In mid-May, yellow buses from distant lands began appearing in Newport. I saw one from Idaho, another from Montana, and several hailing from the Willamette Valley and Southern Oregon. All the buses had one destination and one sacred mission in mind: South Beach State Park, to let children play on the beach.
Have you ever witnessed a child visit the ocean and walk on the beach for the first time? I have, years ago, in my capacity as caretaker of Nestucca Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I will never forget that moment. I access it every now and then as one of my most powerfully motivating editorial and pedagogical images.
After planting trees with several sixth grade classes from Hillsboro, I accompanied the students to Neskowin. On the way there, with the rain pelting the bus as only Oregon coastal rain can, a teacher told me that one of the boys had never seen the ocean even though he lived most of his life an hour away. I'm not sure how or why this tragedy came to be, but I know it amounts to a crime against a child.
The boy walked the path from the wayside, hit the beach, and started running madly to the water. He then stopped, flung himself to the sand, rolled on his back, writhed, and started making angels. He looked like a complete idiot, and it was one the most beautiful and hardcore Oregon things I've ever seen in my life.
In my 10 years on the refuge, I led close to 50 groups in tree-planting and blackberry-hacking activities. Most of the children came from Willamette Valley public schools and crossed all demographic lines. Before we went to work, I always arranged the kids in a circle and asked for a show of hands from those who had never visited an Oregon beach. Invariably, multiple hands went up. The numbers shocked me every time.
More recently, as I led my Newport High School seniors on our annual history walk around town, I spotted a bus from Oakridge parked on the Bayfront. I bet my students that at least one of the children on the bus had never seen the ocean. A few minutes later, I asked an Oakridge chaperone the question.
Make it two kids.
If I had the money, I would launch the Oswald West Foundation and call our only program Operation Great Birthright. No curriculum. No tests! Transport every kid in Oregon to the ocean at least once and let them play on the beach for one afternoon. Okay, maybe I'd force them to recite West's famous quote about Oregon's ocean beaches — "No local selfish interest should be permitted, through politics or otherwise, to destroy or even impair this great birthright of our people" — before feeding them lunch, but that's the extent of the teaching.
What kind of money would it take to establish such a foundation? We're talking funds for buses and lunches, a couple of staffers paid bohemian (surfer) wages to coordinate logistics with the schools, some beach toys, and some shelter dogs to run with the kids. Really, not that much at all. Probably the cost of one artillery shell.
The beach, of course, doesn't cost a cent.
Somehow, I need a quick way to rake in the cash to fund the Oswald West Foundation. I really don't have many scruples where the money comes from, and I'll gladly sell out my literary soul to give every Oregon kid a chance to see the ocean.
I know what needs doing — write the big vampire-on-the-Oregon-Trail novel. Make my lead bloodsucker sexy, smart, brooding, celibate, and possessed with a weird passion for building sand castles that recall the grand citadels from Transylvania. It would sell millions!