It started as a job. Now it's more of a hobby. Or to hear Mike Miltenberger tell it, something else, something almost spiritual.
Miltenberger, 45, became a morning beach cleaner for Ventnor while he was in high school in 1989. Twenty-seven years later, he has never skipped a summer.
Maybe that's because he found something on the morning beaches beyond driving a tractor and picking up trash and debris.
"When we first start, you see the whole sunrise. It can be hard work, but you've got to look at all the other stuff. Like, you're out on the beach when no one else is here,'' said Miltenberger, who is a math teacher at Atlantic City High School the rest of the year.''
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"The sunrise over the ocean,'' he told The Press of Atlantic City. "Most people living here have probably never even seen that.''
The 'we' he refers to includes Mike Mannering, 29, of Absecon, who has been his summer morning sidekick for the past 14 years. The pair's beach-cleaning summers have turned into tradition.
Miltenberger, who lives in Ventnor, said that when you've been doing the same thing for 27 years, it becomes second nature. But in some ways this isn't the average summer gig. Sometimes, things just get weird.
"We've seen many animals wash in_ turtles, whales, dolphins, porpoises--all kinds of sea creatures,'' he said. "All kinds of cool shells. Pieces of boats. There was also a toilet. That was weird.''
Two weeks ago, a couch washed ashore. Beds, mattresses and other furnishings have made their way onto the Ventnor beaches, too.
And the discoveries sometimes proved gruesome. When working a summer during his college years, he said, he found a human leg bone.
"It had the little ball joint. There are some other things I probably shouldn't tell you about.''
Once in a while, Miltenberger said, he'd come across some treasure. Miltenberger and Mannering have found jewelry, wallets, watches, phones and keys abandoned in the sand. Believe it or not, money wasn't chiefly among the spoils, he said.
While iPhones are now the typical electronic lost and found on the beach, Miltenberger used to find Walkmans.
When they find a phone, they call it to try to find the owner. Other valuables go to the city.
"We have a policy now that good beach stuff we'll leave a few days in case they come back,'' Mannering said.
The job, while mostly calming, isn't without risk.
Miltenberger said he was stuck with a needle during a summer when large numbers of them washed up on the beach. But he said he hasn't seen hypodermic needles in that quantity since changes to the Clean Water Act.
And trash, like rings in a tree trunk, can tell you things.
"I could tell how windy it was the day of the air show because of the umbrellas. We must have collected 30 broken umbrellas in the trash that day,'' he said.
He said he and Mannering have gotten used to working in heat and humidity and through storms.
"You just drink a lot of water. Living here, you've got to be able to take all the weather,'' he said.
Miltenberger said the job is one that's usually filled by high school or college students, but he has good reasons for never wanting to give it up.
"I'm the only adult that comes back for seasonal work. This is 28 seasons now,'' Miltenberger said. "There's a few years where I never took a day off. As years go on, I tend to appreciate all of the other stuff. It's therapeutic. It's better than church. When September rolls around, I'm clear. I'm ready to go.
"Everyone has situations going on in their life, but I come here, and it gives you those few hours of calmness,'' he said.
When he does decide to end his beach-cleaning tradition, Mannering is likely to continue in his footsteps.
"I started it when I was in high school, too. It's actually kind of fun. You hear the birds,'' Mannering said.
Miltenberger said he has enjoyed having the same help by his side for the last 14 years.
"I request him,'' he said of Mannering.
Miltenberger can't say if or when he'll ever end his summer gig.
"Everyone asks, 'How long are you going to keep doing that?' Don't know. Maybe this year, maybe next year. I don't know. People are like 'Why that? It's not for the money.' And it's not all about money,'' Miltenberger said. "They pay me in sea air.''