It seems, at this distance of time, that we traveled to Long Beach Island often, so significant a place does it hold in my memory. In truth it could have been no more than three or four times in my life, as we came East only every other year, and the beginning of World War II with its gas rationing, ended these excursions.
They were, while they lasted, the happiest of times. Grandmother and Granddad Davis, who lived in New Jersey, regularly took the little blue-shuttered cottage every August. We, as I’ve said, could not make the trip from Indiana every summer, nor did we stay the full month–but oh, the joys of sand, sea and wide blue sky! It seemed to Kit and me that here we had complete freedom. We were allowed a lot of liberty back home, too, but people knew us, and this was inhibiting. Who knew what might be observed and reported by family friends, neighbors, campus colleagues of Dad’s, or shopkeepers enjoying Mother’s custom? No: true freedom lay beyond the dunes in Beach Haven, where the only watchful eye was the far distant Barnegat Light. Not that we looked for, or found, any real mischief. Freedom was a state of mind.
Two specific events stand out against a backdrop of sensory impressions. The first was a rare gathering at the little cottage, of relatives on both sides of the family. Equally rare was the six-day rainfall during their one-week visit. I can still see us, sitting in a huge circle on the floor of the cottage’s vast and otherwise empty attic, playing jacks to a tune by Grieg which had acquired the words, “A little boy, a little girl…”
The postscript to this episode was that on the last day of the relatives’ stay, the sun blazed forth and everyone spent that day making up for lost beach time. Uncle Harry got such a bad sunburn that he could not get his socks and shoes on, and had to borrow Dad’s rubber sandals for his drive home.
The other happening which has remained with me, and has become invested with nostalgic significance, took place on the last day of another visit to Beach Haven. It was allowance day, too, and Dad had taken Kit and me to the little novelty shop for the ceremony of spending it. Kit’s selection was quick and typical; he added some small metal soldiers to his ever-growing army. For some reason I could not settle, this time, on the usual box of bright new crayons, or the pristine paper doll book. I remember examining everything, and starting over again, before the elderly Japanese proprietor said, “How about two dolls in a box?” I wasn’t that much of a doll person, but I agreed to look at them. The proprietor drew from an upper shelf a little closed, painted basket, and opened it to reveal two exquisite Japanese dolls about four inches tall, with real hair and inlaid eyes, dressed in tiny, matching kimonos. I parted willingly with my twenty-five cents, and left the little shop with the “two dolls in a box” and the knowledge that they were the only right choice.
What I could not know then was how right this choice, or why. This was the summer of 1941. We were never to come back to Beach Haven, and the little shop with its patient old shopkeeper, would not survive the war years. These two little beings, a little boy and a little girl, have preserved for me the innocence of those summers before the war, and the kindliness of one old Japanese, before he became The Enemy.