We’re just footprints in the sands of time

Maybe in this past year we boomers have had more time to reflect on the past, since the future has sometimes seemed so uncertain. BoomerCafé’s co-founder and publisher David Henderson has, and last week he did something about it. He revisited the site of some of his fondest memories. The beauty of exploring David’s memories is, he not just writes about them, but takes pictures that are worth a thousand words.

I’ve just visited Fenwick Island, Delaware, a favorite place from my youth that’s held nostalgic memories throughout my life. I went back because I wanted to find out why. Why have I felt drawn to this place?

It’s been 60 years since I was last on the island. It had been the favorite holiday spot for my family as I was growing up, an easy getaway from summer’s infernal heat and the exasperating humidity of the Washington area. Few families had homes and cars back then with air conditioning.

The Fenwick Island Lighthouse dates to 1858.

I had no trouble the other day remembering the old Fenwick lighthouse, about the only thing that hasn’t changed in all the intervening years. But everything around it has, because in keeping with trends from coast-to-coast, swarms of nondescript bungalows and condos have been built elbow-to-elbow surrounding the lighthouse. Fortunately, the historic lighthouse and buildings themselves remain unobstructed.

Up the beach a few miles is one of the old World War II observation towers. There are eleven of them, stretching from Fenwick Island up into the New Jersey coast. This one is yet to be restored and fairly run down. Back when we were kids, my sister Elizabeth, our late cousin Sam, and I would climb the rickety stairs inside the tower that had been abandoned by the Army at the close of the war, and we would look through the slats at the top and just imagine…

During World War II, soldiers manned a series of eleven concrete towers, built in the early 1940s, as they searched for approaching enemy ships or German U-Boats. This one is about 50 feet high and located between Fenwick Island and Bethany Beach. It’s the one where we played as kids.

Back during the war, the shoreline communities had been small and sparsely populated. German ships and U-boats cruised close to shore and occasionally would send a small boat ashore to seek medical help for a crewman, or even to buy groceries. By all accounts, these wartime interactions were cordial and the German sailors always paid for the assistance in dollars.

Our family would stay at The Fenwick Motel, long gone and replaced by more multi-story condos. The motel was built literally on the Maryland-Delaware state line, although back then no one cared. It was the only motel on the island as I recall.

Location of The Fenwick Motel… between the stop sign and three story condo. The road was not paved back then. Path to the beach is on the left.

While the motel is gone, the old pathway over the sand dunes remains. I walked it… twice… and thought of my mother who left us at much too young an age. Damn cancer. Damn cancer!

The old pathway over the sand dune to the beach.

My mother would spread a beach towel on the dunes as they sloped toward the sea and sit for hours, watching the waves. All of us kids would be in the water which was treacherous beyond belief— there was a sudden drop-off to much deeper water despite gentle-looking waves. There were also frequent riptides. We survived… somehow.

But still, it is a tranquil, lovely wide beach to this day. However, time and storms have taken a toll on the once-high dunes and seagrass. The dunes today are roped off. Sitting on them is prohibited.

My mother and I would walk that beach. She looked for shells, I looked for pirate treasure that might have washed ashore. I remember many of the shells she found had been broken by the rough surf. I found no pirate treasure.

There was one thing about visiting Fenwick Island this time that struck me most profoundly… the impressions of our feet, those footsteps in the sand. It was just like what I remembered. The footprints are perhaps the only thing that has not changed over the years, the decades, the centuries.

I thought as I walked the beach myself of my mother’s footprints, and of those of my other family members, and of mine, in that place, in that time. They all are there… and, will always be in my memory.

And here’s the special thing about it all: I have bumped into so many people in my lifetime who also stayed there with their families decades ago, and share similar fond memories.

All photos ©2021 David E. Henderson

3 Comments

  1. Beautiful memory of your past family vacations. Not Delaware, but Cape Cod was our family’s destination to relax and unwind by the beautiful beaches and quaint villages. Went back several years ago to bask in the sun and see what changed and what didn’t. Just as I expected, we found many weather torn cottages and landmarks still there that were once new in “the good old days”. And, of course the sandy roads and paths we once took on our daily walks to the beach were a bit obscure but remained. There were new restaurants and cafes to partake, but not quite like the original eateries. All in all, my “return to paradise” was enlightening but a little sad, and I wish time could have stood still a little bit longer during those past visits. Glad you were able to connect with those wonderful memories lost in time.

    1. Thanks, Sharyn. Back then we simply didn’t travel much. In the intervening years, however, I’ve fallen in love with New England and the Vineyard.

  2. Hello David, your story was perfect and beautiful. I relate to the memories, as feel the same way about my childhood coastal retreat along the Texas coastal bend and now my second home. Thanks for sharing.

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