Every morning, on my way to work, I pass
over the Garden State Parkway, marveling how it is packed solid
in both directions. This morning I am sitting on the bridge at a
red light, reflecting about that busy road, as the chilly Autumn
air forces me to turn the heater on.
Some of my cousins bemoan the fact that I never come to see them,
even though they live “just down the shore”. I tell
them that driving down the shore is no longer the fun it used to
be, with traffic and crazy drivers on the Garden State Parkway-especially
during the summer. But there was a time back in the 50s and early
60s when it wasn’t bad at all. You could get on at exit 148
at Bloomfield Avenue and make it all the way down to my Aunt Angie’s
house in the Red Bank/Oceanport area at exit 109 in about 45 minutes
flat. Try that today. It takes you that long to go from Bloomfield
Avenue to the Union toll plaza.
Oh-oh, there’s that dizzy memory feeling coming upon me
again! As the haze clears, I start to make out a hot July morning
sometime in the late 1950s. It’s North 4th Street in Newark……early.
“All right, you guys get the car loaded and your stuff ready!”
“Car’s ready to go Pop. All we need are the sandwiches
and other eats.”
“Put the cooler in the trunk and double-check to make sure
we all have towels and a change of clothes packed.”
Then off we would head in the old blue and white ’54 Chevy
down to Aunt Angie’s house for a rendezvous with other family
members. From there we would ride out to Sea Bright and Frank Eel’s
beach house for a fun day of riding waves and devouring a cooler-full
of goodies. How different it was from my old Newark neighborhood-with
lots of open space and that wonderful smell of the ocean. And of
course there was that indescribable smell of restaurants and eateries
along the beach areas.
I used to think how lucky kids were that lived down the shore.
They could swim all summer while we had to sweat it out on hot asphalt
streets and sleep in warm houses, with maybe a big window fan trying
to keep us cool. It always got cool and breezy down the shore at
night-natural air conditioning. Today, with all the traffic and
vacationers, I imagine that brings its own brand of hell to a shore
neighborhood. But back in the 1950s, the thought of the shore made
a Newark kid’s head swirl with adventure and possibilities.
It seems the kids in my neighborhood had their own special parts
of the shore for vacationing. Ralphie loved Long Branch. Tommy and
his family went to Lakewood. Nickie and Mike liked Asbury Park and
Seaside. We mostly hit the Sea Bright area; but sometimes we would
try some other places like Seaside, Ortley and Bradley Beach, and
once in while, all the way down to Wildwood or Atlantic City—a
big treat for us. Folks had their own private places to get away
from the Newark heat and humidity. They had aunts and uncles or
grandparents who moved down the shore, and like us, a place for
the family to rendezvous.
We would leave Newark at about 7:30, pick up rolls and buns, be
at Aunt Angie’s at about 8:30, have breakfast and be on the
beach at Sea Bright by about 9:45. Today most of Sea Bright is a
wall that prevents the ocean from taking the town, but back then,
there was a nice beach beyond the sea wall. It was our place to
have fun and see how much sand we could collect in our bathing suits!
I can still feel the waves lapping at my legs, and the tickly
sensation of the sand rushing out between your toes. It was glorious.
The bi-planes flying low over the water with all sorts of banners
trailing behind. The smell of suntan lotion, radio music from all
around, vendors selling ice cream on the beach, sand castles, and
girls in bikinis—holy cow! Today, they hardly wear anything
at all. I couldn’t go on the beach now. I’d have a heart-attack.
Always got some degree of sunburn, no matter how much I tried
to prevent it. Nothing beats the year my Aunt Fanny and I tried
cocoa butter. We got fried so bad we both had the chills later that
night at Aunt Angie’s. We couldn’t even eat dinner we
felt so bad. Here it was 85 degrees outside and we were shivering.
That is the closest I ever came to sun poisoning.
Dad was the same way with the sun. He even got sunburned through
this outrageous blue robe he wore on the beach every season. It
matched our old blue beach umbrella. He topped that robe off with
a crimson corduroy hat. I never got lost. I just looked for his
outfit and sure enough I knew where the family encampment was. Mom
with her sallow skin seemed to be immune to sunburn. She just got
darker and darker. I used to kid her that she had rhino-hide for
skin. Me and my two sisters got my Dad’s fair skin and sunburn
was a constant threat-but who cared with all that bubbly green water
and fun around us.
Aunt Angie always had her favorite leopard skin bathing suit and
white bathing cap on as we caroused in the waves, laughing and gulping
water by the gallons. I remember one incident in particular when
a large wave came upon us without warning and we did our best to
ride it in. There was no chance for any of us. I felt myself get
flipped completely over as the wave crashed just behind me. When
I washed up on the beach I looked north and there was Dad laughing
and strewn in a heap, Uncle Tuti and his hairy chest covered in
sand - wondering what the heck had just happened, and Aunt Angie
wobbly-legged walking around in the receding water with her bathing
cap turned over her eyes, laughing and calling for help. I must
have had 10 pounds of sand in my bathing suit. I won’t ever
forget that scene. Looked like the remains of a shipwreck comedy.
After a day of riding waves and getting beaten up by the surf,
we headed back to Aunt Angie’s house, got cleaned up and had
a barbecue. Everyone had came down that morning with plates of food
and goodies for the end of the day feast. I am licking my lips now
thinking of those great Italian dishes, topped off with boiled corn
and dessert. Gee we ate good!
After that, as night fell, we piled back in the car and promptly
fell asleep. Next thing we knew, Dad was waking us up to unload
the car. Great days, great memories, and back safe and snug in our
Newark house. Another weekend adventure.
“Come’on Pal, get your butt moving! The light is green.”
I am jolted back from my sleep, or should I say memory, as my
fellow driving citizen from behind sends his love and affection
out to me. We are such a vocal group we “Joisey” folks.
So colorful in the way we bid a fine good morning to each other.
I naturally flip him the universal sign of love and brotherhood.
He understands and acknowledges his affection with a horn blast
to wake the dead.
Yes, the light is indeed green, so I accelerate past it and bid
the Parkway goodbye until I cross it again later in the day, still
finding it packed in both directions. It has become the road that
never sleeps. But back in the 1950s for a brief time it was a magical
road to fun and adventure, down the shore, at Aunt Angie’s
warm and loving home.
Her smile and big hugs, I cannot forget…..nor those family
food fests and laughter. When she and Aunt Fannie were around, I
was immune from my Dad’s strict ways. There is a little part
of Aunt Angie and the shore inside me. Like Newark, it is part of
the security blanket I return to every now and then when I feel
the world getting a little too close for comfort.
My older cousins sometimes still call me “Baby Harry”,
even though my wide 230 pound frame looks more like that of a defensive
back than anything resembling a baby. Aunt Angie named me that,
decades ago, to distinguish me from my Dad in family conversations.
I remember yet the smell of her kitchen and the beautiful copper
pans and decorative curios she had on the walls; and those fireplaces
around the Holidays---well I cannot even begin to describe how comfy
and cozy they were.
If I smell salt air, it’s Aunt Angie’s smiling face
I see. She is gone now, but not the familial love that still surrounds
me and my other first cousins. Believe me there are a gaggle of
us, thirty in all. We remember her infectious laugh, twinkling eyes,
and heart of gold.
But she really isn’t that far from me. All I have to do
is look at her daughters, my cousins Dee and Janet, and I see Aunt
Angie again, and feel the warmth.
That’s what family is all about. They are always with you.