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A chilly trip to the beach with one rule: ‘Don’t get wet’

'You can get your toes wet,' I said. 'That’s it.'

Luke and Kennedy were unfazed by the chilly weather at Flagler Beach. They were also unfazed by their father's stern warnings to not get their clothes wet. Photo by Brian McMillan
Luke and Kennedy were unfazed by the chilly weather at Flagler Beach. They were also unfazed by their father's stern warnings to not get their clothes wet. Photo by Brian McMillan
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According to a McMillan family legend, my parents brought me and my siblings to the beach on a cold day in Washington state in the 1980s, when I was about 5 years old. While we were there, the story goes, we were given strict orders: “Whatever you do, don’t get wet.”

Some time later, we cold and crying children trudged back to the family van, shivering, dripping, defeated. Over the years, it seemed, that legend came to symbolize to my parents the disobedience and of all children everywhere.

I thought about that story last week, when I drove my two youngest children to the beach in my own family van. It was chilly enough that I wore a jacket, zipped all the way up. My 4-year-old son, Luke insisted on a T-shirt only. I tucked his jacket into the van just in case. My 8-year-old, Kennedy, wore her jacket.

When we got to the beach, near the pier, I told my children, sternly and with great enthusiasm, that this was not go-in-the-ocean weather. This was walk-along-the-shore weather.

“You can get your toes wet,” I said. “That’s it. You may not get your shorts wet.”

My last line, repeated for emphasis was, “Whatever you do, don’t get your shorts wet.”

Luke’s eyes were wild with anticipation, looking past me at the waves. Raising his voice to my energy level, he shouted in response, “OK! I’ll try!”

“No, no, no, no,” I said, rolling my eyes. “You can’t just try, you have to do it. Please don’t get your shorts wet.”

“Why can’t we?” Kennedy asked.

“Because you’ll be wet and miserable, and it won’t be fun,” I said, adding, in full honesty, “for me.”

Probably with the same amount of optimism as my parents had in Washington years earlier, I released them.

Luke inched toward the water. For him, it was not enough to observe the magnificence of the waves from a safe distance. If the surf foam slid toward him and stopped more than 1 inch away from his toes, he believed it was imperative to move 2 inches closer. When the next wave crashed and meekly stopped 12 inches in front of him, he moved 13 inches closer.

Finally, on the next wave, his tiny feet disappeared in the foam. He turned and ran away, squealing with delight, seemingly surprised with every sensation he was feeling, playing tag with Mother Nature.

Kennedy, too, was elated. “It’s so warm, Dad! It’s not cold at all!” she said.

“You still can’t go in besides your feet,” I said, making sure they didn’t let their joy get in the way of my convenience.

The truth is that I, unlike Kennedy and Luke, was perfectly content to watch the waves swell, to watch the infinite variety of their crashing, shaving, grinding action, the relentlessness of their self destruction and renewal. Like Luke, I was eager to be surprised by Mother Nature.  

As they played, I reflected on the temperature and knew the air wasn’t nearly as cold here in Flagler Beach as it had been that day in Washington. I knew I was being too uptight; it’s one of my character failings that I impose on my children. I guess I’m predictable.

Then again, so is Luke.

A few minutes later, my little boy was caught by a wave that came faster than he had expected, and it leaped up and splashed his shorts. He immediately looked at me, dripping wet. I folded my arms and cocked my head to the side to show my disappointment, but, in reality, I must have known it would happen all along. 

He grinned a guilty grin, and I turned my frown into a smile of forgiveness. After all, I had lived this moment myself, nearly four decades ago, unable to resist the charms and thrills of the water.


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