities, which included nine holes of golf at the Rehoboth Country Club and, from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m., a marathon session at Betty's Do and Cin Bake Shop on Rehoboth Avenue, where he watched baker Willard Nennstiehl make the pecan rings and danish pastries the summer people have loved since 1951.
Chase, a former Georgetown University law professor, whose pine and oak house at Rehoboth is lined with the works of everyone from Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling to John Updike and Tom Wolfe, was in a philosophical mood as he considered what it is about Rehoboth that has had him coming back every year for 42 years.
"It was a small colony, and everybody knew everybody. The children found their niche here. They waterskiied. They had their boats. They knew everyone. All the natives returned. Everyone who has ever been here seems to come back. . ."
Now, as many as 100,000 visitors crowd Rehoboth Beach on a holiday weekend. Each summer new restaurants open, and a few of the old ones change hands. The old movie theatres on Rehoboth Avenue are gone; the Blue Hen became Carlton Mens Wear, the Centre became Browseabout Books, the Avenue became the Avenue Restaurant. But many of the old landmarks still are here, Lingo's Market ("Our 83rd Year"), McQuay's Market, the Avenue Retaurant, the Dinner Bell, Dolle's ("Salt Water Taffy, Fudge, Caramels, Caramel Corn Made On Premises Since 1927").
This summer, as every summer, the long white wooden benches are in place along the mile-long boardwalk, from the Henlopen Hotel to the Surfside Grill. The town's 42 lifeguards, among them the three Coveleski brothers, whose father headed the beach patrol for 25 yeears, started work Saturday, the same day them men from public works turned on the old stone water fountain ("Erected by W.C.T.U. Rehoboth Beach -- 1929) at the boardwalk and Rehoboth Avenue.
And when night comes, Stephen Chase still knows where to find his three teen-agers -- on the boardwalk, where he spent so many summer nights long ago, when the air smelled of roses and homemade fudge and the sea.