Beach Renourishment #46

As faithful as the swallows to Capistrano or the Monarch butterflies to central Mexico, so the Vernons return each year to Oak Island, N.C. (formerly called Long Beach). This summer was their 46th year.


By Jock Lauterer

What’s truly extraordinary about Vernon’s beach week is that there is no drama. Repeat, no drama. This big happy loud boisterous family, which I playfully call “The Thundering Herd,” has figured out how to be together and get along. Actually, it’s more than that; they actually celebrate each other. And being together is clearly a treat for one and all.

As you can see from the photograph, this annual gala is no small undertaking. We/they come from eight states, comprising of 10 families totaling 34 people, many of whom have told me they look forward to “The Beach” more than Christmas. 

What’s their secret sauce? The extravaganza requires extensive year-round planning, information and cost-sharing, the acquisition of two immense adjacent beach-front houses, one which is dubbed the Kids’ House, (aka the Loud House), and the second is the Old Farts’ House, (aka, the Quiet House). Generations are denoted in family code: “G1,” that’s Lynne and my generation, us old folks; then “G2,” for our adult children; and “G3” for our grandchildren, nieces and nephews.

Additionally, for the entire family a single “Beachmaster” handles the nitty-gritty strategic coordination with whatever rental agencies we’re dealing with — a role I gladly played for a decade or so, before handing the job off a couple of years ago to G2.

After years of refinement, the Vernons have devised as much of a stress-free week as possible — a challenge in itself given the number of young’uns in G3. One of the keys is role assignments; so each year one of the tech-savvy G2s creates a spread sheet that includes roles, tasks, room assignments, arrival and departure times as well as special events.

Also, each family is responsible for dinner on a separate night, so we make a daily run to Haag and Sons fishmongers. Each night we grill out fresh fish — mahi-mahi, sword, grouper, red snapper — on a Weber charcoal grill I tote down from Chapel Hill.  My role is grillmaster, sous chef, garbage/recycling dude. (As Beachmaster Emeritus, I am accorded some modicum of respite.)

“Special Events” includes Photo Night, Dance Night, Cousins Night Out, and finally the annual Long Beach Follies — the Vernon’s living room version of SNL with skits, music and dancing — all performed by the G3 kids in the great room for the delight of parents and grands.

Over the years the numbers have only grown, from eight Vernons in 1977 to the 34 of today. Since then many spouses have swelled our ranks and many babies born. Most recently we’ve been joined by my son, Jon, wife Cameron and daughter Zoë.

And also there have been partings, including Lynne’s parents and most recently, her beloved younger brother, John, the Zen fresh fish whisperer of the charcoal grill who benevolently crowned me his “sous chef” with an engraved spatula bearing my name.

Obviously, marrying into this merry band gives me a certain perspective: Because, if this were my dysfunctional family — by the second day at the beach there’d be people shrieking at each other, plates flying across the room, and folks stomping out and going home early, leaving the rest of us to clean up their mess. In the words of one family (name changed to protect the innocent) with whom I was briefly associated: “If it’s the Fudnuckers, we’re either cookin’ or fightin’.”

So you may be wondering, how did a rank outlander, a mere Lauterer, become an honorary Vernon. The Cliff Notes Version follows: in the summer of ’93, Lynne (who was in the same UNC class as I) saw me running at Oak Island. In turn, I couldn’t help notice her family because they were digging a ginormous hole in the sand as if they were trying to get to China. I remember thinking, “What kind of crazy family is this?!” Fast forward — four months later and 600 miles away at a faculty bar at Penn State, where we both were teaching, I would meet Lynne Vernon, whose opening gambit was, “Didn’t I see you this summer running on the beach at Long Beach?”

Boing.  Two years later, we would marry. At Long Beach.

My Brother’s Keeper

The positive impact of being an honorary Vernon cannot be overstated. To appreciate that pronouncement, permit me a brief deep dive into my back story.

I turned 22 years old on my own, following the early deaths of both of my parents and an older brother whose animus I returned. As a result, I bumbled and stumbled my way through my first marriage and child-rearing, having no idea of how to create and nurture a loving functional family of my own. 

Twenty-six years later, enter the Vernons. I still remember my first Vernon Beach Trip of ’94 and how amazed I was that they all seemed (no… delete “seemed”) they all rejoiced in each others presence all week long. They had been schooled by experience, parental modeling and family bonds to maintain and nurture those relationships. And also to be mindfully creating memories for their children.

Observing Lynne interact joyfully with her two younger brothers, — two grown guys who, as teenagers, she said used to drive her crazy — I began to question my own ossified attitude toward Nick, my long-dead brother.

Nick, the bully boy big brother traumatized by our parents’ abrupt break-up when he was 7, maintained a dislike for me that was palpable. Which in hindsight is understandable. A jolly kid, only 2 at the time of the blow-up, I emerged from the blow-up relatively unscathed. Nick’s death at 15 left me as an only child — and I loved it. And truth be told, I fanned the flames of a simmering grudge against this deceased brother for lo these 60 years.

Then one evening several years ago, sitting on the upper deck overlooking the beach, sipping wine with Lynne’s brothers and laughing about their old family stories, Lynne turned to me and said, ““You know, Jock, if Nick had lived, he most likely would  have turned out very different from you — maybe living in a one-roof flat in New York City, selling his paintings on the

sidewalk. Maybe he’d never have married or had kids. Maybe he’d have been gay or on drugs.”

Lynne paused before going on, letting her words sink in, and then resumed, “But no matter. The point is you probably would have been buds, pals, real friends — like me and my brothers. So very different. But they’re my brothers; we have a history together, and I love them.”

      They’re my brothers; we have a history together, and I love them.

Stunned, I tried to grasp what I’d just heard. Everything felt like it had been jerked into a freeze frame, the air sucked off the upper deck where we sat overlooking the moon-drenched beach, a cone of calmness and peacefulness settling over me. I felt as if I were flying, high up and airborne over a vast cloudbank. Then suddenly the clouds parted, and below the break in the clouds revealed a sunny patchwork of intricate and lovely meadows, streams, lanes and farmhouses — a world I’d never seen, but which had always been right … there.

It was as if I were awakening from a 50-year slumber, like a latter-day Rip Van Winkle, roused after all those years to a different world.

That’s when I became my brother’s keeper.

On Borrowed Time

Forty-six years is a long time to do anything, and the Vernons have successfully refined the complexities of the large multi-family gathering.  What an honor it is to be included in this remarkable family, who to me embody this Mark Twain quote, which, as I’ve aged has gained resonance:

       There isn’t time, so brief is life, for bickerings, apologies, heartburnings, callings to account.    
       There is only time for loving, and but an instant, so to speak, for that.”

Jock Lauterer is a longtime photojournalist, honored in 2020 by PEN America as a “Local Journalist Hero. He is a senior lecturer at the UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media and is the retired founding director of the school’s Carolina Community Media Project. The author of six books, Jock is also the winner of the 1998 National Geographic Magazine Faculty Fellowship, among his many accolades

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