The Army base had few redeeming qualities to the adults who lived there. The beach in the summer was one; the sledding hill in the winter was another. The final one was debatable among the mothers—some cursing the ravine for all the muddy clothes and gunk tracked into the house, others thankful that it was as safe a place as any for the children to play.
Summer on the base meant almost daily trips to the beach armed with packed coolers and sunscreen. The mothers took turns taking the kids, allowing for the necessities of running the house.
The mothers would pack up the brood, counting heads and towels and bathing suits. They threw cover-ups over old bathing suits and packed lawn chairs and a beach bag (that forever seemed to have sand in it) carrying several books—never just one, but several. The oldest children in each family always carried the cooler, one on each side always complaining, forever grumbling that the other one had intentionally bumped them. The younger children were always in charge of the various toys—the rafts, Frisbees, and floaties for their arms. And each child, somewhere, had a jar: a marvelous jar where they would stash any treasure they came across, be it a small piece of driftwood or, more often, seaglass.
Seaglass never ceased to amaze the children. More than any seashell or driftwood, seaglass was treasured.
The July sun never cared that SPF 35 protected the red-haired girl’s ghostly skin. The waters of Lake Michigan never read the bottle of sunscreen that promised in bold letters, “Waterproof”. She didn’t care either. She knew that there was little she could do to prevent her skin from sunburn, other than stay inside all summer, and, at the moment, she did not care about the inevitability of sunburn. (She would care tomorrow, but not today.) A day at the beach meant no cares and no worries. Only food, friends, and seaglass.
“Missa! Look at this one!” Her best friend, Nora, ran into the water, towards her, clutching something in her fist. “It’s blue!” Nora beamed.
“Blue seaglass?” Missa’s eyes went wide. Green was the most common, and brown next. White seaglass was not uncommon, not something to get excited over. Any other color, though, was rare. Missa had once found a red piece and searched for two days for another one, no matter how small, to give to Nora for her birthday. She had eventually found one, but it was little more than a sliver. She had kept it and given Nora her larger piece. “Can I see it?”
“Promise not to lose it?” Nora looked at her solemnly, her hand with the treasure clutched to her chest.
“Promise.” Missa put her hand over her heart and said, even more solemnly, “I promise on the Mess Call and the taking down of the flag.” Both of these were everyday occurrences on the base, happening at 4:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m., respectively. More importantly to the girls, Mess Call meant they had two hours of play left, and the taking down of the flag meant they had to stop what they were doing and wait for the song to end before being able to resume.
Nora stretched out her arm and opened her hand to reveal a large, irregularly triangular piece of deep, cobalt blue seaglass. The edges had long ago been made smooth by the sand and the waves of Lake Michigan, which made it all the more precious.
“Wow, and it’s from the bottom.” Missa marveled at the beauty of the piece, picking it up and letting the sunlight filter through it, running a finger over the uneven thickness of the edges.
Nora looked at her and frowned. “I looked for another piece for you, but I couldn’t find one.”
Missa handed the piece back. “It’s okay.” Missa looked back at the spot her family had picked and saw her mom frantically waving. “Looks like it’s time for lunch. We’ll look after lunch.”
Nora smiled. Hunting for seaglass always turned up more when they both looked. Anything unusual went to the original finder, and the greens, browns and whites were (usually) divided up with no problems.
Mrs. Murphey, mother of Nora, and Mrs. Johanson, mother of Marissa (called Missa), always camped out on the beach next to each other. Their children’s ages all matched up, and trying to pry playmates away from each other long enough to eat lunch could sometimes be a problem. Very quickly, the mothers made it easier on themselves by setting up camp next to each other. More often than not at lunch, some of the Murphey kids preferred what Mrs. Johanson had made, and some of the Johanson kids preferred what Mrs. Murphey had made. Keeping track of which kid had eaten and which had not was just easier in closer proximity.
It also allowed a fast friendship to form between the two women, and both knew how important that was on the base, and in the military. Both knew, of course, that within a few years’ time, a new address would be penciled in a well-used address book. A few years later, the address would be erased and another one penciled in, perhaps even an overseas address. They both knew this would happen eventually but chose not to think about it, instead enjoying having someone to complain with when the children did something wrong and another note came home from the school, or someone to help welcome a new family or say good-bye to another. They both knew how lucky they were to find a good friend fast, before the inevitable order to move.
More importantly, they knew how important it was to have someone else watching out for their children.
“Marissa Johanson, you’re starting to burn! Didn’t you put sunscreen on like your mother told you?” Mrs. Murphey asked as she handed Missa and Nora Capri-Suns.
Missa took the pouch and punctured it with the straw. Nora handed over her pouch and watched, enviously, as Missa perfectly punctured it without the straw coming out the back.
“Mama, I helped her put sunscreen on. It just washed off in the water.” Nora took the pouch back from Missa, who winked and then smiled at her. Dodging blame from a mother was one of their favorite games.
Mrs. Johanson looked up and handed a turkey sandwich to Nora, “Well you two should come back more often to reapply.”
Nora grabbed a plate and put the sandwich on it, then grabbed the bag of Doritos. “We try to remember, honest.”
“Mom, didn’t you pack anything other than turkey?” Missa looked into cooler, trying to change the subject.
“Here, dear, would you rather have corned beef?” Mrs. Murphey pulled a sandwich out of the cooler, and Mrs. Johanson gave her daughter an apple.
A chorus of thank-yous followed before the girls took their food and headed to a shadier spot, away from annoying older brothers and sisters. They divided up the Doritos and picked the lettuce off their sandwiches, and giggled about pranks they’d like to pull on their older siblings.
Lunch was quickly eaten and the girls, re-sunscreened after a glare from both moms, headed off to the shore, each with a jar in hand. Soon, greens filled the bottom of the jars, with a few whites mixed in. Both girls eventually added some brown ones but tried not to add too many. Browns were common, and, in the humble opinion of the girls, ugly most of the time. An oddly shaped one made up for it being a brown, though. Their favorite pieces came from the bottom of the bottle, because they had more interesting shapes. Even on browns, a bottom piece was a cool find.
They kept looking for two hours, when, finally, Nora came over and showed Missa a piece she had just found. “For you.”
Missa stood up and took the piece. A bottom piece of cobalt blue rested in her hand. “Really? You mean it?”
Nora grinned. “It’s for my red piece.”
Missa fingered her piece of bottom blue. It had been years since she’d been back to the base. Her family had moved the following April to California, and Nora’s family had ended up in Virginia. Eventually Missa’s family had moved again due to her father’s retirement and settled down in Milwaukee. And she had lost track of Nora’s family, only knowing they ended up overseas in England.
Shortly after Missa’s family had moved back to Milwaukee, the government had shut down the base. The golf course had stayed open and had been the subject of debate for quite some time, finally ending up staying with the base as it underwent a transformation to an upscale area.
University had just finished for the summer, and she had the car. She told her parents she was heading out to visit some old friends. She didn’t tell them there were memories that were three hours away. It didn’t matter too much to her. She’d fill up the gas tank and take it for an oil change and her dad wouldn’t care. She had just felt a need to visit the beach again. University life had been more than a little unsettling, and this beach called to her. Memories of simpler times—before being bogged down with studying and trying to decide her whole future—and seaglass awaited her. She often thought of the beach on the base, and how much of her childhood seemed to have been spent there, and how short the time was in reality.
She pulled through the gate that marked the boundary of the base. She passed the old guard’s station and still expected there to be a guard to step out and salute her as she passed. It hadn’t dawned on her that there would be no need for a guard now that the government had closed down the base.
She took the soft left at the T-junction to some street she knew only by sight, and by the girl who used to live there (Mary Jo). She stopped to let a golf cart cross the road to the fourth tee. The ravine to the left of the fourth tee had been a favorite of the kids to go golf-ball hunting in the summer when they didn’t go to the beach. No one ever told their mothers that they were selling golf balls they found to the golfers. Missa smiled at the memory of scrambling up the undergrowth in the ravine to get a golf ball peeking out of the mud.
She came to a bend in the road by the golf house. She spied a young boy, about her age 10 years ago, with a muddy shirt and a bag of golf balls. She smiled and wondered if the eighth-hole ball washer was still the best one.
She slowed down even more when she passed the sledding hill. There was a sharp bend in the road on the way to the beach that everyone slowed down for, unless they were new to the base. If that was the case, they announced that they were new by the squeal of brakes around the corner.
She came up the hill and put her car in park. The beach was on the other side, just down another twist of road, but a barbed-wire, chain-link fence was in her way. Getting out of the car, she strode over and looked long and hard at the sign on the fence. Looking past it, she saw Lake Michigan as she remembered it, with whitecaps clearly visible from a distance, and the stormy gray water underneath. She was tempted to climb the fence anyway, but a rational part of her mind told her all the seaglass in the world wasn’t worth her life, if the sign was true. Not having any evidence to the contrary, she had to believe it was.
She sighed, and headed back to the car, pausing only to read the sign one last time:
Warning: Unexploded Devices Beyond This Point. No Admittance.
As she turned the car around, she wondered if shrapnel would make as great a treasure to the next generation as seaglass did to hers. “Must be the Army’s version of seaglass,” she thought aloud as she spied the boy selling golf balls and headed off to home.
Copyright 2005, Julie Dereu
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