An Uptown Girl Goes Downstate

Miss April arrived on a Friday night in an aqua convertible from New York’s Upper East Side. It was her first summertime visit to Rehoboth and wouldn’t you know it coincided with one of the season’s hottest, humid weekends on the edge of a full moon.

Miss April and I met twenty-five years ago at Mr. Jefferson’s University and we’ve been dear friends ever since. She brought with here five summer frocks, a silk kimono, the current edition of Town and Country, a pint of fresh figs from Frederica, and the most sensible shoes a gal from the UES would bring – summer wedges, one pair with flowers and one pair without.

Fresh figs from Frederica? Had I really heard that right?

I had. Seems there wasn’t a fig to be had in all of Manhattan after the New York Times ran its recipe for grilled lamb and figs on rosemary skewers. So leave it to an uptown gal to find freshly picked, perfectly ripe purple figs in downstate Delaware.

She didn’t know why I found that so funny. That’s when I began explaining to her the concept of downstate.

Geographically speaking, downstate refers to Kent and Sussex counties, the two Delaware counties south of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. It’s often used in a derogatory manner by those who live in Wilmington, as a slur towards their so called less sophisticated Delawarean brothers and sisters, which cracks me up because I’ve been to Wilmington…

Back in 1935, Fortune did a big feature on the Du Ponts and Delaware. Here’s how the magazine defined downstate. The two big southern counties of the state are agricultural. The land never rolls, but is flat and dull. Yet it is fertile. From Kent and Sussex come corn, wheat, peaches, strawberries, and tomatoes. It becomes wastes of sand and scrub pine near the Delaware Bay. The people are more like Marylanders, nearly southern. Illiteracy increases. So does incest.

Yikes! I’ve also heard the term canacker (a cracker south of the canal) used to describe a downstater.

Once Miss April understood the origins of downstate, it was time to show her what downstate living was all about. She appeared frightened, especially when we announced a fried supper of crab cakes and French fries to celebrate her arrival downstate. Nobody in Manhattan eats fried foods.

The crab cakes were prepared with Japanese panko and paired with a curry dipping sauce. The French fries were home made. Sliced fresh tomatoes with extra virgin olive oil, fresh basil from the garden, and Himalayan salts that cost $20 per pound in Manhattan completed our simple downstate fried dinner.

Miss April began to relax.

She asked about the simple, elegant flower arrangement on the table. Was it inspired perhaps by the principles of Ikebana? Nope, I explained, by Route 16 and the old fashioned flowers like butterfly bushes, petunias, daisies, rose of Sharon that you see in people’s yards when you’re driving through Sussex County. Pure downstate baby. However, they were arranged in a Japanese flower frog and simple glass dish, and the blanc de blanc color palette was definitely more Greenwich than Greenwood.

When the Prosecco cork exploded out of the bottle on its own volition due to the heat and humidity, Miss April asked if that was downstate. Most definitely. The girl was catching on.

Beeswax candles in silver candlesticks that drip all over the dining room table due to the floor fans? Absolutely downstate.

A Finnish leather flyswatter in the shape of a fly? Extreme downstate.

Carrying your wine to the beach in a Gatorade bottle. Unconditionally downstate.

A clothesline out back for plein air-drying of handwoven linen towels. Utterly downstate.

Sweating on the front porch and listening to the crash of the waves on the beach rather than sitting indoors with air conditioning? Fabulously downstate.

Not only did Miss April get it, she even got into it, sitting in front of a fan with a vodka tonic and skewering lamb and figs onto turgid rosemary stems while we listened to Big Mama Thornton and Bull Moose Jackson on the ipod. A modern day pea shucker in pearls.

When it came time for Miss April to leave on Sunday afternoon, she was relaxed and mellow, having enjoyed a wonderful beach respite from the City. You might be interested to know that she didn’t depart in the aqua convertible. Oh no, she hopped right up in the passenger side of a big white 4×4 pickup truck for her journey back to the Upper East Side. How downstate is that?


A Modest Proposal

The other day a friend brought over his collection of Rehoboth Beach lifeguard postcards. If you’ve spent some time in Rehoboth, you’ve probably seen this tradition where the lifeguards pose in their red trunks for a squad photo that becomes a postcard. They’ve been doing it for decades; my friend has been collecting them for more than twenty years.

He denies it’s a full-blown fetish, and I take him at his word, even though he does drive a red jeep and might be a tad blonderexic, if you know what I mean. He maintains it’s just a healthy fantasy stemming from childhood summers on Long Island beaches and vacations to Australia. And, what red-blooded homo doesn’t appreciate a buff, sun-kissed fella wearing nothing but a swimsuit and a whistle around his neck?

The simple combination of youthful sex appeal, heroism, and the beach creates a potent aphrodisiac appealing to more than just gay guys. It’s why the television show Baywatch was so popular. It’s why crowds of grown men and women and kids all turn out for the life guarding competitions in late July. It’s why lots of beach resort have their own lifeguard postcards. Does anyone really send postcards any more?

Yes, the lifeguard is the true icon of summer.

I’d liked to have been a lifeguard and spent the summer on the beach, but I had neither the athleticism nor the crucial lifesaving skills required. The closest I ever got was working for the Aerial Sign Company in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Five miles inland in a mosquito-infested grass air strip, me and two college buddies toiled in hundred degree heat to set up the ubiquitous all-you-can-eat shrimp and Panama Jack suntan lotion signs you see pulled by old crop planes up and down seashore beaches. Trust me, it wasn’t very glamorous.

Rehoboth’s lifeguards have been around since 1921. The official Rehoboth Beach Patrol was founded that year with two guards. You can check out more history, photos, and facts at the official website of this very dedicated and professional organization at http://www.rehobothbeachpatrol.com.

Life saving associations like Rehoboth’s grew up at some of the better-organized East Coast beach resorts, like Atlantic City, in the late 19th century to safeguard the growing numbers of tourists, many of who did not know how to swim. According to the Red Cross, in the early 1900’s, about 9,000 people drowned each year on American beaches.

I’ve read that beach lifeguards were the natural outgrowth of the U.S. Lifesaving Service, which positioned stations along the coastline to help rescue sailors and cargo from shipwrecks. In each station, a government appointed keeper lived with a crew of men familiar with local waters. Just south of Dewey Beach is the Indian River Life Saving Station, originally built in 1876. Restored in the late 1990’s, the red and orange wooden structure is one of the very few such facilities still standing in its original location.

The U.S. Lifesaving Service operated from 1871 until 1915 when it merged with the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service to form the U.S. Coast Guard. The Indian River station was decommissioned in 1962 due to storm damage.

I recently toured it for the first time and found it quite interesting. You really get a sense of how these surf men lived together in this isolated outpost. There are journal entries you can read that tell about terrible winter storms – September through April was the busy season. The boat room contains all kinds of rescue equipment, including a Lyle gun, which looks like a cannon on wheels and was used to fire a projectile to a stranded ship. A rope was attached to the projectile and formed a lifeline to shuttle passengers to the beach. You can see the piano the men used for entertainment. It was purchased in Lewes and a team of mules pulled it along the beach at low tide to get it to the station.

And, there are photos, including one of the seven-man crew, which is very reminiscent of today’s lifeguard postcards.

Which brings us back around to Rehoboth’s lifeguards and an idea that popped into my head while writing this column. If Rehoboth is the nation’s summer capital and if the lifeguard is the nation’s summer icon, then shouldn’t the city’s official emblem be the lifeguard – or an image of the lifeguard on a white stand – rather than a lighthouse?

I’ve never really understood why the Cape Henlopen lighthouse was adopted as the symbol of Rehoboth. The lighthouse stood up the coast much closer to Lewes, and was built at the southern entrance to the Delaware Bay in order to guide ships. Rehoboth was founded as a resort town. It’s not a nautical town per se.

The lifeguard would be a great symbol for a summertime resort town. Imagine a big white lifeguard stand in the circle when you drive into town. A city flag with the image? Perhaps Rehoboth could even hire lifeguard wannabes to sell the parking passes at the entrances to town? Better yet, to walk around making change for the parking meters. Bronzed, friendly, buff ambassadors for the town.

I might be wrong, but it seems to me there’s a good marketing idea here waiting to be explored. So if any of you local politicos are reading, this proposal is yours for the taking.


He-She Sea Shells on the Sea Shore

I’ve been thinking about hermaphrodites lately, as an artist friend has been sharing some tales of his exploits as a boy and a young man in the Dominican Republic. He was telling me one night about a certain village by a lake where there lived a lot of albino hermaphrodites. They were very sensual and sweet and fell in love easily. For a quarter they would show you their fantastic white orchids.

Sounds like a bargain to me. In this village all a quarter buys you is seven minutes on a parking meter…

Medical researchers in the early 1970’s confirmed a rare form of pseudo-hermaphroditism in that Dominican village, meaning that baby boys didn’t get enough testosterone in the womb to fully develop as males. The condition was found in twenty-three extended families spanning four generations. The 1997 documentary Guevote followed the lives of Chi-Chi and Bonny, two pseudo-hermaphrodites and the way in which their families, partners, and others responded to them.

You must be wondering where all this talk about hermaphrodites is leading. Well, I’m going to tell you a story about hermaphrodites in Rehoboth. Don’t gasp. Just take a walk on the beach after a storm and I guarantee you’ll see one or two. You might call them conchs. But, if you want to be precise, please refer to them as knobbed whelks.

The knobbed whelk – a marine mollusk — lives in tidal estuaries and shallow waters off the East Coast from Massachusetts to northern Florida. They’re recognizable by the knobs on the crown of their spire and a light gray to tan shell, often with brown and white streaks. The shell interiors can range from pale yellow to orange to dark red. New Jersey and Georgia have both chosen the knobbed whelk as their state seashell.

Whelks are protandric hermaphrodites, meaning they function first as males when young, then change into females as they grow and age. I swear I’ve seen this same phenomenon in Ft. Lauderdale, but they call it the “golden girl” syndrome. It explains why there’s a preponderance of females among the older and larger-sized whelk population.

Protandric hermaphroditism is not uncommon among plants and invertebrates. Many mollusks change sexes, as do some species of sponges, shrimp, and freshwater crayfish. Snook fish are protandric hermaphrodites. Some orchids and watermelons are too.

What do you think the Georgia state legislature would do if it knew it’d adopted a hermaphrodite as a state seashell?

The very best place around here to see live knobbed whelks is out on the Cape Henlopen sand bar at low tide. They can grow as large as 9.5 inches. The shell grows over time as the whelk secretes a calcium deposit to the leading edge near the opening, causing the shell to become longer and wider to better accommodate the growing animal inside.

They reproduce in the spring and fall. Eggs are laid in protective capsules joined to form a chain of egg cases commonly called a “mermaid’s necklace.” Each capsule contains almost 100 eggs and most necklaces have 40-160 capsules. Sometimes you can find dried out necklaces washed up on the beach too.

You wouldn’t know it to look at them, but knobbed whelks are predators and its said they have a keen sense of smell. Clams are their favorite food. Whelks use their shell to open up the clam and then insert their long proboscis. They eat out the clam using a rough tongue-like organ that has thousands of tiny tooth-like protrusions.

The knobbed whelk doesn’t move around much. When it does its because a mucous gland opens onto the surface of a foot. This secretes a slime trail over which the animal glides. Waves of fine muscular contractions that sweep from the anterior to the posterior of the foot provide the power for locomotion. The foot also acts like a trap door. The whelk can pull shut to close off the mouth of its shell, thus protecting its soft body parts, which are safely inside. Weather temperatures and conditions dictate migration to and from offshore waters. During periods of winter storms, whelks like to burrow into the ocean bottom and can remain dormant for extended periods of time.

Man has used seashells throughout history as symbols of love, wealth, and ornamentation. I show the lowly mollusk some higher being by using it as decoration throughout my cottage. The color of the knobbed whelk works especially well with my décor and it looks great atop a pile of books, in bookcases, and on tables. I use small ones as finials on my lamps.

For close to 30 million years, knobbed whelks have lived peacefully off the coast. But with every passing day, they’re becoming more and more scarce due to over-fishing. Delaware dredges up an enormous amount of whelks each year to satisfy a growing international market. So, if you want to admire this wild hermaphrodite, one of nature’s truly special creatures, I suggest you don’t wait too long.