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In Maine Cover 

John Cole loved many things about Maine, and this section from In Maine reveals his love of beaches and the reasons he felt Maine’s beaches are some of the finest in the world. 


Reflections

Freed from their classrooms like puppies turned out of their pen, the children went scampering to the beach last week for the first time this year. When I got home in the early evening of that warm day, the beach people had just returned and their wet towels, plastic jugs that had been full of ice and sugar drinks, wet bathing suits, beach balls and surfing mattresses—all their paraphernalia lay scattered on the lawn, and over the entire confusion was the fine white sand and the fragrance of saltwater that will be with us now until late in September.

Of the many blessings of life in this corner of the world, I find none more blessed than the beach. There is a fine and honest continuity in seeing children’s summer lives involved with the surf and the sand and the sea. For I think the beaches of the northeast Atlantic are the finest in the world, and the few beaches in Maine are becoming the best of these.

There is no mystery about my love for beaches. In the first year of my life my summer was spent in a rambling house, perched like some huge and clumsy sea bird on a high dune peering out over an Atlantic Ocean that stretched across the world. The house was so close to the sea that my small bed trembled as each wave broke; and on stormy days the foamy fringes of the surf curled along the edge of the terrace.

I spent my summers in that place. When I was five or six I was taught to swim in the surf, and I can still feel the awe and excitement of diving into the elemental curl of a breaking wave and letting it enfold me in its dark and fluid turbulence. Later, in my young teens, the other boys of that beach and I would spend entire day after entire day body-surfing the waves, no matter how rough the waters or cold the sky.

And still later, I spent my years on the very same beach, long after the sea-bird house had changed hands. I fished from the beach in a net-heavy dory that pushed through the waves breaking on the same spot where I had learned to swim.

So in my life, finding a beach was like going home, and I looked for beaches everywhere I went—the mine-strewn beaches of England; the rocky coasts of France and Italy with their limp, warm seas; the tropical waters of Florida with the barracuda and Portuguese men-of-war; the waters off Savannah, muddied by the southern red clay brought down by the rivers of the south; the long reaches off the Carolinas; the sharky beaches of South America and the mini-beaches of the Carribean; the cold, kelpy beaches of the Pacific in northern California; the muggy beaches off New Orleans on the hot Gulf; and the spongy, coral beaches of Bermuda—I looked for beaches everywhere I went and with all the objectivity I can muster I still argue that the beaches of the northeast Atlantic are the finest in the world.

The proper combination of wind and water temperature makes the Atlantic here the most invigorating and refreshing of all bathing seas. Perhaps it is the combining of the Gulf Stream fringe with the North Atlantic current, or some much more mysterious ecological recipe; but whatever it is, there is no water like the waters off these shores. Nor are there other beaches more pure, more free of the annoyances like the sharp coral of warmer seas, the stinging leftovers of the men-of-war, the smell of sharks, the rocky shores, the flies and insects—none of these is here in any noticeable presence, yet one or more of them is part of every other beach place.

I began to realize the exceptional quality of these beaches during the travels that took me to beaches in other places, but not until I spent a year in Ohio did I know the lancing pangs of being without any beach. I felt as if some of the fabric of my life had been ripped from me and buried. I could not breathe free, and the midwestern air without a beach to blow from became a suffocation.

I spent most of the year planning ways to leave, and it was my determination to escape that brought me to Maine. I remember my first hours in Kennebunk on a raw March day as I was driven on a tour of the town. We came around a point at Kennebunk Beach and there was my ocean, the great spring swells of an equinoctial storm curling and crashing on that lovely stretch of sand. I can still see them, still feel the surge inside me that told me I could never again deny a nearness to the sea.

I don’t expect the children to necessarily share my need, but it is right and fitting that they should know these beaches. There is no other place in the world where they can run as free; and there are no longer any beaches left as free as ours in Maine.