Samantha Perry

Samantha Perry

The piercing humid air collided with the stifling car interior miles before the final destination was near.

It was the early 1970s, and in those days air conditioning in vehicles consisted of fanning one’s face with tourism brochures and comic books — at least for blue-collar working folks.

As the vacation site drew near, anticipation among younger occupants in the car climbed toward a crescendo of excitement. Five small heads leaned out side windows in hopes of being the first to spot the ocean.

When the initial scent of salty air finally wafted through the vehicle, exuberance in the family car reached a fever pitch. Soon, a quick peep between rows of hotels would deliver a glimpse of white-capped waves and sun-kissed beach.

Immediately the chant would begin.

“It’s Myrtle Beach!” “Myrtle Beach!” “I see the ocean!” “There’s the sand!” “Can we go swimming now?” “Pleeeeease!”

•••

The annual vacation to Myrtle Beach was a ritual for our family during the late 1960s and early ‘70s. Each summer during miners’ vacation we would leave our home in the lush green mountains of southern West Virginia to spend a week reveling in the excitement of “The Beach.”

With a vacation ensemble consisting of Mom and Dad, occasional aunts and uncles, and about a half dozen kids — in case a cousin or two came along — the excursion was always a boisterous adventure.

My father was a coal miner, and our idea of a good time during vacation did not include fancy dinners, high-priced entertainment or elaborate shopping sprees. Instead, we were thrilled to spend the days digging in the sand with our brand-new plastic shovels and pails, splashing about in the waves on an inexpensive rubber raft and living the high life with frequent swims in the hotel pool.

An evening trip to the pavilion was icing on the cake. Vivid bright lights, musical carnival rides, saltwater taffy and infectious laughter would overwhelm the senses and leave a flashbulb memory of the perfect family vacation.

And let’s not forget the cheesy but endearing souvenirs — Myrtle Beach T-shirts and ashtrays, and dolls made of seashells painted in vibrant shades of purple and yellow.

Fellow vacationers added to the vibrant and fun-loving spirit of the trip. No matter where we were in the beach community neighbors were always nearby.

“Neighbors” being fellow residents and mining families from southern West Virginia.

•••

In recent days I have seen quite a bit of social media commentary questioning the relationship between the Mountain State and Myrtle Beach. Most comments stem from the recent coronavirus cases attributed to vacationers at the ocean destination.

But intertwined with genuine concern over spread of the virus are messages that contain more than a bit of snarkiness. In a tone edged with superiority — at least as viewed by this reader — those posting wonder why anyone would go to Myrtle Beach. There are better options, they say, as if we simple hillbillies need a crash course in vacation destinations from those who have moved here from afar and know better.

Apparently, they do not know our culture.

•••

The connection between Myrtle Beach and West Virginia evolved into a firm bond during the decades when miner’s vacation was an annual, celebrated event.

The vacation was a stipulation in the United Mine Workers contract that called for the idling of mines for a two-week period during the latter part of June and early July. The go-to spot for many of those families was Myrtle Beach — the closest beach to southern West Virginia at 342 miles away.

Miners’ vacation began during the late 1940s or early ‘50s and continued through the following decades. It reached the height of its popularity during the 1960s and ‘70s.

As decades progressed, the grand event began to diminish. In the 1980s and ‘90s, more coal companies began working year-round. Workers were given their earned vacation but the mines did not idle.

Still, many children of those miners fondly remember the vacation days of long ago. And that is why Myrtle Beach continues to be entwined with West Virginia culture.

•••

In today’s current climate, this may be that once-in-a-lifetime moment to pause on tradition.

Coronavirus is real.

It is contagious.

And it can be deadly.

After months of staying safe at home, we all are in need of sun, fun and human interaction. But this may be the summer that we can best honor our elders and ancestors by keeping our family, friends and neighbors safe.

I am all about sustaining tradition, yet more important than that is preserving human life.

Our Appalachian and mining culture is a gift handed down by hardscrabble folks who wanted the best for their children and grandkids.

Let’s not blow that with impulsive, foolish decisions.

The beach will be there next year. Your family members may not.

— Samantha Perry is editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at sperry@bdtonline.com. Follow her @BDTPerry.

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