You knew this was coming. No Philly city-kid life in the 1950s and 1960s could possibly be complete without it. You were inevitably part of the great chain of land-breathing creatures whose ancestors emerged from the cheap seats on Big Ships. And as soon as they could possibly afford to, they went back to the sandy fringe of the Jersey shore (Jersey, dammit, not Maryland) to sleep on damp sheets, get basted in greasy crap called Coppertone (“Tan don’t burn, get a Coppertone tan”), lay on the beach, get sunburned (Coppertone, surprise, didn’t work), dig holes in the sand (until other amusements drew your attention–more anon), get tossed around in the waves, eat hot dogs for lunch, collect seashells, see your parents half naked, and then go back to whatever mildewed bed-sit for an outdoor shower, some mystery dinner, and then an evening stroll on the Boardwalk. Stuff happened there: food, fun, the occasional movie, lots of people watching. Then back “home” rinse, sleep, repeat, only to start another day. If your family was hip (mine wasn’t), maybe a morning bike ride. If you were lucky, sunshine. If none of the above, rain, comic books, boredom, and the drone of the AM radio stations that excitingly drifted in from Long Island, or even, at night, some place called Canada. If you were working class, you maybe got a week. If you were fortunate, maybe two. And then there were those few, construction-money scented , indeed, blessed beings who had a place downa Shore for the Summer. Like as in June through August. Damn: Memorial Day through Labor Day. I knew one or two of them after we moved to the verdant suburb of Penn Wynne in 1960. But never before. Hell, you got a week and thanked God for it. We always went to Ocean City (New Jersey, NOT Maryland), but a lot of the South Philly contingent hit one of the flavors of Wildwood, Ventnor, or Margate. Almost never Cape May, except for one memorable summer to which I will return. A lot of firsts generally happened downa shore. They mostly had to do with rituals of childhood and adolescence. Be patient, and I’ll cop to a few.
Now be aware that there are many possible narratives, all necessarily age-adjusted. I’m gonna be conflating about 18 years of them. So don’t get confused. And pay attention, lest you think I was chugging Schmidts while still in diapers. Actually, it was Valley Forge (raw Schmidt’s), and that had to wait until 1967 when I was sixteen and a hotshot.
Getting downa shore before the Atlantic City Expressway (1964) generally entailed a romp through backwoods South Jersey, the Pine Barrens included. You took the Ben Franklin Bridge (before 1957) and then the Walt Whitman, which avoided lovely Camden, but included any number of motels out of Psycho (all since gone, I’m sure) along the Back Horse Parkway. As a bonus, you got to stop to take a leak in Cecil. These little garden spots had local constabularies whose agents would gleefully stop you (or my Dad), as well as the odd service station that specialized in fixing some mysterious ailment called vapor lock that I’m sure was induced by stifling heat, too much traffic, and the Jersey Devil. It was rural then, dotted with little amusement spots (See Little Mexico. We never did) and fruit and vegetable stands. At some point, as you escaped the Pine Barrens and their weird denizens, known as Pineys (you could’ve made Deliverance there), the soil started to change and the air perceptibly cooled. Maybe around Absecon, you’d start to smell decaying marine life, which was not exactly the same as the sea. I remember the great relief that greeted Somer’s Point and the Causeway across Egg Harbor Bay (Little Egg Harbor, I think), “are we there yet” no longer ticked off your parents. Cause you were there.
I should mention in passing that I think Ocean City was founded by Methodists, and the town was dry. That sort of made Somer’s Point a kind of Subic Bay fleshpot, with lots of booze stores (“Package Goods”), road houses, like Bayshores, the Dunes, Tony Mart’s, which were off limits to respectable people, but always jumping with college kids and other dissipated types by night. I was too young then, but, eventually, like the song says, I found out. A nice Catholic girl who had driven down to Ocean City with me and a few friends years later cheerfully announced “Here’s where we leave our morals.” I wouldn’t have known, at least then.
We usually settled into some dank rental, inevitably going out to the ACME to stock up on exactly the same stuff we ate back home. Exciting, right? But then, if you were lucky, you went down to the sea in your father’s old Hudson or Buick. You had to find a place to park because you never could afford to be near the beach. But you could now see it, and then hear it: The Sea! As we got a little more affluent, my parents stayed in a place called the Garden District–which I take it is wildly unaffordable now, but was still modest then. By then I was learning trumpet, and the landlord, a sax player, would drop by, critique and even jam some. But, again, this is getting ahead of ourselves.
Going to the beach as a little kid was always wild. You got to see your parents half undressed (and my Dad’s ulcer surgery scar, that really freaked me out), you ate sandy hot dogs, you avoided the water for at least an hour after eating (“cramps”–what kind of cramps you gonna get standing in water no higher than your knees?) and worked at excavating, shell collecting, and intermittent runs into the ocean under the watchful eye of your Mom (my Dad just wanted to sleep, poor guy) and some impossibly blonde lifeguard, sort of a Jersey Beach Boy type. Normally, there wasn’t much excitement, unless the surf was rough, or some idiot overestimated his (always his) swimming ability. At which point all Hell would break lose and the somnolent white boys on the stand turned into quasi-Olympians paddling out to get said idiot out of trouble. I never saw anyone drown, but there were a few close calls, and that was enough. Even when I took to body surfing, I made sure to know where the cross currents were. A few abrasions, unwanted doses of sea water. For the most part, it was tame. We’d loiter until the tide came in, and then back to the chateau. An outdoor shower awaited you, usually cold as Hell, and then a chance to clean up. Mostly, then, you went up to the Boardwalk for dinner, although I do remember a sit down restaurant once or twice over the years.
Ocean City opened my palate. I learned to eat pizza at Mack and Manco (it was Mack and Manco then, see) which had just opened. In fact, I think 1957 was a kind of breakthrough year. I ate pizza, saw The Curse of the Demon (which scared me half to death–I still can’t watch the damn thing), and learned the words to Patti Page’s “Old Cape Cod” which was like a summer version of White Christmas-dawn to dusk. My Dad, God love him, would indulge me in all sorts of arcade games on the Boardwalk, but sometimes we’d just walk en famille and watch the phosphorescent waves crash up again the pilings by Fisherman’s Pier. Look, I’m sure the normal tensions of family life had some tendency to get magnified under close quarters for a week, but the release from routine, work, “the pain in the ass innocent bystanders” who populated your life, obviously compensated for my parents. And I got to eat salt water taffy.
I inevitably enjoyed myself.
One year, 1961, we did go to Wildwood Crest to stay at a property a great uncle had rented for the summer. That was really memorable because, for the first time, a kid saw the outside world intrude on fantasyland. For one thing, we went to the beach in Cape May, and I got to see the harbor defenses and the bunker that had gone up to protect the coast during World War 2, which still wasn’t twenty years in the past. I asked my Dad a lot of dumb questions, and I recall he told me that he thought a German U Boat had gotten into the Delaware Bay, which just around the other side of the point. As if that wasn’t enough, I distinctly recall Jack Kennedy making an address about Berlin. Well, I wasn’t wrong. That was July 25, 1961. And man, he scared the Hell out of me. He made it very clear that a lot of young men might find themselves in harm’s way if worse came to worse. Do remember we had a draft. I may have only been 10, but virtually every male member in my immediate family was a veteran of World War II, some wounded and decorated multiple times. My Dad and I watched the speech in complete silence, along with a couple of friends of my cousin, who were definitely draft age. They exited immediately afterward, I guess to get a stiff drink. I asked my Dad if there was going to be a war. “Let’s hope not, Rich. Let’s hope not.”
I can see all of it, the furniture, the cottage, the black and white tv, and a grim-faced Jack Kennedy. And an equally grim-faced Dad. The holiday was over for that year. We went home soon after. I thought about that night a lot for the rest of the summer.. In October, the Russians set off an ostensible 100 megaton bomb in some God-forsaken part of Siberia. The Summers were warm and memorable, but the winters, man, they were cold, dark and long. You had to go downa shore to stand them. Or, at least, I did.
More to come in my next post.