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I met Tony Johnson on the beach at 9 a.m., just as he was finishing his day’s work. He sat meterstick-straight atop his tractor, a traffic-cone orange front-loader with what appeared to be a giant wire cage hitched to the back. As it dragged along the sand, I saw dozens of tiny teeth working behind the wires – it was a rake, combing the beach for bottle caps, plastic spoons, condom wrappers and beach towels abandoned the day before.
He had to lean down to shake my hand. With great hairy forearms, a quarried jaw and rimless glasses, he looked like a shop teacher. We agreed to meet for breakfast at Crystal’s Restaurant, a popular breakfast spot in Rehoboth Beach.
Over omolottes, Tony told me about his day. Six days a week during the summer, he wakes up at 3:30 a.m., brushes his teeth, and drives to Rehoboth. There he trades car for tractor, chugs to Dewey and starts combing the sand for garbage. After an hour and a half, the horizon softens to brown, then to gray, then a soft, even blue. Weary partygoers and yoga enthusiasts crest the dunes to witness sunrise.
“Sunrise is probably the most beautiful thing I’ve ever come across,” he said. “I can see why people get up to see it.”
Around 6 a.m., he said, the dog-walkers appear, often unleashing their dogs to race along the high-tide mark. Some run laps around his tractor, barking at the growling diesel engine.
At 8, caravans of families carrying umbrellas, coolers and bags stuffed with buckets and pails trickle onto the beach, reserving a spot and decamping for breakfast in town. The kids love the tractor, Tony said. They jump and shout and wave, grinning at Tony’s one-man parade. Tony smiles and waves a paw back.
“The kids go nuts,” he said, chuckling. Pat and Mike Graze, Pittsburgh residents, watched their son fall in love with Tony’s tractor.
“My son, who is 5, looks forward to getting up and onto the beach to see Tony driving the big orange tractor and waving to all the children, much like a parade,” Pat wrote in an email. “We have been home for over two weeks and Max still talks about going to bed early to get up and see his friend Tony.”
At 9, Johnson dumps his cargo of ice cream cups, derelict towels and freeze-pop wrappers and returns the tractor to Rehoboth. He has the rest of the day to spend with his daughter – and maybe, he said, take a nap.