Hampton Beach Memories

While in college, I wrote a full-length play set in a tiny Hampton Beach rental cottage. It was a clever thing to do, I thought, because the cheap little cottages look a lot like used stage scenery anyway. Even the most poverty-stricken theatrical troupe would be able to knock a convincing set together.

From the front porch, the cottage had a view of the drawbridge that carries Route 1A over the entrance to Hampton’s small harbor. In the script, the bridge is stuck open for most of the play, which is intended as a symbol of lost hopes or unfulfilled dreams. What can I say? I was reading a lot of Tennessee Williams at the time.

Unbelievably, the play won first place in a writing contest, and so was staged in a read-through performance in New York. In the end, the script was full of notions that proved as flimsy as the cottage it was set in. But thinking back on it, I now realize I got one thing exactly right.

Hampton Beach really is a stage — a long, flat, sandy stage on which a great many stories have been acted out over the years. As New Hampshire’s sole old-time seaside resort, its role has been to give generations of visitors a chance to get away from our ordinary lives and be someone else, if only for a short time.

In terms of pacing, the action at Hampton Beach follows a pattern as predictable as the tides. For much of the time, things languish — stores are shuttered and the big beach lies empty, providing a good setting for, say, Hamlet’s soliloquy. Go out for a walk with the wind as your companion and quiz the seagulls: “To be or not to be?”

The drama, however, builds quickly and inevitably to its annual climax, which occurs in the 12 weeks between Memorial Day and Labor Day. That’s when a cast of thousands — actually, tens of thousands — transforms the old resort into a strutting summer pageant filled with noise and color.

Lighting is provided by the sun, which helps Hampton attract its share of California-style sun worshippers. Costumes aren’t an issue with this group; they become someone else simply by shedding their clothes and lying on the sand. Such cast members help the beach itself transcend geography, turning this little part of New Hampshire into Venice Beach for a few months each year.

Like any drama of quality, there’s a subtext. And that depends on what you bring to it yourself.

For me, because I’ve been going to Hampton Beach since before I could walk, it’s a convenient yardstick against which the rhythms of growing up were charted. We didn’t visit it often — usually once a year. But that made the trips all the more memorable. And because the place hasn’t changed all that much, visiting today reminds me of how much I’ve changed.

It helps that my mother took lots of pictures. There are snapshots of my brothers and me in the 1960s playing on playground equipment that’s still in place, right outside the Seashell Stage. The run-down cottage we rented one summer, named the “Maura Jean,” still stands on Exeter Street. It has a different name now, but it still looks like it was hauled straight from a production of Porgy & Bess. And many of the same businesses and buildings continue to endure.

It’s the special effects that first got me. As a kid, I recall being awestruck by the size of the waves rolling and crashing ashore, and the power of the currents underpinning them. I remember the tactile sensation when being lifted by two adults (usually my mother and an aunt) up and over waves that would have washed right over my head.

Much later, I found myself disappointed by the waves. They seemed small and puny and powerless, not nearly as impressive as when I was a child. It took me a while to figure out that the waves hadn’t changed at all — what had changed was me. The world seems a much different place when you’re under three feet tall.

As I grew up, Hampton Beach became the scene of lessons taught in dramatic fashion. It was a place filled with potential delights, but also where carelessness could easily lead to catastrophe. The presence of lifeguards in tall orange chairs was enough to remind me of the dreaded undertow, which my mother warned would grab me and haul me out to sea and drown me if I didn’t behave — harsh punishment indeed for not being good. I grew up keenly aware of the danger that lurks underneath every wave or within every group of bullies that picked on kids like me.

As if that weren’t enough, a beach evacuation plan was being put in place for the then-new Seabrook nuclear power plant, complete with early warning sirens, which made alarming companions for the existing tidal wave sirens. And periodically, low-flying KC-135 tanker planes would fly over on their way to or from Pease Air Force Base, reminding us that the Russians could attack any moment. Thinking back on it, I’m reminded of a poster seen in Terry Gilliam’s film “Brazil”: Relax in a Panic-Free Atmosphere!

But to me, the beach provided other personal lessons that at the time took on the power of Greek mythology. One summer, my brother and I used most of our allowance to buy an elaborate kite from the Rexall Drug Store. We then launched in the state park on the south end of beach, with our mother warning us to be careful. What else was new?

To get the kite to go as high as possible, we extended the store-bought line with a great ball of twine, which we wrapped around a Coke bottle. In our haste, however, we failed to attach the line to the bottle. So when the line ran out, there went the kite, gone forever due to our carelessness and overreaching. Talk about Icarus and Daedalus!

Today, more than 30 years later, my mother is still liable to bring up the kite incident to buttress a point she’s trying to make about what happens when we don’t listen to her.

And still more lessons were learned. Sessions of elaborate low-tide civil engineering projects taught impermanence when the tide came in and washed it all away. (A favorite activity was to build a fort to withstand the tide. We never succeeded.) Losing game after game of Skee-ball to my older cousins taught me humility. Seeing how many quarters it took to win enough arcade games to get a cheap prize taught me the value of money.

Seeing my brother brush off a couple of tough kids in front of the Hampton Beach Casino, and then later seeing one of them punch him in the face in the back of the Playland Arcade, taught me that actions have consequences. Trying my hand at Spin-Art misled me into many wrong assumptions about the creative process and my own aesthetic aptitude, which was all too evident in my script years later.

To each his own, but I like a drama that helps me understand who I am. On that score, Hampton Beach remains one of my favorite recurring productions. The show is a bit like Brigadoon, disappearing as it does for much of the year. But you can still walk the set whenever you like, even in the dead of winter, when all the players have gone and it has its own special appeal.

And if nothing else, I have to keep coming back to see how I turn out.