Share your "down a'shore" memories and be part of a video documentary of Wildwood, New Jersey. Post your thoughts on this blog or if you have old home movies, photos etc. that you would like to share, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
As we "kick off the holiday weekend" according to Action News, "vacationers head to the shore." Not me. I am cleaning the house in preparation for a graduation party, I am putting the last of the annuals in the garden and at some point I may be dropping by a friend's barbeque. No beach in sight. I was feeling sort of melancholy while I watched all the people eating cholesterol laden fries on the boardwalk, soaking up cancerous UV rays on the beach. I was actually wallowing in self pity. Suddenly my daughter walked into the room and switched off the television. "I can't take it," she sighed. "I will be schlepping plants in and out greenhouses all weekend, sweating in the hot sun. I can't watch." This happens to us every year. We swear we are going to spend our vacation dollars on something better than a rental house and a sunburn in New Jersey. We did Germany, Italy, France, Toronto, Niagara Falls, Nova Scotia, Key West. We've camped in lush woods next to pristine streams. We've hiked in Alps, swam in the Mediterranean and fished in the Great Lakes. So, why is it that all we really yearn for is New Jersey?
The pace of summer is replaced with quickening fall footsteps and beach umbrellas are stored away in the dark corners of the basement for another year. It is my least favorite season, we are further from summer than at any other time on the calendar. I am not moved by the beautiful colors of a Pennsylvania autumn or the smoky scent of wood, burning in the fireplace. I am melancholic for the sounds of life and living-the sounds of summer. It's not as though I haven't tried to enjoy the seasons. I've gone on hayrides and trekked through pumpkin patches, played in piles of fallen (dead) leaves. I have skied in the winter, got cozy in front of the fire and baked enough to fill the block with the sweet scent of cookies. It is like dating a really great guy after being jilted by the love of your life. Something is always missing. This year I am filling the months with extra classes at Widener University. I may not post as often as I did over the summer months although I am hoping to post at least monthly until late winter. By then I will notice that the days are getting infinitesimally longer and the tune of Wildwood Days starts playing in my head. And we'll be closer to spring than we were in September.
So I am not down the shore. I am in Philadelphia and in Downingtown. I am trying to convince myself that there are plenty of summery type things to do besides sit on the beach. I could spread a blanket on the grass at The Mann and listen to Tony Bennett croon. I could walk along the Italian Market, buy fresh crabs at half the price I would have to spend at a beachside restaurant and then grab a really 'real' Italian water ice for the ride home. I could watch a late night basketball game at Kerr Park in Downingtown or just sit on our deck which overlooks the Brandywine Conservancy and listen to the cicadas and crickets. Despite the lack of sea and sand we are having a good time. It is summer after all and summer doesn't last forever. Take a look at what we do for fun in Chester County, Pennsylvania. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FVqgc3tFaCE
Modern roller coasters have height requirements and minimally they ask that riders be at least 48 inches tall. It is a good policy and one that went into effect after a period in the 1970's where several smallish teenage girls were killed when thrown from the newly designed metal curved coasters. Safety restraints were also redesigned to keep riders in their seats. Wildwood's boardwalk was home to the "Jack Rabbit" an older wooden roller coaster without height restrictions. The design of these older coasters may have been higher and with a larger vertical drop than the steel coasters that debuted in the early 1970's but were generally safer since the track itself did not twist. The Jack Rabbit was built in 1919 and it's was situated on Playland Pier and extended onto Schellenger Avenue. The sound of the wooden cars creeping up the tracks and the screams as it roared down the other side was the background music for a day at the beach. At night the carnival lights that ran up it's side beckoned riders and watchers on the street and on the boards. My first memory of The Jack Rabbit is 1963 and I am riding to the beach in a stroller. I recall standing up in the coach and screaming for my father to stop so that I could watch the cars as they climb the hill and feel the vibration as it zips past us street side. I want to ride! The whole family explains that I am too small and too young (I am 2 years and 8 months old) to ride a roller coaster. My oldest sister, who is nearly 14 is especially against my plan. Going home from the beach later in the day I make everyone stop again so that I can watch the roller coaster. I begin a chant, "Rollie Coaster", that I continue the whole way home and as the week goes by my dad joins in the song. "Rollie Coaster. Roll...ie. Coas...ter". I am in the midst of my first obsession. I watch the Jack Rabbit for hours, I talk about it incessantly. I sing about it. I wonder what it feels like to be in the cars as they climb slowly, deliberately up the incline and I ask them to push the coach as close as possible so that I can feel the breeze as it flies down the other side. I want to ride so badly. The last evening on the boardwalk the ride operator tells my mother that it would be okay for me to ride as long as she goes along. My sister is nearly hysterical as my mother and I climb into the car and the man wraps the belt tightly around my small waist. The smell of engine oil and damp wood are forever linked to this moment. My mother wraps her arms and legs around me and I am so short that I can't see much in front of me. I hold on tight as the operator releases the brake and the car starts it's ascent. I am many things but I am not afraid. I am amazed by the speed and surprised when my bottom lifts off the seat. I feel the damp salt air more acutely than on the ground and I am bewildered by all the things on the rooftops of the nearby buildings. It is over too fast and I am back on the boardwalk, climbing out of the car, full of news of the experience. My sister is tearful waiting for us and I ask her to come along next time on the "Rollie Coaster". Over the years I rode on hundreds of coasters but I would always return to the Jack Rabbit and held it as my favorite, even after bigger, faster and newer designs came along. In the summer of 1984 I rode my last time with my middle sister Roseann (the oldest one having sworn off coasters for good sometime in the late 60's). It was as good as the first time especially since we decided ahead of time to scream like little girls on all the hills. and it was bittersweet since we'd already heard that it would be torn down in the fall. We walked away laughing, the Jack Rabbit was a really good run.
Last week my family, including two teenage kids, had a home cooked dinner five times. The other two meals consisted of take-home from Wegman's and dinner at a local restaurant. According to The American Journal of Epidemiology, the average American eats dinner away from home 19.6% of the time. We also spend 29% of our salary on food purchased in restaurants (that includes breakfast/lunch & dinner). The study was interested in correlating the upswing in obesity with the increase in food consumed outside the home. It is not surprising then that we were all so thin in the 1960's when a family dinner at a restaurant was likely to occur only for special events.
As a child, I don't think I ever had dinner in a restaurant except for the yearly meal we'd have during our summer vacation in Wildwood. Even while on vacation my mother would cook or prepare a cold plate at dinner. She'd bring along supplies to prepare a "pot of gravy" which yielded one pasta dinner, another dinner of meatball sandwiches and what was left might get mixed with peppers and sausage for a third meal. As our vacation winded down my parents would plan an "out to dinner" night. I found this extremely exciting and looked forward to the bustling Wildwood restaurants, the big plastic covered menus, the smart waitresses in their crisp. colorful uniforms. I knew nothing of dining and it was all "fine dining" to me. We'd sit on the porch afterward, my parents complaining about the over-priced, under-cooked meal and wondering why anyone would rather eat in a restaurant than at home. I'd bask in self-importance, imagining myself a jet-setting connoisseur while looking at restaurant postcards that I collected throughout the week.
Last night I had two dinners at a restaurant, both at The Seaview Marriott in Absecon. The first I consumed in the grill with my daughter, the second in the Main Dining Room where I entertained clients while my daughter wrote college essays in the lobby. The restaurants have improved but the thrill has worn exceedingly thin. Tonight I made a pot of gravy.
Photo courtesy of The US National Archives. Photographer Carl Van Vechten 1900 I will not be posting for the next few days as I am going to be down a'shore. Not to Wildwood or my newer hangout, the dull OC. I will be testing the waters in the original shore town, Atlantic City. My daughter and I have tickets to see "Hairspray" at Harrah's and somehow I tied in a few professional visits to physicians in the area, including a relationship building dinner at The Seaview Marriott. I am taking along the laptop and if insomnia strikes, you may hear from me sooner than later. Enjoy the weather-summer doesn't last forever.
Danny DeLuca (pictured right Wildwood 2006) is alive and well. He is eighty-five and still full of the "piss and vinegar" that defined his eighteen year old self. He hates George Bush. He is a bigot. He likes his 'farm', a 10x20 garden behind his home. He likes Budweiser beer and dark red Italian wine. He is mentally sharp, extremely verbose and horribly stubborn. He has not changed since my earliest memory of him. Many of those memories are not pleasant. One could not live peacefully with Danny and express any desire that was not similar to his own. I chose freedom of speech over peaceful coexistence. I was the daughter he would later describe as a "wolf" and both he and I would be proud of that description. There was one place where we found common ground and that in a place where the ground no longer existed. In the ocean. Here I didn't need to beg for attention by saying things to purposefully evoke his ire. I didn't need to make witty remarks to prove that I too was 'sharp'. I just needed to be brave and follow him deep into the surf, nearly to the place where the dolphins swam by in the late afternoon. My dad was physically smaller than my full grown self would eventually become. He was an inch or so over five feet and weighed less than 125 pounds. He was fit from years of working in construction and stronger than you'd expect from someone of his stature. His voice was huge and when he yelled the sound of his voice would carry down the alleyway across the blocks of our neighborhood. Even big men stayed away when Danny was angry. Danny was angry a lot. But never when he swam. He was a strong swimmer, diving into the waves and swimming along the beachline. He was an old dad too, in his mid-forties but with a youthful enthusiasm that when considered against his size fooled strangers into believing that he was much younger. Our yearly treks to Wildwood were his favorite time of year. For a week every year he would be happy. A deep happiness that made him seem vulnerable and made me realize that his usual anger was just a thin veil to keep that vulnerability in check. He was a World War II vet, goddammit, and wasn't afraid of anything. Swimming out deep one day, trying to catch a good wave before the lifeguards called us in, we got caught in a riptide. We had been in these before and I knew not to struggle but to swim along the shoreline. We both swam and soon the waves pushed us in closer, albeit further down the beach nearly to the next lifeguard stand. Walking back to our place on the beach where my mother nervously scanned the ocean, I asked Dad what I should do of I got pulled out to sea. My ten year old mind imagined being pulled to the horizon. He told me to look for the dolphins and grab onto their fins and they would take me back to the surf. This thought delighted me. Riding on the back of those wonderful creatures as they dove rhythmically into the sea. Bringing me back to the World's Finest & Safest Bathing Beach.
It is always encouraging to know that my memory is intact and thanks to Lou Antosh for confirming the name of the cocoon ride as "The Caterpillar". Special thanks to all the brilliant techy people who invented the internet and the operating systems that are simple enough for a person who failed grade school math, like myself, to make use of this wonderful device. That ability has led me to the man of the hour, Mr. Hyla F Maynes of New York, who in 1922 invented the "The Caterpillar Ride". Wildwood By The Sea was one of many amusement parks that featured Maynes creation and it remained popular through the early 1970's. Five Caterpillars remain in use today throughout the US but only two of those have fully functional canopies, one at Idlewild Park in Western Pennsylvania. I was so excited to have identified this ride that I considered a trip to the Pennsylvania hinterlands just to take one more spin, air blowing under the darkened canopy. I am now just about the same age as my mother was the last time we rode together. My mother now is 84. I have a herniated disc and my mom has Alzheimer's Disease. I changed my mind. Hyla Maynes' Caterpillar seems to be aging a lot more gracefully than mom and me.
Does anyone remember a ride that was something like the Himalaya with a twist? While going around, a canvas awning came up and around the cars so that the occupants were completely covered and in the dark. It may have been called the 'caterpillar' or the 'cocoon'. It was on Marine Pier which is present day Mariners Landing. My dear mother would ride this fast and somewhat scary ride and considering that I was a 'late in life' baby, she must have been in her late forties when she joined me in this nauseating 'fun'.
It is always amazing to hear people when they discuss their memories of vacations in Wildwood, New Jersey. People recall their first roller coaster ride, their first nasty sunburn, sleeping in 1950's era hotels with "in-ground" pools or sweating in those large dorm style boarding homes. Maybe you remember eating Snow White's hotdogs or Mack's pizza on the boardwalk or "fudgie wudgie" on the beach. A cold beer at Phil & Eddie's Surf Club or dancing the night away at The Stardust. I would like to gather these memories for a video project that I am working on and if you'd like to be part of that, please post your thoughts.