Which Rehoboth?

My father and younger brother Jefferson recently rolled into town for a short, impromptu visit. As the host for this little family gathering, I had to seriously think about what experience to share with them. What image of Rehoboth did I want to promote?

I should point out that all my family, except me, live in Charlotte, North Carolina, that gleaming straight-laced city of bankers, barbecue, white sneakers, golf shirts, and cell phones. They say it’s a nice place to raise kids, and everyone’s a civic booster.

That’s so not me. I like odd places and I admire eccentrics. I prefer noisy fans to air conditioning, bikes to cars. I’ve been known to throw back the occasional Manhattan on a Sunday morning, and one of my favorite emotions is to be appalled.

So surely you see my dilemma. You’ve probably encountered it yourself. Do I proffer up a Rehoboth of quiet cocktails and witty tête-à-tête on a screened porch? A picnic on the beach perhaps? Or, like a Nepalese sherpa, do I escort my visitors to tea dance to watch gay boys slurp liquor off the bellies of faux lifeguards and afterwards guide them through the jumbos and nitwits on the Boardwalk for a high-calorie supper of pizza, French fries, and ice cream? Oh, Rehoboth, you offer so many treats for the senses, so many delicacies. Where to start?

The Starboard in Dewey Beach, that’s where, especially on a rainy afternoon when you’re squiring around two straight men away from their wives for a few days. A lot of gay guys are afraid of the Starboard, but not me. It’s an old fashioned rowdy beach bar full of attractive half naked guys and girls. Sure, it reeks of beer, suntan lotion, and sex, but the music is always good and so are the Bloody Marys. What’s not to like? The old man even got into the spirit, ordering up a round of “Whoo-Whoo” shooters (a peach concoction of some sort) from a very well-endowed young lady. Claimed he was having a flashback — the Elbo Room, Ft. Lauderdale, 1960. Hmm, I was born in 1960…

After a rollicking start, I slowed the tempo and invited a few friends over for a quiet garden cocktail party. Luckily, the rain held off. Beside flickering torches and fragrant lillies, we sipped a cold French Muscadet, nibbled on crab claws, and talked about presidential hopefuls and Caribbean dictators. A casual stroll into town got our appetites worked up for dinner on the front porch at Planet X.

The next day, a must-see was the old du Pont house on the beach at One Cullen Street. It’s a big cedar shingled house built in the 1940’s by Alexis Felix du Pont Sr., and owned more recently by Michael Scanlon, the Rehoboth lifeguard turned Republican politico turned lobbyist, convicted recently along with his buddy Jack Abramoff of scamming $80 million from Indian tribes and bribing federal officials. My father had been following the scandal in the Wall Street Journal and had learned of Scanlon’s Rehoboth Beach connections. He was quite envious upon hearing that I’d actually toured the house back in 2003 when it was on the Rehoboth Art League Cottage Tour.

A stop at Quillen’s Hardware on Rehoboth Avenue was next for mosquito repellent and some flypaper. Yes, I said flypaper. The old fashioned, sticky, brown kind. My brother refused to believe people really used the stuff. That is, until one of the Quillens employees explained how bad the biting flies could get in summertime in Rehoboth, some as big as a nickel. By the way, they were sold out of flypaper.

Because the old man is a bit of a WWII history buff, we drove up to Fort Miles at Cape Henlopen State Park. The concrete watch towers lining the beach from Lewes to Bethany are well-known to Rehoboth regulars as part of the fortifications built in 1940 to protect the Delaware Bay and the port of Philadelphia from potential German attack. If it’s open, you can climb to the top of Tower #7.

Fort Miles, I learned, was one of the country’s most secret and heavily armed harbor fortifications. It featured some of the largest guns in the U.S. weapons inventory. And, it was one of the most expensive forts, built at the cost of $24 million. At its heyday it covered 1,600 acres and housed 2,500 soldiers who had to endure windswept sand, extreme heat and cold, biting flies, and odor emanating from a nearby fish processing plant. I’m not making that up; I read it in a new book out about Fort Miles. After the war, the Army began dismantling the fort and eventually ceded part of it to the State in 1964. Cape Henlopen State Park was created on its site. Plans are underway today to create a museum housed in an old bunker.

I was enchanted with the great dunes upon which the remains of the fort sit. They’re the highest dunes on the East Coast between the Outer Banks and Cape Cod. What wonderful vistas looking north and south. Thankfully the developers never got their greedy hands on them or they’d be ruined for sure.

All in all, it was a haphazard and broadly defined Rehoboth that my brother and father experienced, an unruly, unstructured tour, which in my opinion is the best kind. They enjoyed themselves. I kept my family reputation intact. A good time was had by all.

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