Sandcastle Christmas Tree

A story by Dawning McGinnis that is as true as memory serves


I woke up early, not because I was used to the three-hour time difference, but because it was starting to get warm in our van and the beach was calling to me. In my short thirteen years of life I had never spent Christmas morning on a Florida beach. I was born in a small Oregon coastal town, so spending a memorable holiday on the opposite coast was special to me. I quietly crawled out of my bunk bed in the back of our van and slid over my dad who was still asleep in his bed that stepped up to mine. I tried to open the steel door that separated our sleeping area from the cab of our old 1968 Chevy Step Van as quietly as possible, but the noise and the light from outside still woke Dad up. In his groggiest voice he croaked, “Who’s going where?” and flung his arm over his head while letting his fingers dangle in his eyes. His mustache was a sight, styled after Fu Manchu and messy from sleeping. I told him I was going to the beach and he woke up more, so I waited for him.

I sat in the captain’s chair driver’s seat, the only seat in the van, and looked out the two giant four foot square pieces of glass that were the windshield. We had camped under the bright green leaves of a rare, over-logged, West Indian Mahogany tree, where we could see the calm waters of the Atlantic wash up on Long Key’s beach. The sand looked intensely white, while the water was an effulgent turquoise where it was shallow, shifting to a slightly darker viridian about one hundred feet from the shore where the water finally got deep. There were Black Mangrove trees that looked like they were floating in the middle of the ocean, but the water was so shallow that their home, fifty feet from the sandy beach, would only have been ankle deep. There were no clouds, and the ocean faded into the sky nearly seamlessly.

Dad was up and out of the van. He went back to the shiny chrome keg filled with fresh water we had on our tailgate to splash his face and to swish his mouth out. I took that opportunity to duck back into the camper part of our van and grab the couple of gifts we had gotten for each other during our trip that started in Orlando and brought us the long way, through Tampa, to the Keys. Nothing was wrapped, but we didn’t care about things like that. After gathering the gifts I went down to the beach.

The warm sand was welcoming and I plopped down on my knees, put the gifts to the side and started to gather sand together in a pile. The sand was dry, not at all the right kind of sand to build a sandcastle Christmas tree with, but I had no bucket to get water to wet the sand and I never thought of even doing that anyway. I just pushed sand together and watched it sift through my fingers and fall off of the pile that I was making. I knew my tree was going to be more of a crumbling pyramid, but I kept piling the sand and digging it away from the base to give the effect of a tree. Dad found me as I was finishing and sat down beside me with a thud that pushed the dry loose sand up between us. He put his darkly tanned bare arm around me and squeezed me close. I could feel the cold water that had not dried from his face against my forehead and it felt good. It wasn’t hot out, but it was seventy degrees with Florida humidity and only a little after nine in the morning.

We held each other and enjoyed the view. Talking about the waves that we caught in Miami made us decide to get up and take a stroll in the shallow clear water that gently swayed in front of us. There were no waves here, as if the ocean found a quiet place to take a break. For several minutes we walked away from the shore and from the van we called home, our gifts left on the beach in a small moat around my attempt at a sandcastle Christmas tree. We splashed each other, and Dad talked about being a teenager in Florida. He loved to talk about how he was a greaser from Portland who moved to Florida and became a surfer, but eventually the conversation would turn to his female classmates and their tight mohair sweaters that he appreciated, maybe too much. My long-winded dad could talk for hours about pretty girls, waves, and his exploits with his long since deceased cousin. After a while of walking we realized that we were at least a football field away from the shore so we decided to go back to our gifts and where our ingredients for breakfast lived. The water had only gotten as high as our calves, so on our walk back to shore we laughed and talked about how we could maybe walk the entire 215 miles to the Bahamas without the water going over our heads. This would be far from possible, but it was always fun to talk about the impossible with my dad.

We got back to our gifts; the sandcastle tree that I built looked much more like a hole with gifts leaning up against a mound in the middle than it had before our walk. Nothing had changed, but my creation looked much less like what I had envisioned it to be after leaving it for a while. My dad only saw beauty though, so I chose to as well. I handed Dad a gift; a cheap plastic fishnet Christmas stocking-shaped bag of candy. It wasn’t filled with what I would have called good candy, but it was full of the candies that my dad liked: black licorice and hard butter scotch; it was perfect for him. He was so cute when he held up the stocking from its cardboard top that was stapled onto the plastic fishnet. My dad’s long hair, with a 1950’s pomade slick in the front and long hair to his shoulders in the back, lit up with the sun and he gave me a goofy grin just in time for a picture. His hair cut, just like his facial hair, had a style all to its own and both stood out and somehow fit into the culture of the 1990s. Above all it reflected my dad’s quirky personality. I hold that picture while I write this and smile back at the immortalized version of my favorite man, feeling the warmth and love that we shared that day.

Next I opened a small brown paper bag that had a piece of tape on the rolled top holding it closed. Prying the tape off and un-crinkling the paper I remembered what was inside. When we were traveling out of Orlando heading for Tampa, it got late and we were passing through a town called Kissimmee. The town was electrified with lights and people; a giant marquee sign with at least a thousand light bulbs that said “Old Town” in front of a Ferris wheel beckoned us toward it. The decorative street lamps were a convincing re-creation of the old gas lamps with tungsten filaments from the early 1900s, and they gave off a similar warm glow which made the damp cobblestones reflect an even warmer orange light. The shops were all busy with patrons, and we had caught a glimpse of an arcade area which was exactly what we needed to unwind.

This arcade was different than any I had ever seen before; I had never seen games like these. I went up to a game that said it was a fortune telling machine. It had two copper plates shaped like a left and a right hand; I put seventy-five cents in the machine and placed my hands on the plates. The copper was cold and kind of greasy, but I held my hands steady wanting to know my future. Slowly a printer in the machine started to make noises like a Dot Matrix printer, and eventually a slot about a foot under the right copper plate spit out a thick blue card with holes punched in it. I grabbed the card anxiously to read the fortune for my right hand, and to my dismay I read what sex noises I make in bed (a sonic boom), and what animal I make love like (a snake). I was embarrassed and amused at the same time. I did not wait for the slow and loud printer to finish my left hand; it was time to find my dad. We left the strangest arcade I had been to and went to see what the shops had to offer.

The streets that the shops were on seemed like something out of Venice; small alleys with cobblestone that came to a slight v-shape in the middle for rain drainage, brightly colored flags at shop doors, and warm light pouring from the stores out into the night. The patrons had started clearing out and some shops were closing. We strolled a bit and eventually ducked into one shop that had some handsome natural stones in the window. This shop was also getting ready to close so we took a quick look around the small closet sized room, but I got fixated on a case of rings. My dad came over and asked which one I liked and I pointed at a large oval abalone set on top of a silver band. Dad then scooted me outside and came following a minute later.  I thought he had gotten the ring for me, but I wasn’t sure. As I sat in the sand and opened the small paper bag, I knew he had gotten it. Overjoyed, I slid the ring onto my thumb and gave my dad a big hug.

Dawning McGinnis