Beach Night

Unsplash-roller coasterMy favorite holiday is right around the corner. I love Memorial Day, because it heralds the start of summer. I’ve always been a fan of summer; I strum my fingers through the other seasons, waiting for it. Like Robert Heinlein’s Petronius the Arbiter, I keep looking for that automatic Door Into Summer.

Also, I think the holiday itself is pretty noble. A day that honors every American who perished while in military service. Throughout the history of the United States. As I understand it, this includes soldiers who fought for the Union or the Confederate army. (Anyone who doubts that the great wounds inflicted by the Civil War don’t still linger to this day, just Google “Confederate memorial debate.”) I like that Memorial Day doesn’t choose a side. There should no longer be boundaries amongst the dead.

I’ve grown to appreciate Memorial Day as an adult—I don’t think I realized it was an actual holiday until I moved out West. I want to say that Memorial Day was not a big deal growing up in New Orleans, because it was the holiday we gave up in order to get a day off for Mardi Gras. (But I don’t know this for certain. It’s not the case in my current job.) It could be that the school year always ended around Memorial Day, and the end of school overshadowed all else in my young brain.

School was never my favorite thing. It wasn’t the learning part of school that I disliked. The knowledge I gained was a kind of fortunate by-product. I think what I disliked was the boundaries. The boundaries of what was acceptable to teach a class of second graders (or fourth, or seventh, or whatever grade I happened to be in). And the boundaries of acceptable, or appropriate, social interactions. Oh, if I had really spoken my mind while I was growing up. . .

I never bucked up against those boundaries in any serious way (certainly not during grade school). I followed along, because that’s what you’re supposed to do. But I didn’t like it. My mother would tell me, “I wonder what you could accomplish if you really liked what you were doing in school.”

One of my favorite things about the end of the school was “Beach Night.” Pontchartrain Beach was an amusement park on the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain. It had roller coasters, a log flume, a haunted house, and all the things you’d expect to find in such places. Sometime in May, the upper grades (sixth, seventh and eighth grades, I think) would get a night dedicated to their particular amusement at Pontchartrain Beach.

Talk about boundaries falling away. I remember walking around the joint like I owned the place. No family, only friends, the ones who were at your side during all the slings and arrows of the previous year. I discovered I loved roller coasters during Beach Night. This was hardly a guarantee, since I’ve suffered from motion sickness my whole life. (Roller coasters = good / Tilt-A-Whirls = bad).

The Ragin’ Cajun was a steel roller coaster with a loop in it. At eleven or twelve years old, I had no idea what to expect. Wouldn’t I fall out when the cars went upside down? Why was I doing this?

I remember being (almost) disappointed that the coaster made the loop so fast that you didn’t even get a glimmer of a falling sensation. But I still remember feeling invincible after conquering that ride. If the world was Pontchartrain Beach, I was the king of it.

Thinking back on it, I’m sure there must have been other schools besides St. Angela Merici participating in Beach Night. I’m sure it was the kind of targeted marketing promotion that I am so familiar with now. Maybe it was a night designated for parochial schools in Metairie.

But I never got the opportunity to assess Beach Night with older, marketing-savvy eyes. Pontchartrain Beach closed in 1983, the same year as my eighth-grade graduation.

So, Beach Night ushered in only a glancing few summers for me. And then in less than a decade, I would be working full-time. The boundless ninety days full of things I loved doing (swimming, road trips, reading, or being aimless) would be gone.

Corporate life has almost as many boundaries as school, and a lot less learning. It took a while to figure out, but somehow I still manage to squeeze in a little bit of swimming, travel, reading and aimlessness every summer.

And ever since I moved back to New Orleans, when the month of May rolls around, the scent of night-blooming jasmine, and the veiled threat of the heat to come, always makes me think of the triumphs of those Beach Nights, so long ago.

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