I realize that in 2016, writing a nostalgic ode to a private beach club may feel as tone deaf as body shaming a child or "liking" one of Donald Trump Jr.'s hunting photos on Instagram.
But for me and lots of kids like me, the long-shuttered Sand and Sea in Santa Monica, California was never merely a place. It's a feeling we've spent much of our adult lives trying to recapture. A feeling of innocence and sandy bathing suits and listening to Jim Croce in your mom's Dodge Dart and summer days that pointedly refused to end.
The Sand and Sea, where I spent almost every summer day of every year of my childhood, closed 25 years ago. It's now been out of my life longer than it was in. But for the people for whom it mattered, especially those who have recently lost parents, it remains alive in memory like a mythical Brigadoon. Where our parents are always young and vibrant and still had their whole lives ahead of them.
As I cross into my fifties, is it any wonder I romanticize a place and a time when I could eat a Butterfinger (Or an ice cream sandwich or both) shirtless, on the beach, without a trace of self-consciousness? Without worrying about Weight Watchers points or a grey chest hair or whether those kids digging for shells think I'm pregnant.
Now you may be thinking, aren't there more pressing issues you could be writing about? Like global terrorism or debt reduction or why Adam Lambert doesn't have a bigger solo career. Absolutely. And that's precisely why I'm writing about this. I'm not a psychologist, or even a reverse psychologist, but it feels like everyone should have some happy place they can retreat to, whether it's real, imagined or remembered. And for me, it's this one stretch of beach.
I never went to summer camp. I was too nervous and no one was offering me Children's Valium. So this was my summer place. Except Mondays when it was closed and we roamed the aisles of Fedco. But I'll save that for my next nostalgia piece, "The Finest Shopping Emporiums of 70's Van Nuys."
My beach memories appear to me in washed-out fragments. Sometimes it's hard for me to recall what actually happened and what I just remember from The Flamingo Kid. But certain things are indelibly etched. The smell of Sea and Ski. The taste of Danny's tuna salad. Kicking off summer with my annual Memorial Day sunburn, followed by watching the Indy 500 replay as my parents hose me down with Coppertone burn spray. I remember 4th of July swim races and cole slaw and listening to Casey Kasem counting down the hits every Sunday morning in the back of my dad's car. And me writing down the songs, then getting violently nauseous from writing down the songs.
Even then, compared to LA's three other beach clubs, Sand and Sea felt like the ragtag underdog. Because, how shall I put it, this was the only one where "members of the tribe" could become members of the club.
It felt decidedly un-Hollywood. That said, you could still see Rickles or Newhart on the patio, Wilt or Chuck Barris at the grill, TV's Mr. Roper on the sand looking a lot less befuddled than when Jack Tripper got the best of him. The kid from Shazam was always in a Speedo. And on the paddle tennis courts, where almost every man played shirtless in a bathing suit, there was Al Pacino playing in slacks, a scarf and a full trench coat. Because, well, he's Al Pacino.
Like a middle school cafeteria, there were distinctly different crowds. We had the paddle tennis players and the volleyball players and the pool people. There was even a group of Sun Tanners back when it was an intentional activity not a melanoma-producing accident.
There were the game players in the patio. Bridge. Mahjongg. Jewish women playing Gin rummy and smoking, in their bikinis. Which may explain why, to this day, I still get an erection anytime I hear someone yell "gin."
There were the alter cockers in the bar, who were there every Sunday of the year come shine or rain. I'd sit there silently binge eating egg salad as these guys smoked cigars and loudly dissected the flaws of every Rams' quarterback ever. At the time, I found them wise, hilarious and at least a thousand years old. In retrospect, they were probably all a decade younger than I am now.
There were as many characters behind the scenes. Marvin the Masseuse wore white pants, a white shirt and skin that was whiter than his pants or shirt. There was the African-American bartender everyone called "Webster." As a kid, I never thought to consider whether that was his choice or theirs. But lots of very tipsy grown-ups said he made a "mean grasshopper." Pico ran the men's locker room. Legend has it he was a descendant of the legendary Pico family, that once owned much of Southern California. No one ever explained how he ended up passing out towels to sweaty Sephardics. Hattie ran the womens' locker room. I know that because when we joined I was still young and/or fey enough to dress there. Which reminds me, I also need to write a piece entitled "Jew Boy in the Loehmann's Changing Room."
Not everything was as perfect as it seems in my sepia-toned memories. One man was sleeping with his friend's teen daughter. Two women left their husbands for each other. A dead body turned up one Saturday morning in front of a cabana. And people just went about their business, except to kvetch that the paramedics were blocking their sun. I was mocked as a Val for wearing my Van Halen Fair Warning tour shirt outside the 818. Each year, the Palisades across PCH were set ablaze by fireworks. People only paused long enough to kvetch that the paramedics were blocking traffic.
We were always on the go, paddle tennis and volleyball and Boogie Boarding. We played over the line baseball and tackle beach football. I would train for cross- country season with 3 mile runs, to the pier and back. Who could have foreseen, that there might come a day when I didn't have unlimited energy or that I'd someday be heavy enough to be trapped in my own wet suit.
For someone whose resume didn't include a ton of sporting triumphs, perhaps my two greatest took place on paddle tennis Court 1, in front of the entire club. One was a finals singles victory over my best friend and former doubles partner. I played him at least a hundred times, never beat him before, never beat him after. But I did on that day, not long after his mother had split us as a team because I was "holding him back.
And there was the time I won a 4th of July men's doubles tournament over my father. At the time, I felt triumphant, like a torch had been passed. It wasn't until, l I was writing my Dad's eulogy (and had become a father myself) that I realized he had let me win. Because as a Dad, a son's joy is greater than any you can feel on your own.
To this day, whenever I'm feeling blue and the Lexapro ain't working, I still head down to that same stretch of beach where the club once stood. I don't actually believe it has magical healing powers. But like that pool in Cocoon, there's something about being there that makes me feel ten all over again. The club itself, which sat unused and decaying after the '94 earthquake, is now a public beach house open to all. The original pool has reopened, original tile and all. And there's a moment, when I jump underwater, that I forget, for a second I'm a grown man with bad sinuses and an aching back and college tuition concerns. For a moment, I feel like a boy with more days ahead of me than behind.
There are other clubs we could have joined, to replicate my experience for my kids. But it would've been just that: a replication. My kids have their own special summer places, in the camps of the North Woods of Wisconsin. Places they'll forever be able to conjure up, when days get cold, no matter where they are or how old they get. That's my wish for my kids and all kids --to have one place in your heart and memory where it's always sunny, the waves are breaking and the days seem to go on forever. A place like the Sand and Sea.