It's August, so here's the obligatory vacation column

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STONE HARBOR, N.J. -- Every inch of the South Jersey coast holds commercial value, the horizon included. Monoplanes tug banners across beachgoers' lines- of sight, the most poignant pleading, "True Love Waits for Marriage."

The futility of this gesture is stretched out on the sands below, where bikini-clad twenty-somethings romp in sun-induced stupor. The next banner advertises $2 beer specials. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that true love will wait for the sunburn to heal.

Precious little penetrates the haze of vacation consciousness, notably word that the real estate market is nearing a crash. A vacant lot nowhere near the beach is currently on offer for $3.5 million.

Irrational optimism permeates shore thinking. At the beach, adjacent to a body of water locals call "the Atlantic Ocean," lifeguards spend their days blowing whistles and commanding bathers to come closer to shore.

"How far out are people allowed to go?" I asked them.

"Up to their waist," one guard replied.

"What if I want to swim?"

"If you can swim in water up to your waist," he replied. He paused in a moment of magnanimity. "Maybe up to your chest."

Here is water in volumes beyond computation, linking the western world. It is the water on which Nelson sailed and over which Lindbergh flew, and the best Jersey towns will allow is for a man to venture in at waist level. Lifeguards are duty bound to assume nobody out there can competently swim, and one need only look at a 55-year-old man in a Speedo to understand how egregiously tourists miscalculate their physiques.

What if I wanted to swim from one lifeguard post to another? They are spaced about 75 yards apart.

"Sorry," the lifeguard told me. "We just can't let you do that. Now, come back after 5 o'clock and you can go out as far as you want."

Five o'clock is when the lifeguards summon everyone back to shore, then climb down from their posts. The world may drown if it likes, so long as it doesn't do so during a lifeguard's work hours.

By midweek, the weather had become hammer-of-God hot, and we repaired to Cape May where we could enjoy both the heat and ultimate order.

Cape May recently moved into the marriage trade and plans to charge for a permit to marry on its beaches, something lovestruck scofflaws apparently have been spotted doing for free.

Shops abound, all of them selling objects with no discernible function other than to be for sale. I spent 15 minutes admiring a tin print of Ricky Nelson.

The town's allure is its Victorian architecture, with 19th century houses painted gaudily, fronted with flowers and posted with signs in floral language.

"For Ladies and Gentlemen on Seaside Holiday," one explained. This distinguishes Cape May from Wildwood, where some of the hotel signs should read, "For Gentlemen and Ladies on the Lam."

If Cape May is the rich grandmother of the Jersey Shore, Wildwood, which offers both a boardwalk amusement park and several hoochie-koochie emporia, is its reprobate uncle.

In either case, the tourists, who abandon all sense upon climbing into their SUVs and heading down the turnpike, will purchase whatever is for sale, be it in Cape May or Wildwood, or the middle ground of Stone Harbor.

Upon leaving a shop along Cape May's boardwalk, which happens to be made of asphalt, I saw my daughter carefully loading two quarters and a penny into a machine which would shortly keep the quarters and crush the penny into a commemorative oval bearing the imprint of a starfish, three shells and the words "Cape May New Jersey."

She pronounced it "very magnificent." I, too, think it magnificent that someone has found a way to turn 51 cents into a misshapen penny.

You can find these machines at rest stops on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, but, for some reason, people would rather be reminded they'd been had at the Jersey Shore.

On Wednesday, I waited for the lifeguards to give their whistles one last blow, then crept into the surf, determined to get well in over my head.

I'm a reasonably strong swimmer and sufficiently fit that, should the adventure go awry, I would make a presentable find for some morning beach stroller.

I could get no more than waist-deep. The tide rolled in and pushed me back as if it worked for the municipal government. At the Jersey Shore, every tide turns in favor of authority.


Dennis Roddy can be reached at droddy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1935.


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