I go to the beach nowadays.
Happily living in Delaware, that’s what Delawareans do, they go to the beach. That’s the regional colloquialism here and I love that, and use that phrase exclusively.
But, being born and raised in New Jersey, what I used to do was to go down the shore; I never went “to the beach”. In fact, in Jersey we never even went down to the shore, we just went down the shore, as in:
What’dya do this weekend?”
“Oh, I went down the shore.”
Memories of being down the shore aren””t just an occasional recollection for a Jersey guy or gal, going down the shore intertwines your life.
As a young boy in the 1960’s, my parents once took the family down the shore for a day at Seaside Heights. It was a popular place for teens back then and always has been I suppose. In those days, AM top forty radio stations ruled the airwaves and the top of the heap was 77-WABC out of New York City. Anyone reading this and familiar with WABC during that time probably instantly heard the jingle in their heads. My memory of that day is the unique experience of walking on to the beach and hearing hundreds of transistor radios in a hundred different spots all seemingly tuned to WABC. And because of the slower speed of sound, there was this incredible richness and slight overlapping of the broadcast that came to you from all directions. Once in awhile I’d hear a group of older girls, you know, maybe fifteen years old or so, squeal as their fav hit started to play.
In the springtime of my senior year in high school, maybe two months before graduation, there came one of those simply magnificent early spring days. The kind of day that catches you by surprise with bright sun, unseasonably warm temperatures and puts everyone in an instantaneous good mood. My buddy, and our girlfriends, all decided that it was way too wonderful of a day to go to classes. So we hopped into my Camaro, tuned WABC on the car radio and headed down the shore. Seaside Heights that day too was the destination, but then again… we were teens. We figured we would just walk around the empty boardwalk, and enjoy our rebellious youth in the warm sun.
When we got there, apparently we were not the only ones thinking about Seaside and no classes that day. The boardwalk vendors were in full swing and the boardwalk itself was a sea of varsity jackets. It seemed like every school in the state was represented by at least one group. These were those varsity jackets from the 70’s that were usually felt and leather with two school colors that shouldn””t be on the same article of clothing, the sleeves being a different color than the rest. Blue and gold, red and orange, orange and green, green and purple and every imaginable combo.
Spending that day with close friends, listening to the gulls while having Italian sausage sandwiches, smelling the salt air while being whipped around on a ride, winning my high school sweetheart a stuffed animal at a wheel game, being down the shore had this way of defining your youth.
On the day that my son was born, after a long night and all morning in the hospital, mother and son needed some well deserved rest. I decided to take my two-year old daughter and mother-in-law down the shore that July afternoon. Point Pleasant Beach had its share of teens, but overall it was more of a family oriented place. Plenty of games, arcades and most of the rides seemed to be for smaller kids. My daughter went on her very first ride that day. It was these little boats that went around in a circle. Well, she went on a lot of rides that day and her love for the shore, and rides, still stay with her today. And watching the wry, surprised smile on my little daughters face as if to say, “I can’t believe how cool this is, why hasn’t Dad taken me here before!” while the aroma of nearby popping caramel corn, and the sounds of gleeful kids, is indelibly set in my mind.
Throughout both my daughter and sons’ youth, there were many more impromptu days spent at Point Pleasant.
I used to bowl quite a bit down the shore. The shore was a hotbed of great bowlers and there were a lot of long-time bowling centers, like Highway 35 Lanes in Sea Girt, Ocean Lanes in Brick, Airport Plaza Lanes up in Hazlet and Asbury Park Lanes. After my divorce from my first wife, I spent a lot more time in competitive bowling and hanging out with so many close friends down the shore. One late night, we were bowing some action games at Asbury Park Lanes, the lights were low, the majority of the customers were long gone and we were just finishing up a game when someone burst into the center wide-eyed and announced “Bruce is at the Pony!” A simple proclamation but it had huge significance to us Jerseyans. Its importance as a statement ranks along the lines of Revere’s “The British are coming” or Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you…”
The Stone Pony was a legendary rock and roll club, one block off the Asbury Park boardwalk and two blocks from the bowling center that Springsteen used to cut his teeth at and still frequented it to test out new material. And in Jersey… there was only one person who went by “Bruce” with no last name.
We all looked at each other and without a word, we quickly changed shoes, got ourselves together and hustled over to the Pony just in time to watch Bruce wave his hand on stage and say “Thanks, you guys have been great!” I saw Springsteen for eight seconds. I suspect that everyone who went down the shore often enough has their own Bruce sighting story though.
Eighteen years after graduating high school, I re-met my high school sweetheart. The same girl that I won the stuffed animal for. We decided to marry and our reception was held down the shore in Spring Lake, at a gloriously classic Victorian hotel, The Breakers, directly across from the beach. It was a beachy theme with colors of sandy peach and turquoise waters. We took pictures on the sand and later that evening, we had a coach van take us and about a dozen of our friends down to Atlantic City. The whole day was a real treat for my out-of-state buddies who have never been down the shore before.
And last year, my wife and I, happily married for twenty years now, met our daughter on Mothers day up in New Jersey. And even though it was still early May, it was the kind of day that catches you by surprise with bright sun, unseasonably warm temperatures and puts everyone in an instantaneous good mood. You know the kind of day. She suggested we go down the shore to Asbury Park which she said had really turned itself around after years of decay. I walked along the boardwalk with intense interest, studying the still standing buildings like old familiar friends I haven’t seen in many years. And as we sat at one of the new, hip outdoor cafes, a few blocks off the boardwalk, I picked at my pecan chicken salad, listened to the gulls in the distance, smelled the salt air and was wishing I had an Italian sausage sandwich from the boardwalk instead.
Being down the shore just keeps intertwining your life.
So, when people around me look at pictures of the collapsed pier in Seaside Heights from Superstorm Sandy and comment that there’s a roller coaster in the water, I know better. I know it’s the Wild Mouse Ride that’s sitting in the ocean. And when the news is showing videos of torn up boardwalk up and down the shore, I can see places in the background that I used to buy salt water taffy from or know exactly which motel that is.
The shore needs to rebuild and I’m sure it will. But I’m afraid that my memories will now be just that. Memories. With little chance of revisiting them in person as old friends. And in the meantime, if the people living down the shore need supplies, or water, or food, I’m going to do what I can to get those things to them. I hope you will too.
As Bruce sang, “Down the shore, everything’s alright…”