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Mark Ballard: Ocean trip refreshes memories

I don’t remember exactly when I was introduced to the ocean, but I do know we formed an immediate and lasting friendship. I was a very young boy the first time I felt sand fill in the area between my toes and the gentle sea mist cover my face, leaving a fresh layer of salt. The bright sun and salt mixture always caused my eyes to water. But that never stopped me. Even then, looking out to sea while holding my little hand over my squinting eyes, I felt the ocean’s magical powers.

Maybe the ocean’s power comes from its white-capped waves as they gracefully roll in like long fingers gently touching the sand and then, after staying for only a few seconds, roll back out to sea. Maybe its power comes from its luminous shades of blue that, as they reach the horizon, seem to melt into the azure blue sky, making it look infinite in size. Or, it might be the powerful and hypnotic sound it makes as it roars in and out. Whatever it is, its magic is undeniable!

Gathering shells and sand dollars in plastic buckets made for a fun afternoon on the ocean’s warm shore. I also enjoyed creating sand castles with shovels, pails, cups and anything else I could use, including my sister. These simple items became my imaginary dump trucks and tools. My sister and other children who gathered at the site would become my construction crew. We all worked for hours but I made it very clear that I was the engineer and completely in charge of the design and construction.

I always opted for a moat to surround my castle. Sometimes, digging the moat could be tricky because I had less than adequate tools. Since I didn’t have a real dump truck, it took hours to hand dig the moat and even more hours with buckets and buckets of ocean water to fill it up. The sand absorbed the water like a giant sponge.

Once the moat was somewhat complete, we had to turn the huge pile of sand from digging the moat into a realistic castle. Just by wetting the sand, we instantly had “concrete.” Using our hands, we carefully formed the walls. The turrets were made using a small plastic cup as a mold. We enlisted the help of plastic forks, spoons and knives to add texture and details. Even though we were a little sunburned, before the sun had set, we had built a dream castle. We hated to leave it because we knew it was no match for the powerful sea that would reclaim it during the night.

My other friends on the beach were of a feathered variety. As a child, I selfishly thought the sea gulls and sandpipers flew in just for me. They were fun to watch and feed with tiny morsels of my lunch I secretively saved just for them. It wasn’t until much later that I realized the beach was their home. I was the one visiting them.

Even today, I can watch them for hours. This past weekend as I lay on the beach with my wife while she read a book, the gulls and sandpipers still fascinated me. Against the brilliant blue of the sky, they floated weightlessly. Then one would effortlessly glide down to the sand and land. With one squawk, an open invitation to gather was issued, and within seconds, the white sands of the beach became speckled with various combinations of white, black and grey feathers.

I smiled as I watched them frolic, and wondered to myself why some of them seemed to know each other. Like certain people group together, so did the birds. Some would be a little shy and opt to stand by themselves while others took charge and served as leaders of small groups. When an uninvited bird dared get too close, a loud chorus of squawking forced it to leave. Again, just like people. The beach and ocean have taught me so much.

I snapped some photos of the sea gulls in midflight and, in honor of my love of the beach, intend to immortalize them in a painting. Just like when I was a child, they are still my friends and hopefully I will be able to capture each and every one of their personalities. Once painted on the canvas, I will be able to visit with them more than just during the summer months.

This past weekend, I didn’t build a castle out of sand, but part of me still wanted to. Maybe that is the power the ocean has — to cause you to throw caution to the wind, leave the worries of your job far behind, forget all your life’s troubles and, for a while, just play in the sun, waves and sand.

But more importantly, I think its power forces us to put everything into perspective. To the ocean, it doesn’t matter who you are, how rich or how poor, what age or what size. When you stand on its shore and stare into its vastness, you quickly realize just how small you really are.

I hated to say goodbye last Sunday and head back to reality. But I came back rested, refueled, refocused and ready to continue on this journey we call life. Sometimes you have to go back to being a child to gauge how far you have come as an adult. As we unpacked the car, some sand sprinkled off the bottom of a box and fell to the ground. I smiled. In more ways than one, I had brought some of the beach home with me!

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Mark Ballard’s column runs each week in The Telegraph. Send your questions or comments to P.O. Box 4232, Macon, GA 31208; fax them to 474-4930; call 757-6877; e-mail to; or friend-request Mark on Facebook.