In early September 1946, LIFE magazine published a cover story that, in words and especially in pictures, perfectly captured the unique, sweet, melancholy feel of summer vacation’s end. That the article focused, as LIFE put it, on “the first postwar summer vacation” of the 1940s somehow added—if only in retrospect—a quiet intensity to the story. All these years later, the pictures and the story itself remind us of just how fleeting the peaceful, hot days and long, cool nights of late summer really are.
As LIFE put it in that long-ago article:
William and Carol Foster [of Nashua, N.H.], with their sons Karl, 9, and Michael, 4, have spent the summer at Cotuit on Cape Cod, enjoying the lazy and wonderful pastimes of sailing, swimming, digging clams and loafing. Now they and their summer neighbors are going home. Boats will be hauled out of the water to lie forlornly in the tall beach grass. Cottages will be boarded up. The clam bar and dance pavilion will be deserted. The golf course, the tidal pool and the lonely sea beach will again revert to the rabbits, the fiddler crabs and the sandpipers.
Labor Day is here. A month ago it seemed hazy and remote, separated from the present by an endless succession of golden summer days. Now, suddenly, these days are changed and gone. The mornings are still the same. It is still hot and fragrant in the cranberry bogs, hot on the white shell roads, hot on the beaches and in the village streets, with everywhere the strong smell of pine, bay leaves and salt water. It is the afternoons and nights that are different. It gets dark early, and cold. Heavy fogs often roll in from Martha’s Vineyard and the late swim is a shivery business, made enjoyable only by the quick warmth of the picnic fire. In the evenings, going to the movies, the fog is wet in the streets. All night long the in the harbor rings a steady accompaniment to the remote blasts from the lightship out in the Sound.
These are sad and disturbing days. Everything is being seen for the last time, everything done for the last time. The last clam is eaten. The last bag is packed, the cottage door locked. . . . Down on the steamboat wharf at Woods Hole the last passenger gets off the Nantucket boat and joins the crowd of departing vacationists from the Cape, pushing to board the train. . . . Walking across the station platform, they catch a last glimpse of the white gulls turning in the sun and nets drying in the fishing boats, take a last deep breath of salt air before they are swallowed up in the incalculable stuffiness of the Pullman. Another summer on the Cape is gone.
Finally, note that most of the Cornell Capa photos in the gallery above never ran in LIFE. A dozen or so photos at the end of the gallery are those that appeared in the magazine in 1946.