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August 3, 2014

Last week we took our vacation at one of our favorite places, Pawleys Island, South Carolina. Not all of our family was with us, and we missed those who could not be there. But eight adults and six grandchildren made a full house.

As is usually the case, I started the week leading worship and preaching at Pawleys Island Chapel. We had a joyous time of worship with many local folks and beach visitors.

The week together with our family is a time to build lasting memories – singing and storytelling in the shade; gathering around a long trestle table to feast on cold boiled shrimp, dripping popsicles licked to the stick on the back porch; and children lining up for baths, brushing teeth and hair, pajama time. The settling down to bedtime stories and prayers brings a strange quietness to the house. Then the adults might enjoy a movie or pleasant conversation.  A week at the beach is a close encounter with people we love and hold dear.

These days on the coast also give us the opportunity to experience the elements. We love the sunshine and are grateful for sunscreen. Rainfall is a welcomed visitor in the middle of the week. It affords the opportunity to work a jigsaw puzzle, take a nap, or read a good book.

The wind is a steady companion especially in the late afternoon. Capturing a gust in a kite or catching a breeze in a wind chime is sheer delight.

Observing birds riding an updraft is a lesson in aerodynamics. We take great delight in watching coastal birds. One of our grandsons has a special interest in these feathered friends. I usually take along a bird feeder and suspend it from a pine tree in the backyard of the beach house. Several varieties are attracted to a seed feeder near the ocean just as quickly as they would be to one that is hundreds of miles inland. Cardinals, chickadees, and finch are regular visitors.

Insect eaters – like swallows, purple martins, wrens, and blue birds – are much in evidence at the coast.  Scavengers – like crows and red-winged black birds – join their cousin gulls in an ongoing cleanup operation.  The marsh offers a banquet for snowy egrets and great blue herons.  The surf spreads a buffet for sandpipers and plovers.

The most magnificent of all are the birds that fish in the ocean.  Brown pelicans fly in effortless formation until food is sighted.  Then they break formation and hurtle headfirst into the waves to make their catch.  The ospreys that work as solitary fishermen plunge talons in first to catch fish that are the envy of surf casters.

The ocean, of course, is the main attraction at a beach vacation. Little children run into the ankle deep tide and back again like sandpipers. Some of the adults in our family enjoy going a little further out, just beyond the breakers, and riding up and down with the waves. We never go alone and are cautious of the undertow. For some reason our vacation usually coincides with Shark Week on television, so we are watchful.

A vacation at the beach is an ongoing encounter with ubiquitous sand.  It seems to be everywhere, not only on the beach, but also in places it does not belong – in our shoes, in our hair, in our bed, and in our laundry room when we return to our Upstate home.  Along with the blue-green Atlantic, sand is a main attraction.

Soon after we arrive at the beach, when the car is unloaded, my first impulse is to take off my watch and to kick off my shoes and walk in the wet sand where land and ocean meet. The tides mark time. Breathing the salt air, feeling the sea breeze, are at once calming and invigorating. Before long, I am alternately gazing out to the horizon and glancing down at the treasures washed up at my bare feet.

We stand in the surf and feel the tide pull the sand from beneath our feet.  It is the very definition of shifting sand. Ocean currents and the wind move the sand around to other locations.  Massive sand dunes such as Jockey’s Ridge, North Carolina, or the sand dunes near the tip of Cape Cod at Provincetown, Massachusetts, are naturally occurring. These are places we have enjoyed in years past.

Most sand dunes along the coast of South Carolina have been created so the beach can be preserved.  Sand dunes held in place by strategically located fences, and by established plantings of sea oats are important to control beach erosion. We have tried to teach our younger family members to respect the fragile nature of the dunes.

Our children and grandchildren have made building a sand castle a regular beach activity for our family. Perhaps you have seen some of the massive works of art rendered by professional sand castle builders. In our family we are all amateurs. We make up the design as we go along. Maybe we are not so heavily invested because we understand the inevitable end to every sand castle.

On Easter Sunday morning in 1980, our family had a brief sunrise service alone on a large sand dune near the end of Cape Cod. In the first light of the morning sun, we could see a pod of thirty or forty right whales playing in the ocean.

We have yet to spot a whale off the coast at Pawleys Island. However, the sight of a group of bottle-nosed dolphin is usually a part of our vacation. The graceful creatures arching in the waves is like watching synchronized swimming.

Beach walking is a favorite activity for us, especially after supper.  Whether you are an avid shell gatherer searching for a rare specimen, a fossil collector looking for a larger shark’s tooth, or just a casual stroller splashing in the surf, walking on the edge where water and sand meet is a pleasure. Once or twice during the week, at low tide, we walk to the north end of the island. To find a bleached sand dollar lying on the sand, to come upon an unbroken channeled whelk, or to watch as coquinas and mole crabs dig their way into the sand at ebb tide is to witness the wonder of creation.

Most coastal states have a state sea shell.  For South Carolina, it is the lettered olive.  For North Carolina, it is the Scotch bonnet.  The state shell of Georgia is the knobbed whelk. To find a smooth shell, perfectly formed and intact, abandoned by the animal that called it home, becomes a special souvenir.

A casual walk along the beach will also reveal unsightly trash left by humans.  Our more populated beaches are littered with rubbish.  Fishermen report seeing floating debris many miles off shore.  Sea turtles strangle to death on plastic bags because in the water the bags look very much like jelly fish, a favorite food of sea turtles.

When I walk along the beach with a grandchild, I often take a small plastic bag to hold the treasures found along the way.  I also take along a trash bag to pick up litter that we find.

For a grandfather there is no greater joy than seeing the children playing on the beach, or to see the wonder in their eyes when they find a treasured shell or to look at the amazement in their faces when I tell them made-up stories about Green Beard, our special friendly pirate.

Clare and I had a marvelous week with our family. We were very glad to return to our home. But you know what? We can hardly wait until next year!

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