Coming of age on beaches of Rye

From Foss to bridge, Jenness to Harbor, Wallis Sands to Stinky Creek …

Alex Herlihy

"Lost in natural sounds and sights … "  (Gail Beamer photo)

When I was a kid, my family and I always went to the closest and least developed beach. That would be Foss, named after the Rye founding family who ran the Foss Boarding house near the end of Washington Road. Foss Beach was simply “the beach”, and we never considered any others. Years ago, before Rye was Rye, it was called Sandy Beach by the Berrys and other families who moved down from Pannaway (Odiorne Point) and settled what would become Rye.

“The beach” was a magical place, because once on it you were cut off from houses, the boulevard and civilization by the rocky embankment. When you were on that beach, you became lost in the natural sounds and sights: rocky shore, seaweed, sand, seagulls, seashells, waves breaking, fishing boats, sail boats, Piper cub hauling a sign and making that drone that only a single engine plane can make on a lazy summer’s day, the horizon that was so often changing with the play of sun and clouds — that edge where you could lose yourself and drift skyward and just become a part of it all.

Yes, there were other people on the beach, but even family members began to fade after awhile as the effect of sun and the sound of the waves began to take you away to a private place — a beach of your own. And if you were able to slip away for a walk along the shore in ankle deep water, then you had it all completely to yourself.

But, of course, the beach at low tide is not meant to just contemplate. The small rubber ball was a staple of our family. My brother and I played endless games of long-distance catch on that vast expanse of sand, and others joined us for handball. To quench our thirst, over the rocks we clamored to the Salty Breeze, a tiny snack bar beside O’Geras cabins, and there Bill and Cynthia Varrell would serve us hot dogs and soda. And as we stood high on the rocks with our snacks, we surveyed the great horizon and wondered about those islands out there that had become such a fixture in our ocean imagination. They seemed to form an outer barrier of our own great bay, our inter-coastal waterway — a bulwark against the great ocean beyond. (The Salty Breeze met its demise in the blizzard of ’78, and the state brought the huge granite blocks that raised the beach barrier.

If you are going to the beach, you better know how to swim, but this rule certainly did not apply to many a century ago who found it enough just to take it all in without going in. In our family you would learn how to swim, and there was only one place to do it — with Jane Holway at the White Bridge on the edge of the great Awcomin salt marsh. There was nothing great about that marsh to a scared Rye kid who had just barely escaped being bitten by that damn dog on Locke Road. We faced frigid water, rocks, greenheads and swamp muck, and Jane was unrelenting. If you survived, the great Atlantic awaited you.

It really was the ocean that was the center of everything at the beach, and older brothers dared me to take the plunge into the frigid waters and swim out over my head. So I quickly took the measure of the foamy brine, rejoiced in its salty and rejuvenating waters and, after almost being swept away by an undertow, learned to respect its dangerous currents. Even in the coldest surf we knew we would be instantly warmed by the winds coming off the land, although for a time it seemed as if we had lost part of ourselves! We learned that when the flag was blowing out to sea the water would be cold, but an on-shore breeze brought in those warm Gulf Stream waters, and there was no getting us out.   

When I was older, I migrated southward to Jenness Beach, drawn to my friends and Carberry’s Store, the best hangout a beach kid could ask for. Later in the 50’s Herb Philbrick of “I Lead Three Lives” fame bought the store and affixed his name and book title to the sign. But it didn’t matter to us as the soda fountain and certain girls provided endless entertainment. When my friend Dana Young moved nearby, his mother Polly worked the counter. One summer I barely ever slept at home. The beach at night has a mysterious allure all its own. The shore lights come on and the ocean stirs and people gather in small groups, some fires are lit, voices and laughter fade in and out, the heat of the day lingers on the boulevard, but the beach in the dark is a cool refuge, a playground full of endless mystery and possibility. We knew that in the darkness there were some older kids who were swimming in their birthday suits. We never forgot that. When we were older we experienced the same sensation of “skinny-dipping”.

Jenness Town Beach.(Gail Beamer photo)

When we weren’t at the beach, we were on the Rye harbor jetties built in 1939 to create a real harbor. What a magnificent great granite playground! Now we had natural caves where the pounding waves rushed in as we escaped at the last second. For many it became fishing heaven. And what a vantage point you have at the end of the jetty where you can observe all the comings and goings of busy Rye Harbor: fishing boats of all kinds with colorful names, survivors of near disasters at sea such as Herb and John Drake, funerals at sea, recovered vessels of those lost at sea — a grim reminder of the dangers lurking on the ocean, three sheepish men rowing their boat in without stern board and motor and so much more. These two granite points gave us yet another on-ocean experience as we clung to the sea in all our waking moments, wondering if we might soon grow web feet. Our parents didn’t worry about us; they knew where we were.

Then came those teen years and a certain group of girls on Wallis road who liked the south end of Wallis Sands, not yet a state beach and not yet Pirates Cove. When we knew the girls were at the beach, we always knew which one. How we survived all those walks through the stink of Stinky Creek I will never know, but we did talk about that foul odor being something more than decayed vegetation. We were headed for the majestic rocks on the point of land that juts out into the sea at the far south end of Wallis Sands. Yes, that is a long-winded way to avoid saying “Concord Point,” but we were not going to the housing development, we were going to the point, which should be called Parsons Point, the same as the creek, but it will forever be stinky. (Founding families take precedence over late-coming carpetbaggers.) The same applies to Locke’s Neck  — the point of land is not Straws Point!  I should also acknowledge that my carpetbag family came even later than the people from Concord and ex-Governor Straw.

So why did we trek to the rocks. Being on the beach may be a sedentary experience for some, but the idea of lying in the sun without activity was not for us. We were people of action. When we were not riding the waves or playing ball or taking what we sometimes hoped would be romantic walks along the shore, the herd mentality took over, and we swarmed to the Point. There the rocks seemed to dwarf us, and we climbed high into the middle where we knew at the right water level there was a tidal pool that was great for jumping and diving into. We hung out in our alcove on the edge of the sea, lost from civilization; talked about everything and nothing and dared each other to hold our breaths for a minute or more. Our beach spot seemed miles away, back by the entrance near the old Wallis Sands restaurant that Pirates Cove took over in the 70’s. We reveled in these high times at the beach, a life time of memories. And there is no doubt that we rubbed shoulders with all the people who shared their warm memories of that beach in Deb Cross’ book: “Wallis Sands Beach Revisited.”

Speaking of romantic walks, I don’t think there is anything more likely to lead to romance and all the confusion, mystery, disappointment and excitement which that word conjures up, than a walk on the moonlit beach at low tide.  

The mighty ocean shaped our youth in 1950’s Rye, and, as we grew into young adulthood, we never turned our backs on it…for fear it would do us in. The great test for many of us was how we would tempt fate during the fury of Atlantic storms, hurricanes, and Nor’easters. If sunny days had been an overwhelming pull to the sea, imagine our delight and blind fear as we dashed onto the rocks to await the explosive power of the next breaker and ran for our lives at the last second.  This was the 50’s and early 60’s, and we had all seen the “chicken drag car race” in “Rebel Without a Cause.”

Today we see so many surfing on the water, but in our day the ultimate ocean experience was in the water. When the great surf kicked up on a sunny windswept day fueled by a hurricane 500 miles offshore, we dared to take the greatest ride of all. When we were younger we watched in awe as older kids rode the waves of the big breakers, and now it was our turn. I will never forget August, 1966, with Dana Young at Jenness Beach. It was my last day before going to study for a year in Europe. The great sea had a send off gift which I will never forget. We knew the water was warm with the on-shore winds, and the waves were huge, gargantuan, and otherworldly. It wasn’t like being on the rocks on a cold Nor’easter; now you were going in to meet the ocean's fury and take the ride of your life. No lifeguards then, no boogie boards for us; we swam out to meet the great swells and timed our leap into them just right to ride the crest and then get pulled under and spun around and thrown on shore like a limp dishrag, only to pop up, rinse off the sand and plunge in for more. It was the thrill of a lifetime.

When the railroad allowed people to flock to the beach in the 1840’s, Rye farm houses converted to boarding houses. Small and then grand hotels were built along Rye Beach by the 1870’s. (“Rye Beach” is a “village district” created in 1901. It is not a precinct. Well-to-do folks who had enjoyed their hotel summers began to build substantial homes in the south end of town. But for most of us Rye Beach signifies all the coast of Rye.) Rye rivaled Newport as a beach resort mecca.  Historic photos in the Rye Town Museum show Victorian beach goers in full dress or their woolen bathing suits on the rocks or in the water. We know why they came, why people have always been drawn to the ocean. It is not just its cooling waters and rejuvenating atmosphere. We are drawn back in time to our origins in the sea, and it is there we find the closeness to nature and the pure natural part of ourselves that we so need in our lives.

Today we continue to revel in the joys of the beach, walking the dogs, searching for wood and rock treasures the ocean has recently washed on shore and losing ourselves in the sound of the waves and the wind, sun, sand, sea and sky.

“If you are lucky enough to live by the sea, you are lucky enough.”


September, 2010