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David Rowell is an editor with The Washington Post. His first novel, The Train of Small Mercies, is just out in paperback.
When I was growing up in North Carolina, my family went to the same beach every year; it had the sand, the water and pretty much nothing else. Mostly that was OK, but the idea of a boardwalk, which I caught glimpses of on TV or in movies, seemed wondrous to me — like a carnival rolled out from a wooden carpet.
So when my wife and sons and I discovered the boardwalk in Delaware's Rehoboth Beach some years ago, I felt like I was stepping back into a childhood dream.
Along the boardwalk, you can indulge in a classic menu of old-time treats. There are snow cones and corn dogs. You can pick out a mood ring or a hermit crab in a hand-painted shell. You can swing in for a round of rooftop mini golf, with the ubiquitous gorilla looking on. And towering over it all is the sign for Dolle's salt water taffy, designed in a cursive script. Remember cursive?
In one arcade you can hand over your winning tickets for a fake set of mustaches, a George Foreman grill or a carbon monoxide detector. ("Kids, put down that detector and go play outside.") A mechanical fortune teller named Zoltar, in a turban and silk vest, offers me a mixed report — that I've been somewhat irresponsible and that I'm about to be besieged by those in financial need. I keep walking as a group of lifeguards moves down the beach doing deep knee squats. I pass the bandstand that hosts concerts under the stars with upcoming acts like Nate Myers & the Aces, the Avalons, and the U.S. Navy Sea Chanters. Sorry, Metallica. Maybe next year.
When I arrive at Funland, the boardwalk's main attraction, there are shrieks from the Sea Dragon, a kind of Viking ship that sails riders high into the air. If that's too severe, smaller children can ride little speed boats or miniature fire trucks with tinkling bells. Anyone can climb into the bumper cars or up on the merry-go-round, which shines like a heap of new coins. Out front, you can make out the William Tell Overture piped in for the mechanical horse race, its smartly painted jockeys sit atop horses that gallop toward the finish line when you roll a ball in a hole.
The water can be pretty cold here, and not many are venturing in, except for a team of lifeguards working on their strokes, their buoys trailing behind.
The boardwalk brims with Eastern Europeans. They come here to work for the summer — from Slovenia and Ukraine — and mingle in with the American kids in their hip-hop attire and dads with exhausted children draped over their shoulders like towels.
The boardwalk is more than a walk along the ocean; it's a walk back in time, a parade of innocent pleasures. But by nighttime, with the sky revealing a perfect silver dollar of a moon, the neon lights eventually start to blink off; the crowds scatter into the gloom. Another thing Zoltar told me was that I would dream about the sun, and maybe that's true. Right now, though, I'm in no hurry to leave the dream I'm in.