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On the BEACH : Shifting Sands, Foul Water and Other Man-Made Follies Threaten Our Coast

June 24, 1990|CHARLES PERRY | Charles Perry is a free-lance writer. His last story for this magazine was "O, Happy Days! When We Were Very Young."

LIFE WAS NOT A BEACH. No way : The beach was life, starting with that first glorious afternoon of the last day of school. When I was in high school, we headed for the beach every chance we could get the car; within a matter of weeks, the floorboards were half an inch deep with tracked-in sand. We got up early to catch the good waves at Clemente ( San Clemente was the correct name, we eventually found out). We gloried in wearing that most elegant of scents: Sea 'n Ski mingled with drying, flaking, stinking saltwater.

There were the other sensations, too. The cold, chemical sting of the plastic snorkel and green-rubber fins. The ghastly tang of saltwater up the nose when a mask leaked--which was pretty often, now that I think of it. Fried fish and shrimp eaten from cardboard boxes on a pier, where the whole plankton-rich sea heightened the fishy aroma. The hospital odor of seaweed. The reek of dead jellyfish.

Hitting a particular beach now and then meant merely enjoying the sun and surf. But hanging out at a beach on a regular basis meant entering a whole new realm of social life. When I hung out at Victoria Cove in Laguna during the late '50s, I found that to fit in, I had to learn a card game called Robber Casino. I haven't heard of the game since.

Whatever else might happen, there was always volleyball. One summer we learned that Ozzie and Harriet Nelson were staying at a private beach nearby. Ozzie was always eager to play with us. But the secret hope of every kid on the beach was that the heartthrob of the family, Ricky, might be with them and might come down for a game sometime. My sister, Mary, persevered for weeks, rallying with Ozzie and whoever else joined in, until it was obvious Ricky would never show.

It was a disappointment for her, but in the process she had discovered she really liked volleyball. In time, she captained a national champion women's team and went to the Olympics twice. You never knew where the beach would lead you.

Aside from the obvious seaside activities of swimming and sunning, you could fly a kite, which was something grown-ups thought was far more fun than we did. You could also dive in terrifying kelp forests and toy with a dramatic death. But the only other really important sport besides volleyball was throwing things. We were lucky that the Frisbee had just been put on the market, under the name Pluto Platter. I don't know what we would have hurled otherwise, but it probably would have been dangerous.

It was important for guys to throw things and play volleyball for blood because we were convinced that's what girls admired. We were just guessing, of course, because the girls weren't too forthright about what they thought. Negotiations between the sexes were ambiguous and uneasy, which seemed pretty unfair when everybody was running around half-naked all day.

For Southern California kids, spending summers at the beach was an essential rite of passage. We baked in the sun as we've never dared since to achieve a two-tone color scheme of mahogany skin and straw-white hair, like human saddle shoes. We got tar in our hair from offshore-oil leaks, stepped on broken glass in the sand and had the fine adventure of being chased off beaches by the locals.

Despite the chores of driving and parking, the beaches were cool when it was hot, clear when it was smoggy, full of recreational potential--and cheap. Because the beaches were always there, a lot of us teen-agers took them for granted. As adults, many of us still never give them a second thought.

But a closer look reveals that what we've taken for granted is more than a convenient place to hang out; it's a vast, complex, ever-changing resource in need of more human nurturing than ever. In the past 40 years, overcrowding, pollution and erosion have upset the balance of Southern California's coastal ecosystem. How we choose to deal with these problems will no doubt determine whether our beaches fade into nostalgic memories--or survive and thrive for generations.

THANKS to the explosive growth of Southern California, its nearly 100 beaches are visited by more than 90 million people a year. That's more than triple the annual number only 20 years ago. Unfortunately, along with sunscreen and beach towels, the crowds have brought with them traffic snarls, garbage and crime.

Some of the beaches are plain overused, basically because other beaches are hard to get to. Three-mile-long Santa Monica City Beach, the state's busiest, attracts as many as 300,000 visitors a day. This is not only because it's right at the end of the Santa Monica Freeway but also because it's one of the few beaches in Los Angeles County with plenty of parking.

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