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When that ‘rock’ is actually a horseshoe crab and the beach becomes a respite from the city

Bill Duggan has been taking D.C. kids to Beach Week for more than 20 years, offering them a chance for the kind of summer vacation he never had as a child.

Bill Duggan, owner of Madam's Organ in the District, wades into the ocean with, from left, Keira Edwards, 10; Heaven Lee, 6; and Valencia Johnson, 9, on Wednesday during Duggan's 23rd annual trip with D.C. youth to Dewey Beach, Del. (Marlena Sloss/The Washington Post)
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DEWEY BEACH, Del. — It’s become a rite of summer, at least for children who have grown up near one of the District’s best-known dives. For the past 22 years, Bill Duggan, the owner of Madam’s Organ, has been rounding up kids — and now the kids of kids who went in years past — for an all-expenses-paid trip to the beach.

Duggan’s idiosyncratic Beach Week offers them a chance to dig clams, fish for crabs, jump waves, helm a boat, pick berries or just splash around in a private swimming pool at his beach house. There’s a side trip to an amusement park and a moonlight run to the beach to behold a towering bonfire. And, of course, s’mores.

Although the trip’s been a regular thing since 1997 — always Monday to Thursday after D.C. public schools let out and before summer school begins — the excursion is such a freewheeling and oddball affair it defies description. It’s a hybrid between a rec department campout and a week-long family reunion for a loving, occasionally rambunctious bunch who, within the space of hours, experience moments such as these:

Josiah Royster, 11, briefly takes the helm of a motor boat and, on the beach, finds two clams by digging into the cold muck with bare hands.

Keira Edwards, 10, gets a fright when a “rock” stirs and thrusts out a sharp spur, which turns out to be the pointy tail of a horseshoe crab.

Everyone piles into the bed of a pickup truck for a bumpy ride to the water’s edge for the bonfire, until lightning rips the sky and slanting rain drives everyone off the beach.

“It’s, like, wild,” said Tayshawn Lee, 12, who thinks he might be an engineer someday if his dream of becoming a National Basketball Association star like Kyrie Irving doesn’t pan out. Tayshawn lives in Potomac Gardens in Southeast with his twin brother and younger twin sisters, Heaven and Hannah, 6, all of whom made the trip.

Here, the scary stuff for him and other children is maybe stepping on a severed crab claw. Back home, it’s the violent crime that sometimes strikes, like the shootings that left two people dead in his neighborhood, including 16-year-old Breyona McMillian, a few years ago when someone fired on a crowd. The beach is a fun break from the usual diversions of playing video games in the three-bedroom apartment he shares with his mother, grandmother and three siblings.

“I haven’t been out of D.C. and stuff — I’ve never been to Chicago or nothing,” he said, as an Imagine Dragons medley played from a poolside loudspeaker. “I liked being on the boat, turning it around and stuff.”

The life of this party, and its bankroll, is William Timothy Duggan — a Ken Kesey-like merry prankster leading an outing where the lemonade is spiked with nothing more dangerous than sugar. If the kids were older, they would get (and maybe the precocious ones do) that it’s this old guy, with the broad Irish face, blue eyes and longish white hair flying every which way, who might be one of the wildest parts of the trip.

If these walls could talk, they'd probably scream

Duggan — in blue jeans, boat shoes, a short-sleeve plaid shirt that serves duty two days in a row and Ray Bans tipped back on his head — can’t finish a story without triggering two or three mini-stories along the way. Out of the children’s earshot, he starts cackling about the time he spent 25 days in a West Virginia jail after police arrested him for possession of marijuana and LSD in the 1970s (“They tore the car apart”), which leads to the time he landed on a Salvadoran woman’s hit list over a soured real estate deal (“She was planning to have me murdered and the place burned down”), which touches on business reversals (“I actually had a partner who blackmailed me into bankruptcy”), which reminds him of trying to get a scuba business going in Mexico (“I dove for lobsters every day just to make a living”), which leads to hosting a wake for the late Aleksandr “Sasha” Zhdanov, a well-regarded Russian painter who traded art for Madam’s Organ vodka (“It [ticked] me off because my bartenders came in with some of the most spectacular paintings that they obviously traded for with my liquor”), which brings him back around to the first “Beach Week,” when local cops regarded his group of black kids like gangbangers (“There were police everywhere hiding up in the dunes.”)

As one of 17 kids on a farm near Buffalo, Duggan knows what it’s like to grow up without summer camps or vacations. His father died when Duggan was 5. His mother ran a boardinghouse and eventually moved the family to Washington. He was in the real estate business when he came across a city playground littered with drugs and broken glass.

“And the kids were out there in the middle of it,” recalled Duggan, 67. “I just felt terrible that my kids had it so good, and these kids had it so [bad] for a summer.”

The first group drew children from a local community organization called Thumbs Up, and mostly the neighborhood along 17th and Euclid streets Northwest. Early experience taught that it was best to limit eligibility to children between the ages of 6 and 12, which hasn’t stopped some parents from doctoring birth dates. He used to bring kids from the neighborhood near the bar, but many nearby areas have undergone gentrification. Now the kids come from across the city, often drawn by word of mouth.

“It’s one of those tricky, good-and-bad, silver-lining kind of things,” said Ron Dyson, a manager at the bar who helped pull this year’s group together by contacting the parents of children who went before. Dyson grew up in a neighborhood he describes as “treacherous,” back when Washington became “Murder Capital.” He regrets that many families and businesses have been pushed out, but not that things have improved. Some kids on the trip are a reminder that the city hasn’t become better for everyone.

A few years ago, Dyson got a call from the mother of two boys on the trip because the boys’ grandmother had just been killed. Dyson said he respectfully urged her to hold off telling them the news.

“I said, ‘My condolences — I’m sorry. But I’m not even going to tell them because if I tell them, I feel I should bring them home right now,’ ” Dyson recalled. “ ‘Let’s give them this 36 hours to be kids.’ ”

This year’s crew was the smallest — only 15 children, all of whom are African American — because of a quirk in scheduling that meant charter school kids couldn’t make it. In the past, there have been as many as 45. Two of Duggan’s three adult sons — Jesse and Willy — came back to help supervise. So did Amy Vestal, who managed Madam’s Organ for 19 years before moving away.

“When I was working for Bill, the bar was my family,” Vestal said.

There’s little of the emotional distance or forced courteousness that can feel like a force field around people when such different backgrounds, classes, races and ages come together. The kids call Duggan “Bill.” And Duggan’s not above telling a girl who’s stirring trouble to stop being such a “snitch.” Moments later, he’s holding another’s hand. The other seven adults seem just as at ease among the children, reminding them to share, take turns, stop bickering, pull up their swimsuit bottoms.

Sometimes, Duggan has to drive back to Washington to return a misbehaving child to his or her parents, including a boy who threatened to “pop a cap” in his head. Another tried kicking the car windows out during the long ride back.

“These kids can drive you nuts sometimes,” Duggan said.

But the bad memories seem less important than the good ones — such as the time a girl collected clams and hid them under her pillow because she wanted to share them with her mother back home.