Catching up with a true icon

As a child, there were a few objects that all I had to do was see them and I would get excited.

I remember walking through the concourse at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore and seeing the field appear before me. There was always an instant flood of bright light, the sounds of the crowd and players like Eddie Murray, Jim Palmer and Ken Singleton warming up for my Orioles before the game started.

And, even though I spent my entire youth there, I would always get a rush driving down 16th Street NW in Washington, D.C., and seeing Rock Creek Park to the side, the White House dead ahead and the multiple churches and places of worship dotting the road.

But more than any other, my excitement meter would always register the highest when hours into a car ride filled with family discord and drama, that water tower with “Bethany Beach” emblazened on the side would let me know that we were at the beach for our annual vacation, and the smell of my sister’s feet would be temporarily replaced by make-your-own sundaes and salt air.

Actually, there were several visual landmarks that would provide me comfort every year at the beach. There was, of course, Chief Little Owl, the “totem pole” at the corner of Route 1 and Garfield Parkway that served as a directional point for my walks into town and back to my grandmother’s rented townhome. There was the basketball court, where I spent so much of my time when I was a kid.

And there was Rhodes 5&10.

That was where we always loaded up on our beach essentials every year. The first day into vacation my mother would swing in and grab every item we were supposed to bring with us, but ultimately forgot. We got suntan lotion, beach towels, chairs ... you name it. If we forgot it, chances were that we could find it at Rhodes. I would be sent there throughout the week to pick up miscellaneous items for the family, and would almost always be greeted by that nice man who sat in the chair out front.

It was only years later that I discovered that the man in front of Rhodes was, well, Rhodes. Arnie Rhodes, to be precise. Owner and proprietor of Rhodes 5&10.

Those memories of mine at Bethany Beach are probably 30 years old now. But as I sat down next to him a few weeks ago outside his shop, I realized that the memories might as well have been from last week. Summer of 2010. Arnie Rhodes sitting outside his store in downtown Bethany Beach, enjoying another summer in town. As much as the world has changed, at least part of it remains the same.

But there were times over recent years that it seemed Arnie Rhodes would not be sitting at his usual spot this summer.

It was September 2008, right after Labor Day, and Rhodes was preparing to go to Florida. The day before he was set to depart, something went horribly wrong.

“Everything collapsed,” said Rhodes, shaking his head at the memory of his kidneys and liver failing on him. To deal with the pain of bad knees, Rhodes had been taking pain killers, and he thinks now that he became addicted to them. Doctors felt that the pills had caused his organs to shut down on him. He spent more than a week in the hospital, had to go on dialysis and was hooked up to oxygen when he got home. Knowing he had to make drastic changes, Rhodes dropped 117 pounds in a year — both for his general health and to relieve some stress on his knees.

His cholesterol went from 340 to 110. His trygliceride level dropped from 230 to 90. He made life changes, and he saved his life.

And then in December of 2009, Rhodes returned to the doctor with a slow heart rate. He had to have a pacemaker installed to regulate his pulse, and, again, Rhodes seemed to dodge a bullet.

And then, while in Florida in April of this year, Rhodes’s pulse rate spiked to 175, according to the self-reading device he had on hand. An ambulance rushed to his aid, and his heart actually stopped pumping en route to the hospital. The paramedics were able to shock him back to life with a defribilator.

“Thank God for those paramedics,” said Rhodes. “I mean, they saved my life.”

The next day, while in the hospital, his heart stopped again. There was a Code Blue ordered. That’s not good.

“But they brought me back again,” said Rhodes. “Just amazing people. It’s amazing what they can do anymore.”

A Florida surgeon removed his pacemaker the next day, and installed a combination pacemaker/defribilator in its place. It worked, and Rhodes was out of the hospital in “a couple days.” Well, until he got blood clots in his hand, which caused yet another wave of anxiety. But, like the other times the Bethany icon faced a dark ending, he pulled through and persevered.

And there he was, sitting in his chair outside his store, engaging in brief conversations with people who passed by, and telling this miraculous story.

Rhodes’ wife, Pearl, passed away a few years ago, and it shook him horribly. He did smile a bit when talking about her, and mentioned that she had passed right after the annual Fourth of July parade in town. “She got to see one more parade,” he said.

He was quick to point out that his doctors, particularly Dr. Bhaskar Palekar, have done incredible work to keep him alive. He also credits his daughter, Diane Turnahan, for sacrificing so much for him, as well as family friend Irene Gallagher and store manager Lisa Stroud.

“And now I get to see the clouds and see the sun, and I’m so thankful to be alive,” said Rhodes, while surveying the scene from his store-front perch. “I haven’t gained back any of that weight, and I never will. I didn’t think I was going to make it a few times there. But here I am, and I have another summer in Bethany Beach.”

He’s proud of his work to lose and keep off his weight, and he should be. He excitedly pointed out that his shoe size had gone from 11 to 8 1/2 since dropping the pounds, and he sounds like he’s enjoying himself. He sold the store to his daughter Diane a few years back to retire, but he still finds himself sitting out front and serving as store ambassador. Just as he’s done nearly every summer day since opening the Bethany landmark in 1969.

But there’s one thing that’s different.

“Every year, less and less people stop by and say, ‘How are you doing, Mr. Rhodes?’” he said. “I kind of miss how people used to always swing by. They’d say that they used to work for me when they were kids and now, there they are, standing with their own families. I guess there are just less and less of them around town anymore.”

Do him a favor, and stop by to say hello. Trust me, you’ll be doing just as big a favor for yourself. The man is a true Bethany Beach treat.