Our approach to the Outer Banks of North Carolina is southeast along the Virginia peninsula that General McClellan took running from Lee in the Seven Days Campaign. McClellan was known for his assiduous protective measures when moving troops, and I have taken some myself. Between my girls, ages five and 12, prime combat years, I have placed a jumbo black canvas duffel, which, filled with their own excessive essentials, crowds them into the walls of the station wagon, and which is called, in a hat-tip to Muammar al-Qaddafi, the Line of Death. The girls respect this construct, reporting faithfully any trespass by the other in hope that an execution will be forthcoming. They have taken to putting stuffed animals astride the Line of Death to irritate each other, confident that I will not execute a stuffed animal. My wife, Sidney, drives while I monitor the Line and handle arbitration. We are rather like Nixon and Kissinger. We need the wide-open beach, soon.
We see things in the approach that McClellan did not, but that maybe Lee saw coming. The first signs of impending commerce are fruit stands flanked by miles of handmade roadside advertisements—10-foot plywood ears of corn, scarecrows sitting atop tractors. Inside these stands, the prices are as staggering as is the heat outside them, and we have arrived in record heat, for which indeed something called a Heat Advisory has been issued. I squint back to the car in a Price Advisory, refusing to buy so much as a tomato.
These stands are harbingers of what may be more commerce on less land than anywhere else in the States. The Outer Banks is a sandbar sometimes not one-eighth of a mile wide running parallel to about one-half of the North Carolina coast. Its northern citizens consider the Outer Banks proper to run from the Virginia line down to Ocracoke, about 120 miles; folk south would include another 58 miles constituting the Cape Lookout National Seashore. Whichever, it is long and thin. And developed: from the relatively quiet Ocracoke (accessible only by ferry), development gradually increases northward through places like Buxton, which as yet look like small towns, to Duck and Corolla, which look like small malls. "The big boys are up there," a real estate agent in Avon, about in the middle, says.
We have been offered a choice of two beach houses. One is in Avon and features a Jacuzzi and private walkway to the ocean for $2,700 the week. The other, in a private community in Duck, offers a pool, a walkway to the beach, tennis courts, a kiddie pool, and organized activities for the children. "Let's see," Elena, who is five, advises, "if the one with the pool also has a Jacuzzi." When we laugh, she says, "Well, that's what they're named," and we laugh some more, assuring her we are not laughing at her. Which we are not: we will take the house with the pool should it also have a Jacuzzi, and at $4,200 the week, odds are good.
The odds are very good. Our house at Ships Watch has a queen-size Jacuzzi with a king-size bed beside it, four more bedrooms down the hall, an upstairs living area that has a bar facing the ocean, a stereo entertainment center set into a pine fireplace-mantel complex, a kitchen that compacts what it doesn't Insinkerate, porches upstairs and down, open and screened, around all of the house, four and one-half bathrooms throughout it, washer and dryer inside it, overstuffed furniture inside it, plastic furniture outside it, canvas furniture under it, to be taken to the beach in front of it, Jenn-Air and Royal Dirt Devil and microwave, ice maker in the refrigerator and ice maker outside the refrigerator and cable on three televisions and answering machine and binoculars and crab tongs. The cherry on this sundae is a brand-new state-park-grade outdoor grill with an unblemished galvanized coal hod and shovel for disposal of ashes. I come from people for whom a proper beach house has a sandy linoleum floor that seems to break when you walk on it, a refrigerator with rust on it and beer in it, and a shower you hope fresh water comes out of.
The house is so large that I make nervous patrols of it, like an emperor ruling over a strange new province. Sidney says, "I'm afraid we'll lose our stuff." The girls can't figure how to fight over a bedroom when they perceive they may each have two.
There are 47 large pelican-colored houses at Ships Watch, on a 400-foot swath of land from ocean to sound. The community gives a welcoming party on the beach on Saturday, after the residents are comfortably settled in. Someone writes a name tag for you, and then you may have at the hot dog and hamburger and slaw-and-bean buffet, get a drink, and sit on the beach to eat. The residents are in their private groups—some houses at Ships Watch accommodate up to 10—and do not seem much interested in cross-pollination. Large speakers play popular music. Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit in the Sky" was weird when it came out, and it still is. The Spencer Davis Group's "Gimme Some Lovin' " takes us back to before Hendrix and Joplin, and then "In the Midnight Hour" to before that, when our love could come tumbling down, but "Smoke on the Water" ruins the mood, and "Joy to the World" gets us nervously tapping our feet, wondering how we ever seriously invested in the exploits of Jeremiah the bullfrog. But we did, and somehow have come to be parents for it, indifferent to others, eating hamburgers on a beach.
When Jane Scott of Ships Watch breaks out the hula hoops, we recoil, embarrassed, but the children charge. Boys seem particularly determined to master hula-hooping. Girls sense something—Elena ignores the scene publicly but sneaks a hoop home to practice privately. Then the limbo contest: Children observe no rules in limbo. They perceive that the object is to get under the bar, period, and they do. They will crawl facedown like a soldier under wire if you let them, and you will because you are laughing too hard to stop them. Then the women of Ships Watch do line dances in the sand, like the Electric Slide and the Chicken. Only one civilian adult joins them. The others stand by, kind of hula-hooped and Jeremiahed and Chickened into diffident agreeableness. Back at the buffet, someone says, "There's a bug in the mustard. I guess I should get him out."
But now the work of vacation begins. In the first day and a half of living the dream of living in an oceanfront dream house, the girls have toasted themselves through all species of sunblock to the very marrow of their slender bones, and the surf is losing its appeal. Though the water is clear and deliciously cold, the sand can burn your feet (Solarcaine on burnt toes is a rush). Elena, faced with going to the beach, says, "I'll watch some cartoons to get some energy." Amanda, 12, sees a parasailer aloft over Currituck Sound, has no idea what it is, wants to do it.
At nine o'clock Sunday morning we board a Zodiac—the early-bird discount boat at North Beach Sailing, across the street from Ships Watch—that ferries us to another boat moored in the sound. The mean depth of Currituck Sound, about four miles wide by 35 miles long, is four feet, making it a giant water-sport playground in which you can stand up anytime something goes wrong.
This boat may be more of a thrill than the parasailing; a 31-foot Ocean Pro whose 300-horsepower turbo diesel can keep the sail—a vented parachute—out of the water, and, more impressive, handle the difficult launch. The chute is laid out on the aft deck, then snapped up into the air by throttling full into the wind, which tips the boat on its side and has everyone looking at and trying not to fall into the plowed swale of water under the boat.
Aloft, taking turns in tandem with the girls, because they are too light to fly solo, I can look over the town of Duck. "Jelly, jelly, jelly," I sing, "jelly stays on my mind. What's on your mind, Elena?"
"Flying," she says.
"I hope a bird doesn't hit us."
"I hope a bird doesn't peck the parachute," she says.
Back on the ground, Amanda has decided that horse riding is more the thing.