It sounds like the call of a sea bird. In fact, it is the call of the American child, identifiable by its relentless pursuit of sugared food and an inability to do anything for itself. They cannot be domesticated. Believe me, we've tried.
We are at the beach with four other families. One of the American children wants something done. Fast. But first, the mother must:
— Stir it.
— Pour it.
— Patch it.
— Tweezer it.
— Fill it with air.
— Ice it down.
— Stitch it up.
— Kiss it.
— Slice it into edible chunks.
— Drive home to retrieve it.
Those are just some of the things a mother is asked to do during a day at the beach. There are many more.
"Can you lotion up my back?" one of the dads asks.
Obviously, there are worse things asked of a mother at the beach. Unsure of your spouse's love? Just ask her to put sunscreen on your middle-aged back, thick with monkey hair. Go ahead, ask. It'll make whatever you request next seem like slurping caviar.
Yes, we're finally back at the beach, five families, 10 bags of hot dog buns, a million marshmallows. Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire with fewer supplies than we take for a simple day in the surf.
"Mom? Mom? Mom-mom-mom-mom-mom "
We have been here about 30 minutes, and the mothers — veterans, all of them — are already feigning deafness. This seems to work. The kids begin to adapt, as American children always do. If their mothers are going to ignore them, they'll just figure things out for themselves.
"Dad? Dad? Dad-dad-dad-dad-dad "
It's the distress call of the American child. It means, "Hey Dad, she's ignoring me. Have you thought about remarrying? Maybe a stepmother would be more attentive to my needs."
Thankfully, this distress call is seldom answered. After an hour, the American children give up and go off to torture sea creatures and lifeguards.
In the meantime, the parents have formed a circle of beach chairs. We call it our "circle of hopes and dreams." Its purpose? To share a margarita and our innermost suburban thoughts.
"I remember my first kiss," my friend Don says.
"His name was Ronaldo."
I think he is joking. Don is always joking. I have known the guy eight years and have yet to hear him make a serious remark. It is just one of the reasons we are still close friends.
"When are you guys going to Spain?" someone asks Kate.
"Saturday," Kate replies.
This is, apparently, the summer everyone goes to Europe. Paul and Sara to France. Bruce and Susan to Spain. Dave and Kathy too.
I have a hard time understanding this. There are topless beaches right here in America. And the woman in the white thong, sitting 30 feet away, is as skinny as a loaf of French bread. Who needs Paris? Who needs Barcelona? They don't even have baseball there.
"Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh-my-God, oh-my-God, oh-my-God "
Down at the shoreline, something has washed up dead. Ten American kids have surrounded it. They are trying to figure out how best to fillet it and deep-fry the pieces in empty cans of Sprite. Poor shark. We can only hope it was a quick death. Anyone remember the tartar sauce?
"The beach is closing," a lifeguard announces over a P.A. "I repeat, the beach closes at sundown."
"What time is it?" one of the parents asks.
"We just got here," I say.
We stand a moment and look at all there is to pack up. It is as if a C-130 cargo plane crashed at our feet — loaded with towels, beach toys and half-full bags of chips.
"We'd better go," I say to someone else's wife, the one with salsa on her ankle.
As always, there's a bit of chafing as we leave the beach. Like you, we go home with five pounds of sand in our shorts. Plus at least one cod and a couple of ground squirrels.
Encrusted in sand, the kids look like corndogs in flip-flops. They trudge toward the car. Followed by their tired parents. Followed by packs of gulls, diving at our ketchuped footprints.
"Ouch," a kid says when we reach the parking lot.
"Ouch," says his mother.
Yes, when properly done, the beach hurts a little. The sunburn. The bloody toes. The sand in your shorts.
We go as often as we can.
Chris Erskine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.