Thirty years ago this month, an A.S. Abell Company editor-my mentor, Gil Watson, long retired to Chestertown-called me into his office. I was sure I'd screwed up in some career-ending-before-it-even-started way. Gibby let me squirm a moment and said, "We're sending you down the ocean."
I was 25 years old with a wife, a 2-year-old, and another child due by mid-summer. The gig was my break from chasing cops and writing obituaries. The unspoken deal was clear: If I did a good job, they'd promote me to full-time reporter.
Debbie and I packed up the cars (mine a bottle-green '78 Granada, hers a dirt-brown '74 Malibu) and made for the Bay Bridge and Route 50 East.
When summer arrives, Ocean City becomes Maryland's second most populated city, with more than 300,000 people in town to swim, eat, burn, and do things they wouldn't do at home.
From the inlet in Old Town north to Rehoboth and inland to the Eastern Shore farmlands, I went deep-water with lobster fishermen, rocked out with the Slickee Boys' psychedelic surf band, put on a "blues barbecue" with guitarist Tom Larsen, ate sausages made by a Latino poultry executive who'd created a "chicken chorizo" years before the Hispanic food industry exploded, and reported the anguish of a girl who decided it was better to throw her newborn into the Assawoman Bay than tell her parents she was pregnant.
Using revenue from the alcohol tax as a measure, I tried to figure out how much booze was consumed over the course of a summer along the 9-mile barrier spit. The answer: a lot. And the one-man Ocean City bureau of The Sun-a small room in the Tarry-A-While cottage right off the boardwalk on Dorchester Street-helped boost the average.
In addition to a living wage and great benefits negotiated by the Newspaper Guild, the Sunpapers put us up in a 94th Street townhouse on the bayside, paid for the downtown "office," and covered all of my expenses, including mileage.
When our son was born in late July, the circulation department, where I'd started as a 19-year-old dealing with irate subscribers, arranged a ride home on a single-engine plane that ferried bundles of the Sunday edition from Calvert Street to the shore.
Today, as a freelance storyteller in the age of internet content, the idea that a newspaper would invest that much capital to provide its customers with "a good read" seems as alien as the hundreds of kids from Ireland who once came to Ocean City to work jobs many American kids would not. Many of those jobs are now held by young people from Eastern Europe and Russia.
Newspapers are dead and dying. The opportunity I got at 25 seems beyond duplication today; yet young people continue to dream of becoming writers. I submit Ocean City as the perfect cauldron in which to render those hopes.
With a notebook in the pocket of their workpants and an eye for the durable and the unusual, an apprentice of letters on the shore-particularly a resort like O.C., with deep working-class roots-can access everything Bruce Springsteen ever put to music.
Runaways and roller coasters, cops and carneys, burned bellies on the boardwalk, the fuck-ups, the police lockup, families trying to make memories to last a lifetime in seven short days. . .
And the sea.
The undulating Atlantic sweeping the beach with foam; the dark, wet shore pocked with the bubbles of burrowing sand crabs; Poseidon's metronome promising narrative just beyond the breakers.
Most every writer-even the landlocked Nebraskan Willa Cather near the end of her life-has access to the sea. But few are fortunate enough to meet someone there like Watterson "Mack" Miller.
I found the reclusive octogenarian over the summer of 1983 in his shack on the West Ocean City fishing docks. Mack was a hotel handyman who ate raw eggs for breakfast and was celebrated for heroic swims more than a mile out to sea and back.
A one-time drunk who'd long ago squandered his inheritance to the Louisville Courier-Journal fortune only to find God at the end of a gun he'd pointed at his head, Mack was kind and patient with me.
I continued to visit once my story about him ran in the paper. After talk about books and religion and his lusty Lost Generation sprees in Paris, my end of the conversation became confessional, the unpublished tale of a reckless kid reporter with a young family at the beach.
"I wouldn't roll the dice with my blessings," counseled Mack the last time I saw him. "The good Lord might not offer them to you more than once."
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