Ocean people

by John the Basket

I come from a long line of Ocean People. These are not people who venture out to the high seas in search of adventure or fish or marine mammals, but rather people who prefer making annual pilgrimages to an ocean beach, rather than a steamy desert or a cold mountain range. 

The northwestern quarter of Washington state is dominated by the Olympic Peninsula, which, in turn, is dominated by the Olympic Mountain Range and three large parcels of Federal land of unparalleled beauty: Olympic National Park, Olympic National Forest, and the American Indian reservations of several Northwest Indian tribes. There are narrow commercial strips of land along the north and west sides of the peninsula. I spent a week a year for my first 18 years at a funky cabin resort on the west (Pacific Ocean) side of the peninsula. That makes me one of the Ocean People.

My dad's dad took his family camping from time to time somewhere along north beach (north of Grays Harbor, where the Olympic Peninsula begins).  Anomalously, when Dad and Mom got married in '39, they borrowed Dad's friend Chet Jackson's car and honeymooned at Cannon Beach, Oregon, but from then on it was north beach every summer. When the war started everything was rationed. Neither Mom nor Dad smoked, and most everybody else did, so every month they traded their cigarette coupons for gas coupons and by summertime they had enough gas coupons to make it to Ocean City and Copalis beach. 

Mom and Dad got to be good friends with two of the occupants of Ocean City: Nina, the local storekeeper and Postmistress, and Dorothy, who owned a row of clam cabins and rented them out at a dollar a night (just the right price for Mom and Dad). Dorothy's small cluster of cabins was adjacent to Nina's store/home (she lived upstairs), and both ladies were single, so in the evenings Mom and Dad and Nina and Dorothy would sit around Dorothy's fireplace, drink coffee, and tell stories. There wasn't room for four people in a clam cabin: just Mom and Dad as long as they didn't get too rambunctious.  

It's hard to describe how isolated Ocean City was then, especially during the war. Hoquiam was 30 rough, curvy miles away, and very few people from Seattle/Tacoma/Olympia had enough available gas coupons to come that far. Every morning for the week they visited, Mom and Dad would get up at sunrise and dig their limit of clams; they'd frequently be the only people on the beach. Mom would nearly always get her limit first -- she was an athlete and Dad wasn't -- but I think she was just a better clamdigger. They'd walk the beach in the afternoons, again frequently without anybody else in sight, and in late afternoon, Mom would start making clam chowder for Dad (she hated the stuff). In the evening, Dad would gorge himself on chowder and Mom would eat whatever Nina had in stock at the store next door. 

They did that for the first eleven years of their marriage, and then I came along and gummed up the works. Actually, Dorothy retired from the cabin business the year I was born, and I took my first step in the summer of 1950 at Rod's Cabins, Mom and Dad's new choice of summer vacation spot. The cabins were a little bigger, and as I recall went for four or five bucks a night, which was a pretty big upgrade from a clam cabin. I still remember visiting with Nina and Dorothy when they were getting on in years into the 1960s. Last time I saw Nina, sometime around 1968, she was an old woman, but still Postmistress of Ocean City and still running the small store that also served as the post office. 

So when I say I come from a line of ocean people rather than desert people, that's what I'm talking about. The clam cabins and Nina's store/post office and the isolation are all gone, and the daily limit for clams has gone from 36 per person per day down to six to 10 on only certain designated dig days. But I took my first steps at the ocean, and when I step today, almost as unsteadily now as then, I still veer toward the water.


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