I’ve been dredging my life for recollections to include in a memoir, which will come out in October with the title Where the Light Fell. Here’s a memory from one of the annual trips my family in Atlanta made to visit relatives in Philadelphia. I was ten years old at the time.

One summer, to give us relief from Philadelphia’s heat, Mother drives us to Ocean City, New Jersey—“America’s favorite family resort,” the billboards proclaim. She feels safe there because the Methodist ministers who founded the town passed a law that alcohol could never be served or sold.

While we are driving across New Jersey, Mother decides that my brother Marshall and I need haircuts. She pulls into a parking lot beside a white frame building with a barber pole out front, a red-and-white-striped cylinder spins around and around like a giant candy cane. When the door opens we see eight men sitting in chairs waiting, and only two barber chairs, both empty. “Oh, sorry, it looks like you’re busy today,” Mother says, and starts to leave.

“No, no, not at all,” the barber replies, jumping up and adjusting his white apron. “These are just friends passing the time. Come right in. Your boys are next.”

Child in barber chair (stock photo)I climb in the barber chair and notice that the barber’s hands are shaking. He runs the electric razor over my head and I feel a sharp nick. “Ow!” I yell. “That hurts!” Mother shoots me a disapproving, behave-yourself look. It happens again, and then again. Each time I yelp, and each time I get that look. I pull my hand out from under the cloth, reach up, and feel blood.

Just then the door opens and three policemen walk in with their hands on their holsters. “Don’t anybody move,” the biggest one says. “You’re all coming with me.”

It turns out that the barber shop is a front for an illegal bookie joint, where gamblers bet on horses. Everybody in the area knows it, and no one goes there for a haircut. The “barber” is the main bookmaker. Now my mother has to explain how she, in a car with a Georgia license plate, just happened to end up at that particular barber shop in New Jersey. Whatever she says must satisfy the officer, because he lets us go.

At last I get some sympathy for the ordeal of my ragged haircut, which has left me with razor burns and at least four bleeding nicks. The best part comes next. Women at the beauty shop next door have been standing outside watching the police raid, and a kind beautician offers to cut my brother’s hair. I tease Marshall for weeks about going to a beauty shop.

Child at beach on summer vacation (stock photo)After we escape from the barber and complete our drive to the coast, my first glimpse of the ocean takes my breath away. I want the scene to freeze for a second so I can take in the view, but nonstop waves break one after another in curls of white. The sea seems to stretch out forever, and off in the distance I see an ocean freighter headed for another continent. Suddenly I feel small, very aware of how little I know about the world.

Eager as a puppy, I change into a bathing suit and dash into the water, only to jump back, startled by the cold and the tug of undertow on my legs. Each wave leaves a deposit of sand and shells and foam, and then, with a sound like a flushing toilet, tries to slurp it all back into the sea. I wade out a little farther, lean back, and let the current carry me. Gradually I learn the calm spots just beyond the waves, where I can float in peace, gazing at puffy clouds in the blue sky above. I lick my lips and taste salt.

Every time I duck under the water, my head stings in four places, like tiny needles embedded in my scalp.

Childhood memory of a summer vacation to Ocean CityAt night, the famous Ocean City boardwalk beckons. A searchlight plays back and forth across the sky like a giant windshield wiper. A sign at one pizza place promises a hundred pizzas to anyone who can eat one of their giant concoctions in less than fifteen minutes. Half the food is new to me: funnel cakes, frozen custard, caramel popcorn, stromboli, and something called saltwater taffy.

Marshall and I explore the boardwalk’s amusement park. Marshall leads me to bumper cars, and we speed around and smash each other so hard that the manager orders us to leave. Next we try the Ferris wheel. We go high in the air, and when the wheel stops to let in passengers at the bottom, our seat sways in the cool night breeze. Far below lies the ocean, black as the sky, its waves shining in the moonlight like bands of snow.

Beneath the stars, off in the distance I barely make out the lights of Atlantic City. All that evening, women in skimpy sequined outfits on our boardwalk have been handing out pamphlets about the evil twin of Ocean City, a few miles up the coast. People drink liquor there, and gamble, Mother has warned us. I look at it with longing because I’ve heard about its animal shows with trained sea lions, boxing cats, and dogs that do tricks on a trampoline. Best of all, Atlantic City’s Steel Pier has a world-famous diving horse.

A man at the amusement park tells me he’s seen the show. “That dumb horse walks up a ramp—oh, I dunno, maybe some sixty feet in the air. It stands there on a platform trying not to look around until a pretty woman jumps on its back. It don’t even have a saddle. Then, with her clinging on bareback, the thing dives headfirst off the platform into a twelve-foot pool of water. I seen it with my own eyes.”

Oh, how I want to see that fearless horse! Yet, like the rest of Atlantic City, it remains tantalizingly out of reach.

This story, along with many others, had to be cut in order to keep the memoir a manageable length. As I include it here, I wonder what family vacation scenes stand out from your childhood?



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39 responses to “Ocean Summer”

  1. Adriana Serban says:

    I read the story and every of the commentaries below. All so real and captivating. I used to think, back in my country, that the movies were inspiring the people: sequences like the ones described in this blog, were deja-vue to me, already seen in some movies about American families. Actually, reading your posts, I realize that you were the inspiration for the more or less great stories on the big screen.
    The horse and the rideress jumping in the pool is so surreal , so beyond darring that no producer considered it for a story. Philip Y. did. Thank God for your memories and your inspired writing.

  2. Pat Hale says:

    I enjoyed your reminisces. It brought to mind all the times my parents took me and my sisters to the beach in Mississippi. Years later I took my girls to Galveston beaches. We have great memories of those wonderful family outings.
    Thanks for sharing. I look forward to your book.

  3. Berwyn says:

    I just read your “benediction” for Walter Wangerin in Christianity Today. What a beautiful, moving, inspiring tribute. It’s perfect for Walter, for fellow travelers, and for readers. Thank you.

  4. Bob Coffman says:

    My wife was from South Jersey and every summer we would travel there from Indiana with our two girls to visit grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles. A highlight of each trip was at least one visit to Ocean City where we knew the Manco & Manco pizza, Johnson’s Carmel corn and — for the kids — the magical Wonderland rides on the board walk were waiting. My brother-in-law’s sister married a man from Ocean City and we often would all plan to be there at the same time for many memorable family reunions, complete with crab races for the kids and my nephew-in-law’s incredible frogmore stew. As all the kids grew and had kids of their own, there were so many of us the branches did not all grow from a common tree, but we always thought of each other as family anyway. Sometimes now it seems like a dream since my wife, my brother-in-law and my nephew-in-law have all passed. What I wouldn’t give for one more reunion “down the shore” as they say in New Jersey.

  5. Thanks, Philip. I remember spending my school holidays at a tiny town called Coobowie on the coast of South Australia’s York Peninsula, where my mother was born. Fond memories of going spotlight fishing at night (and watching blue ringed octopus – highly poisonous – slide around my cousin’s hand, flashing iridescent blue in displeasure) and fossicking for shells along the beach. Mum loved those shells. In fact, when I took her funeral, we put shells on her coffin instead of flowers.
    Not so long ago I wrote this poem about the sea (God) based on those memories, called ‘Healing’.

    Whenever I have a wound that won’t heal
    I remember what my mother used to say:
    “Go for a paddle or a swim.
    That should do the trick.”
    (She was born and raised on the coast)
    So I do just that;
    wade out into the deep,
    and let the Sea
    lick my wounds clean.

    Works every time.

  6. Bob Rundio says:

    Thanks for sharing the memories Philip. I grew up in a little town in southern NJ named Egg Harbor City. Your story brings back many childhood memories of going to the beach and boardwalk in Atlantic City and Ocean City. I remember seeing the diving horse at the Steel Pier. Fortunately, I didn’t visit the same barber shop!

  7. Thanks for this memory, Philip. I remember going to Myrtle Beach at about the same age. We lived near Chicago, and Lake Michigan was my sea. I had never been in warm water like the Atlantic and the salt shocked me! I hated it! My eyes stung, the sand hurt my sunburn and my feet kept getting sand spurs in them as I hopped across the hotplate they called a beach. It took me years to like the Atlantic Ocean!

  8. Tom King says:

    Summers are where many of our finest and deepest memories can be found. Phillip Yancey shares some that have lasted for him. Mine constitute day trips to nearby parks and hidden places with our bikes and bag lunches. Those days didn’t end until a street light went on, the signal that dinner was ready, and the table was set to tell all our stories.

  9. Katherine Holder Davenport says:

    I think about vacations with my family as a child. My parents were very unhappy in there life. I think about colors, beauty, other joy of also being on vacation. Colors remind me of mountains and all the beauty it holds. When I think of beauty my thoughts go to my family laughing together, we didn’t do that often together. I also think of smells. The smell I remember is of streams in the mountains, turning over rocks. The beauty of it all was being away from what was normal to magical.

  10. Bill Bentley says:

    Recalling Bob Hope’s theme song, thanks for the memories, my parents took my sister and I to Ocean City for many summers in the sixties and I have nothing but fond memories of bike rides on the boardwalk, salt water taffy, Mack and Manco pizza, minigolf and amusement rides, the Music Pier, and the not-so-welcome sunburns. Thanks for continuing to share your gift and to inspire other writers like myself.

  11. Sandy Sheppard says:

    My husband Rick and I married at age 20, back in 1971. We were college students with no car and no money, but both had jobs promised for the summer in South Jersey. Our parents paid for our honeymoon in Ocean City, a few days at the Port o’ Call hotel. We were so young and so madly in love. Rick came out of the shower and found me glued to the tv in our room – I had discovered Roller Derby. I had no idea such a thing existed – women fighting and pushing each other around. I never lived that down, and it made for a lot of laughs when we recalled our honeymoon.

    This would have been our 50th anniversary, but I lost him 20 years ago. Among his treasures I found a bill with our room number at the Port o’ Call.

  12. Jim Orred says:

    Phillip, Thank you for writing, even dredging your life, and taking the time and effort to bless multitudes around the world.

    Most will never think of giving you their feedback, but I want to boomerang a burst of gratitude back to you this morning.

    I simply cannot imagine a world without your contributions.


  13. Roseann Frielink says:

    Thank you for your memories and your thought-provoking writing. As the oldest of eight children, I only experienced one 3-day family vacation. But my fondest, though fuzzy, memory is that of a day trip to Old Rheinbeck, New York from home in very northern New Jersey. There was to be an air show of WWI and WW2 airplanes, complete with the Red Baron. I was 10 and fascinated with the noise and how these machines could stay aloft and manage all those manouvers. That was 1967 and ever since, whenever we drive past an airport, I watch in amazement as the planes take ff and land. Oh, I learned about lift and thrust and all that stuff, but I prefer the 10-year-old’s awe.

  14. Rodney Draper says:

    I was born in South Africa and in 1964 when I was 10, my aunt and uncle took me on the Pendennis Castle, an ocean liner, from Durban to Cape Town. I was fascinated by the size of the ship inside and eating meals in a dining room with so many other people an$being allowed to have a Coca Cola with my evening meal. Then on day 3 we sailed around the Cape of Storms, the very south of Africa where the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic Ocean and true to type we had a very rough sea and the ship put out its stabilisers to reduce the rolling but what intrigued me most was they folded up little sides on the tables in the dining room to stop your dishes and cutlery ending up on the floor as the ship rolled in the storm. I was very pleased with myself that I never felt sick but my aunt had to go back to our room as she was sea sick 🤒 It is still my only trip on a cruise ship and still one of my favourite memories from my childhood

  15. Bruce says:

    I visited Ocean City as a young child but since we lived in a suburb of Philadelphia went to OC almost every year. And still take our grandchildren there every year. What a blessing to have this resource nearby. I never had that barbershop experience. That’s was a memorial event for you. Thanks

  16. Zoe Myers says:

    Years ago, I read a memoir by a woman who rode a horse that dove into water from a great height; I don’t know if it was the same woman. On one ride, her timing was off, and she landed in the water face first. She didn’t realize that both of her retinas had detached, and within a day, she was blind. However, she taught herself how to do that dive on the horse after she had lost her sight, and continued to do it for several more years.

  17. Lorry Lutz says:

    Well, now I know I’ve had a good idea. I’ve been writing “Mini Memoirs” for my great-grandchildren over the last three or four years. I have a pretty long list of stories. But if I don’t hurry up, the number of great- grands will surpass them. (Not really, when I’m delving into 93 years of living.) I’ve just learned of #28 and #29 arriving early next year– and I recently broke my hip; so that’s at least one more “mini.”

  18. Susan Gembarowski says:

    Loved reading this, Philip! How I would love to have seen the young Philip and brother Marshall in photos of this adventure! Having grandparents in NJ, I was at the beach often–Barnagat Bay, Atlantic City, Tom’s River, etc. It was magical–all of it–for this here kid, and you pulled me right back there with your description of experiencing the ocean for the first time: the tug of the undertow, the “slurp” of water and debris back into the sea. I can just about feel it on my feet! (ANY oceanside is still my favorite place in all the world.)
    Can’t wait for your memoir.

  19. Tammy Luccioni says:

    I grew up in SE Alabama seventy miles from Panama City Beach Florida. My parents were both factory workers. Back in the 1970s the factories would shut down for two weeks. Mama and Daddy would spend their vacation harvesting and canning vegetables. But, for one day, work would cease. Mama would fry up a chicken and make potato salad. We’d load up in the car and away to Panama City Beach we’d go. You could smell the beach before you saw it. Daddy parked at the picnic area across from the beach. We would go play in the Gulf of Mexico for awhile and then go back across the road to enjoy our picnic. That day trip to the beach was always the highlight of our summer break.

  20. Kathleen Bufford says:

    The most memorable vacation from when I was probably between 7 and 9 years old, was one of only a few short trips my family ever took. It was memorable because we were away from home, but more so because I began to learn who I was and would become as a person. There were no reference points in this story to the nearly ever-present “self” who my mom or others thought I was or should be—including preferences, behaviors, and thoughts of what God expected of me. This time, even the choice of which souvenir-trinkets I “would really like” was left up to me.
    We were at Letchworth State Park in upstate NY—over 14,000 acres of park, as I recall.
    It was likely on the second day that I wandered into a historic long-house where, I was sure, my Algonquin Indian great, great, great grandmother lived. During those quiet hours when my mother left me to my own imagining, what I surmised about that gentle, quiet, but knowledgeable woman merged with who I realized I was and always would be.
    My ancient relative and I looked about with knowledge on her part, I was sure, but with craving for knowledge for me. Everything seemed new and unknown: trees, plants, shady places and patches of sunlight. Out there, seemingly alone, I inhaled what would become life-long love of quiet outdoor places and plants, some of which I was certain would be for healing ailments, though I could not tell which plants were for what use. She knew, and that was enough for me.
    On subsequent days, on different paths, I found myself crouched down picking up rocks and pebbles, puzzling over differences in coloring, smoothness, and density, as well as potential use. I remember that on more than one walk, I only knew that the others thought I must be lost when with great relief someone found me, far behind the rest, lost inside myself, discovering the gentleness and love of quiet places that I surely shared with those who had preceded me. To this day, that nookomis sometimes goes with me, enjoying, from my eyes to hers, a much wider world than she knew. I’ve made the “iffy” assumption, just my hope really, that somehow, someday, she will be with the creator, with me, elakomkwik in the heavens as we have been on planet earth.

  21. Jeff Winter says:

    I really appreciate what Phil wrote. I grew up in NJ and spent many weekdays and weeks in Ocean City enjoying the sun and surf. I loved the boardwalk and the saltwater taffy my parents bought me at Shrivers. Amazingly, I was ordained as a Presbyterian pastor at the First Presbyterian Church in Ocean City. Twenty years later I met Phil when I pastored the Corona Presbyterian Church in Downtown Denver. He and his wife attended the C.S. Lewis conference we hosted. Thank you Phil for your many years of Christ-honoring writing. You have greatly enriched my life.

  22. DeLora Fennig says:

    Looking forward to your book

  23. Celeste Sanchez McFarland says:

    Hi, Philip. I am so looking forward to your book of memories. Some few we will share, you know. Like the Yancey family, the Sanchez family vacationed with our Spanish relations in Ybor City, Florida, with beach-ing done on the causeway heading toward Clearwater. But there was one year – there’s always one year – when my mom prevailed upon my dad and she rented a miniscule camping trailer and the seven of us headed off in our station wagon to Jekyll Island – long before any sort of modern conveniences arrived on Jekyll. Sleeping arrangements were that Mother and we four girls had the cozy-not-comfy trailer beds and Daddy and my brother had the extra-cozy-extra-not-comfy back of the station wagon. Daddy, whose idea of camping was from Holiday Inn to Holiday Inn, declared on morning number one that it had been most difficult to sleep with my brother breathing in his face all night. Then it was time for his coffee, made with local Jekyll water, which in those ancient of days, was odorous with sulfur! Sure, there were beach walks, shelling, swimming, and all one would expect, but my mother’s idyll of family memory-making did not come to fruition on account of Daddy’s difficulties with “roughing it.” The shortened adventure had its fitting finale upon arrival home when Mother set us kids to cleaning up the trailer for its return to the rental agency. My little sisters had filled a big plastic bucket with their found treasures from the Jekyll beach – and that bucket had overturned in the trailer. Not only did we have to mop up the residual water from the shell collection, but we discovered, immediately upon opening the door, that there had been something alive in that bucket and the aroma was that of a load held WAY out in front of you as you RAN past the kitchen trash can to the outside trash can with shrimp shells or fish heads or whatever sea treasure remains there were from supper. Fred and I have retired now to Royston, Georgia. I think we need to make a return trip to Jekyll. I assume they’ve solved the sulfur problem.

  24. Janis Murphy says:

    Hats off to all those single moms, mine included, who managed to take their kids on cool summer vacations. It was not easy for them.

  25. David Lewis says:

    Can’t wait to read your memoir, as we’ve enjoyed nearly all of your other books through the years. Your copy editing is much better than we observe in most books nowadays. We’re also watching old episodes of To Tell The Truth on YouTube – and we recently saw an episode where the secret person was a lady who rode the diving horses at Atlantic City !!

  26. Steve Paul Nerz says:

    Hello Philip,
    you and I have communicated a few times in the past, I will always remember you with warmth.
    I grew up in south Jersey and remember many trips to Ocean city, where my brother now lives. here is my best memory. we went down to the shore, and ended up in Atlantic city with my parents. we did a walk through of the Playboy club, and went by one of the playboy “bunnies” dressed in scanty clothes with a rabbit cottontail on her back side. as we passed her my mother pulled it (it was attached to elastic) and it snapped on her rear end. the woman flipped around and gave me the dirtiest look, thinking of course that I did it! I remember being not very happy with my mother!
    stay well, and appreciate your blogs. steve nerz

  27. Michael says:

    Hi Philip, I read your book Rumors Of Another World. I really enjoyed it and found it to be very uplifting. I was wondering… in your research of the topic, did you ever come across the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg? If so, why not include some reference to his experiences. It seems he’s had a huge impact on many people that in my opinion goes largely unnoticed. If you haven’t, I recommend his book Heaven & Hell. I think (if you haven’t already), you’ll find it very interesting and enlightening.

  28. David Bornus says:

    Phil, I enjoyed these reminisces. One of my most salient childhood vacation memories is of a trip my family took in northern mountain forests (possibly Yellowstone) when I was about five years old. My mother had a 8mm movie camera and routinely took footage of everything. There were some bears on the highway and many cars had pulled over to photograph them. My mother got out of the car to do some up-close filming. Suddenly one of the bears began running toward her, and she turned and dashed back to the car. I’ll always remember the horror of that scene, watching the bear get closer and wondering if she would make it back to the car.

    On an unrelated subject, I’m currently reading Amy Tan’s memoir “Where the Past Begins.” Her relationship with her parents and older brother somewhat reminds me of your stories that you shared with us in Alaska.

  29. Louis G Nuechterlein says:

    Dear Mr Yancey:- At age 92 I’m just finishing reading your book on Prayer. Thank you so much for all the insights it provides – and the encouragement it gives to keep on praying. The Rev Louis Nuechterlein

  30. Gene Ort says:

    loved this .. !!! thanks for the mini vacation

  31. This appears to be a good read and looking forward to more!

  32. Ray Ashmore says:

    Phil, you always had more hair than you needed. I could use some. Growing up in South Carolina I got to take trips to the beach every summer. I love the ocean… from a distance of course.

  33. Retina Christian says:

    I love this story! As always, you’re the best at telling stories that makes a person drift into their own memory bank. I was sitting in my kitchen sipping coffee smiling and reminiscing as I read this. Thank you.
    Can’t wait for your book!
    God’s continual Blessings❤

  34. John Carbone says:

    As a Jersey resident and beach goer this memory reads and recalls to me similar feelings, sans the haircut, you have well captured. Warmly, John Obl. OSB

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