Kenneth Burns: Beach bum living is a powerful lure

Jul. 04, 2014 @ 08:49 AM

Where there is a beach, there are beach bums.

Actually, there doesn't even need to be a beach. Any shoreline will do.

I thought about beach bums last weekend, when I spent a day at Fort Dickerson Park, the large city facility in South Knoxville.

The park is situated on a pretty, wooded hill. My visit started up top, with a tour of the area where a Civil War fort stood.

There is an overlook with a nice view of an old quarry. Looking out over the water, I saw people lounging around, way on the other side. I want to be where they are, I thought.

After a short drive and a short walk, I was there.

The vibe was mellow. People, not very many of them, were hanging out next to the water, or drifting around on pool floats in the warm summer sun. It looked like fun. It was a beach bum scene.

To be certain, swimming is forbidden at the quarry. Signs make that clear. People have drowned there. I didn't swim.

But the activity made me nostalgic. I'm not a beach bum these days, but I have been one. More than once.

When I was a high school student in Nashville, my friends and I spent every summer daylight moment we could at Wave Country, a publicly owned wave pool in the Donelson neighborhood, where I grew up.

We romped in the surf, ate junk from the concession stand, played Q*bert in the arcade. Mostly we sat around and enjoyed each other's company.

Sometimes I miss – intensely miss – those teenage days, those people. Those beach bums. I miss the pleasantly unstructured time, the easy friendships. Even now, a sunny Tennessee day and the smell of suntan lotion can take me back to Wave Country.

I remember one evocative afternoon. It was after Labor Day, and although the summer had been scorching, I got a little chill in the water. Fall was coming, and it was time for the beach bums to go back to school.

We got older. We moved on. I haven't been to Wave Country in at least 25 years. Some people from the old gang are on Facebook, and when I see their posts, I think about what they were like when they were 15 on a hot Nashville day.

My next beach bum experience was some years later. When I was in my 20s, in the 1990s, I lived in Hyde Park, my old college neighborhood in Chicago.

There is a beautiful park in that neighborhood called the Point. It's a grassy peninsula that juts into Lake Michigan.

Although there is a beach just a few blocks away, Hyde Park's premier swimming scene was at the Point, where people lazed on the giant boulders that lined the shore.

One summer I spent every daylight moment I could at the Point.

Hyde Park is a lively place – funky, cosmopolitan, racially integrated. On those lovely days, the neighborhood's marvelous diversity was on display at the Point. Families barbecued and relaxed in lawn chairs. Students sunned and swam. Multiple languages were spoken.

Someone always had a radio on with the Cubs game. Usually they were losing.

A lot of people sat around reading. It was, after all, a college neighborhood.

I fell in with another group of beach bums. During the day, we lolled by the water, which was cold, even in summer. At night we gathered in one Hyde Park nightspot or another.

I was fond of that crowd. Like the Wave Country scene, the Point scene seemed on the verge of lasting forever – until it was over. I don't know what happened to those people. In some cases, I never even caught their names. I still know their faces.

The beach bum experience is a powerful lure. Jimmy Buffett captured it wonderfully well in his signature song "Margaritaville." He has turned the song into a potent brand whose latest expression is the new Margaritaville restaurant in Pigeon Forge.

Maybe sipping a margarita at Margaritaville feels like the real beach bum experience.

All I know is, the few times I had it, I didn't plan it.

Kenneth Burns is Community News Editor of The Mountain Press. Call 428-0748, ext. 212, or send email to