New London - Nothing says summer like a string of perfect beach days.
So when the first official weekend of the season came and went at Ocean Beach Park, it did so without ceremony - just another set of glorious, sun-abundant, 70-something afternoons, marked only by the sights and sounds that have filled it for days now: hundreds packing the sand, crowds of brave souls neck-deep in the frigid water. Like a floor of towels and a Technicolor forest of umbrellas is its natural state - as if it's always been this way.
As if just three weeks ago, it wasn't pouring rain for 24 hours straight, the shore sodden and the creamery shuttered, the parking lot abandoned, the carousel empty. April showers still in full onslaught, long past their welcome. Summer slipped in unnoticed, and on Sunday, it's as if it never left.
By early afternoon, the cars have spilled over onto the stretch of grass next to the parking lot. A small crowd waits patiently at the window of the Boardwalk Creamery. A little boy with saltwater-sticky hair, hardened into spikes, looks troubled as he deliberates.
His sister's order arrives before the cup of cotton candy-flavored Mini Melts he settled on - a cone of soft-serve vanilla. He reaches up with grabby hands.
"No," his mother scolds, "that's Sissy's. You can't have that."
Next to them stands a little girl whose rainbow sprinkles-coated cone matches the rims of her sunglasses. A little smear of melted vanilla pools in the indent of her chin. Overhead, a plane tugs along a banner featuring the image of a plastic cup of iced Dunkin' Donuts coffee and the accompanying text, "You look hot down there."
"Eat up, honey," the girl is instructed. "It's gonna melt."
Here, under a sky that's clear save for some faint wisps of cloud, past the frozen treats, there are four spots to survey - the rides, the sand, the water, and the arcade.
On the carousel - a dollar a token, three tokens to ride - a blonde toddler with stubby pigtails appears unsure atop a blue elephant. Moments later, she trades up for a handsome white steed with a pink and teal saddle. When the ride lurches to start, her mouth drops open.
Just outside the gate, a girl her size, head to toe in pastel seahorses, gazes on wistfully.
"Get to the car, Stella," her mother says.
"I want to watch the horses," she pleads, to no avail.
The sun-weary grab some shade, relaxing on benches beneath the metal awning at the edge of the boardwalk. But on the sand, they lap it up, idle bodies appearing to be permanent fixtures, glazed with a sheen of sweat and sunscreen. All around them, the detritus of a well-planned beach excursion - coolers, bejeweled sandals, armchairs, blankets.
A girl in a bikini demonstrates a flawlessly executed back flip for her family; one dozing sibling misses it.
"Wait, did she do it?" he asks, lifting only his head.
"Do it with no hands!" crows another.
One man in the lap of luxury dangles a perfect bunch of green grapes above his face, plucking them off one by one - one for the little one, one for him.
Down closer to the shoreline, a seeming army of lone toddlers, arms swaddled in floaties, bottoms plunked on the sand, are on a mission to fill their buckets or dig. An older group of four girls delegates sandcastle duties - patting, fortifying, scooping, molding. So far, their diligence has yielded a soggy, doughnut-shaped fort with a stick impaled in its concave center.
"Our back wall's gonna cave!" one of them warns, as the encroaching tide licks ever closer.
Just beyond them, the water is dotted with white, wobbly sailboats. Adults grimace, toe the chilly froth; the children seem universally undaunted, splashing in head on, squealing with delight. Their parents snap quick photos on their phone cameras as their baby fish emerge, grinning, from the sea.
Back up around the boardwalk, the arcade beckons away from the swelter with neon signage, a dark haven of artificially cold air.
A couple of kids work the candy crane in one corner. But on the other side, the door is swung wide open, back out into the sun again.
And on a day like this - another perfect beach day - who wants to be inside?