Pink Helmet

North end of the Ocean City, MD Boardwalk. 2013.

Ocean City, MD is well-known for its three-mile Boardwalk.  Having grown up pacing those boards every summer, I find myself consistently disappointed by other beaches’ “boardwalks.”  They’re charming in their own ways, but I’ve yet to find one that rivals Ocean City’s.

That being said, the Boardwalk can be a scary place.  If you’re easily startled, claustrophobic, and prone to anxiety attacks like I am, you learn not to venture past 14th Street on a Friday night.  But sometimes the scariest moments happen in the morning.  When you’re seven.  And your daddy disappears.

My daddy and I have a longstanding tradition of pedaling the boards during vacation.  As a kid, I’d bring my pink and purple Huffy bike from home while Dad rented one from the vendor on 27th Street.  Occasionally, my mom would also rent a bike and join us on our adventure.  We’d set out from one extreme of the Boardwalk and head south, the ocean on our left, hotels on our right, and the intoxicating aroma of bacon luring us toward the inlet.

This particular summer morning, our fab family of four hit the boards together.  My sister, well into her tween years and sporting all the attitude expected at the time, waited just long enough for Mom and Dad to secure their rentals before taking off on her own.  Mom went next, keeping her distance like a good parent so as not to embarrass her eldest daughter.  Once Dad was satisfied with the tightness of my bright pink helmet’s chin strap, we headed out after them.

I rode a little bit ahead of Dad.  I liked to pedal as fast as I could for a spell, then coast.  The salt air felt even better against my face when it was carried on a biking-inspired breeze.  Sometimes I would close my eyes just long enough to really feel it (and just short enough to not crash into somebody).  Delighted, I looked over my shoulder to catch Dad’s eye and see if he was enjoying himself, too.

But Dad wasn’t there.

I hit the brakes on my bike and skidded off to the side.  I swung my head from left to right, searching through the growing crowd of morning people, trying to spot either my parents or my sister.  I was alone.  Alone!  On the Boardwalk!  At 8:00 AM when all the crazies and weirdos came out to prey on ostentatiously dressed little girls!  Somewhere in my brain, I heard my mother say, “if we ever get separated, stay where you are.  We will always find you.”  Somewhere else in my brain, much louder, I heard, “get back to the hotel!

It seemed logical enough.  I knew how to get to the hotel, and eventually, everyone would need to go to bed.  Our beds were at the hotel.  Therefore, everyone would end up back at the hotel.  Still straddling the center bar, I hoisted up my Huffy, turned around, plunked it down, and without another thought, pedaled as fast as I could back north, the ocean on my right, hotels on my left, and the intoxicating aroma of bacon a mere mirage in my memory.

I don’t know how long I biked before I heard someone call my name.  Stranger danger!  Stranger danger!  Keep pedaling!  But it was not a stranger, nor was there any danger.  In fact, the danger was now lifted.  It was my mother.  My beautiful mother from whom I was certain I’d been separated forever (or, at least until bedtime).  I stumbled off my bike and let it fall to the ground as I ran to her, throwing myself against her, the salt of my tears overwhelming the salty air I loved so much.  Relieved as I was to have this reunion, one question still remained: Where was Daddy?

As it turns out, Daddy had drawn the short straw at the bike rental.  Not too far into our ride, the bike chain slipped off its track.  Master mechanic he is, Dad had pulled out of traffic to fix it.  He claims he called after me.  I suppose the wind in my ears drowned him out.

The world looks a lot different to a child.  At 33, it’s easy for me to say, “well, we eventually would have caught up to one another.  Three miles isn’t that far.  Plus, the Boardwalk isn’t really that crowded at 8:00 in the morning.”  But at seven, well, it was much easier for me to ask, “what’s happened to them?  What if something happens to me?  What if we never find each other?”  It’s funny how we don’t realize just how complicated those thoughts are until we’re older, perhaps having really experienced wondering what happened to them, having to cope with something happening to ourselves, or never finding the people we love.  Seven-year-olds shouldn’t have to wrestle with such thoughts.

My mom didn’t even know Dad and I got separated until she saw my pink helmet shoot past her as she, herself, was turning around to find him.  My inner child believes that pink helmet saved my family that day.

I mean, there probably wasn’t that much saving that needed to be done.  But you have to admit, it’s a pretty scary story!  My parents still won’t let me live it down.

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