Saturday was my birthday, and for a lifelong Ocean County kid like myself, the best birthday gift I could have ever imagined was a day at the beach.
Having been born in January, however, that has always been an odd - if not impossible - feat.
My family has hosted more than its share of "lite" birthday parties with fewer relatives and friends invited, thanks to snow, ice, or whatever treacherous meteorological phenomenon graced us with its presence Jan. 19.
But this year, things were different.
My father woke me up about 8 a.m., and with a shovel and tow strap in the trunk of my Land Rover LR2, we motored down Route 35 to Island Beach State Park, where the dunes were in desperate need of a boost.
A few days ago, we had delivered in a cart towed behind the Landie, our Christmas tree - a beautiful, 9-foot-tall Frasier Fir - to Silverton Farms in Toms River, which promised to transport the tree to the park for a special dune renourishment project.
When my father and I arrived at the park Saturday morning, about 4,000 trees - including our own, somewhere in the pile - were ready to be laid in trenches that would eventually serve as the basis for new dunes to form in the wake of Superstorm Sandy.
We were placed on "transport" duty by the powers that be at the New Jersey Beach Buggy Association, requested to use my SUV's four wheel drive powers to ferry others out to the beachfront.
"We got a lot of people, who really, really care about the Shore, and specifically, about Island Beach State Park, to come today" said Dr. Jim Merritt, one of the organizers of Saturday's event.
Hundreds of volunteers, from folks including myself and my father, to small children, gathered to help restore the Shore - literally - at the park.
While guys like my father and I off-loaded heavy trees from pickup trucks and laid them down to become part of the dune network, others scoured the inner areas of the dunes in search of flotsam that Sandy brought in. Park naturalists, before the cleanup began, explained that while they had accomplished the monumnetal task of removing large debris items from the beach, there simply had been no time to collect smaller debris articles.
Indeed, even we "tree haulers" collected our share of debris, ranging from Budweiser cans to G.I. Joe figures that, somehow, wound up washed up by Sandy's high ocean tides.
The main project, however, was the placement of the Christmas trees along the dune line that had been marked off by park officials. The science behind the dune effort was relatively simple, yet fascinating.
"Anything you put on the beach is going to collect sand," said Merritt. "You put a shell here, and sand will build up behind it."
In Merritt's home neighborhood of South Seaside Park in Berkeley Township, trees planted along dune lines have already paid off.
"On my beach, they put in trees, and since then, there have been two nor'easters and one south'easter ... there's already, in some places, two feet of sand built up," he said.
Katie Barnett, of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, hailed the event as a success, smiling from ear to ear and exchanging both words of encouragement as well as hugs with other volunteers.
"We made a great step today," she said, explaining that the event Saturday could serve as a pilot for future restoration efforts.
By the end of the event, she said, truckloads of both driftwood and trash had been loaded onto state pickup trucks for disposal, and thousands of trees had been planted to collect sand.
"What's this?" asked a young girl, of Merritt, grasping a piece of driftwood that also had a few skate pods attached.
Merritt explained the skate pods, and said he would get back to her on the origin of the strangely-shaped driftwood formation.
For us older kids, the day was just as educational.
Especially for those of us who have been residents of the barrier island communities, the beach has always been more than simply the eastern terminus of our streets - it is often viewed both as a community meeting place, and likewise valued as the spit of sand on which we grew up and learned about things ranging from life etiquette (my dad, in his best NCIS Agent Gibbs voice, always said, 'rule number one' is 'don't throw sand') to important lessons in biology (my next door neighbor, school teacher and later principal Ann Marie Coll, helped me catch sand crabs from a very early age) and so on.
It may have taken a hurricane, but my first "birthday at the beach" will, perhaps, be - especially because of the company of my father - more meaningful than any other beach day that may come this year.