Memories of Ocean Beach, 1917

There I was with the unenviable task of returning semblance of order to boxes of family photographs that spanned several generations. I could not recall if I was drafted or volunteered for the task. One set of pictures caught my attention. A teenager, an attractive brunette, highlighted each photograph.

On the bottom of the pictures was identified the location where they were taken, “Ocean Beach, New London.” Pictures don’t lie. If that adage is true, surely no group of youngsters ever enjoyed themselves more than did those shown in the pictures. And when was that envelope of pictures taken? The dress of the bathers might have helped. Woolen swim suits? Two piece suits were not even on the horizon. No need to speculate.

Their reveling wasn’t daunted by crowds, pollution was not given a thought and exposure to harmful rays was not a concern. The teenagers were seeking a respite from the more populated Connecticut cities. Ocean Beach offered them a playground where they could involve themselves in cheerful and healthy amusement. The only brew they sought was that of sand, cooling waves and salty air. There was no fermented liquors, no brewing of mischief. Most were still saplings.

Next to the location, Ocean Beach, was written the date — 1917. That was the year of prohibition, restricting the sale or manufacture of alcoholic beverages. That was the year the United States of America declared war on Germany. It was still years before Ocean Beach Park was established.

Life guards were available but steps to secure the beach after hours were void. There were no cruise nights, no movies, no fireworks, no special events. It was just socializing at the beach.

I wonder how many of those youths seen in the photos were soon marching off to France? The greatest patriotic song ever written, George M. Cohen’s “Over There,” was a melody that at the time was on everyone’s lips; the lyrics were on everyone’s mind.

After seeing those photos, I gave thought to visiting Ocean Beach, but decided, not now. For me it would be an intrusion — entering their playground without being invited. I wondered: Would I be able to identify pictured trails, coves and dunes? Are vestiges of the manmade structures still standing? No, not a chance. Time and the ravages of storms have brought deterioration and destruction. The interplay of sand, surf and time will have left no landmarks.

No, there will be no visit to Ocean Beach at this time. I’ll leave the visits to the city councilors and the members of the “Save Ocean Beach” committee. They will decide how best the beach will achieve its potential and see it restored to a site where youngsters and not-so-young youngsters will have a safe place to experience fun in the sun.

As for the girl in the photos — the one who radiated such a radiant personality — a decade later she was to become my mother.

Roy C. Gumpel, M.D., lives in Pawcatuck. 

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