When I was a kid, like most kids in America, I flew out of the schoolyard on that last day of school and looked forward to the next ten weeks of vacation–days of sleeping late, reading every day and night, games with the kids in the neighborhood, camping out in the backyard, and the beach.
I didn’t have a wealthy or privileged childhood — not by monetary standards, anyway — but I was rich in experience. I lived at “the Central Jersey Shore,” a two-county area that stretches roughly from Sandy Hook (part of the U.S. Park Service’s Gateway National Park) just south of New York’s Hudson Bay, through the southern tip of Long Beach Island, where Little Egg Harbor and Great Bay meet the Atlantic. My mom (a single mom raising two daughters) would somehow scrape together enough money for our little family to rent a locker at one of the beach clubs in Sea Bright, a sleepy little beach town on a peninsula formed by the Shrewsbury River on the west, and the Atlantic on the east.*
- Forgive me, but I must digress for a moment here to correct a long-standing urban myth: People who live at the Jersey Shore don’t say they’re going “down the shore.” That’s what people who live in North Jersey, Philly or “the City” (NYC) say. People who live at the shore say things like, “I’m going to the beach.” Makes sense, right? They’re already at the shore. Thanks for letting me get that off my chest. It’s been bugging me for a while.
Until I was old enough to get a real job (i.e., not babysitting), I spent pretty much every “beach day” in Sea Bright with my older sister and our friends. My sister and her crowd were sun-bathers who’d spend the days toasting their baby-oil-slicked bodies in the blazing sun…while hopefully catching the eye of a cute lifeguard or two.
As for me, I’ve always loathed sun-bathing. Not only is it ghastly hot out there on the beach in the middle of summer, but you sweat. A lot. Sweat equals sticky. I don’t like sticky. Combine that with sand that attaches itself onto moist beach skin like a parasite, somehow finding its way to parts of your body that don’t see the light of day, and you’ve one one gross sticky-sand-covered mess to deal with, . Ugh. No sun-bathing for me.
- Beach tip! Years later, I discovered baby powder. Sprinkle a little on the parts of your body attacked by sand, and like magic, the sand falls off! Really! Try it yourself!
So while my sister and her buds were catching the eye of the sun-baked lifeguards — who alternated between sitting perched above the crowds, scanning the horizon for trouble, and cruising the beach, scanning the blanket-bound girls for hook-up material — I body-surfed in the ocean or pretended to do laps in one of the two giant pools at that club. I also hung out at the snack bar (too much), and spent hours lounging and reading in the chairs on the deck overlooking the beach, my trusty transistor radio tuned to an AM top-40 station. (“See You in September” by The Happenings is still one of my all-time summer songs. … Okay, so they’ve aged. Who hasn’t? And we didn’t have video in those days. Be kind.)
Live bands played on the weekends, and I remember dancing under the stars to covers of Grand Funk Railroad and Chicago. (We’ve already established that I’m old…. Let it go.)
I tried my first cigarette in one of those deck chairs. I was 12, and the cigarette was offered by one of my best beach friends who’d gotten hold of the pack from her older sister. I took one puff of that stick, inhaled a mouthful of chemicals, and shoved it back at her.
I read my first “literary” love scene in one of those chairs–Catherine and Heathcliff in Emily Bronte’s “Wuthuring Heights.” I also read my first real sex scene at the beach. It was from Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather,” page 27 I think, where Sonny does the deed with one of the bridesmaids at his own wedding. (I had a lot to learn about love scenes at age 14.) Later, I advanced to Kathleen Woodiwiss’s “The Flame and the Flower” and others of that genre, and a romance novel fanatic was born.
It was there, at the beach, where I completed the high school summertime reading lists, and made my way through classics like Hemmingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” Fitzgerald’s “Great Gatsby,” Golding’s “Lord of the Flies,” and Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” My love of reading blossomed during those long, hot, sweaty beach days, and I’ve never lost it.
I think the summer I turned 16 was my final one at the beach. After that, I did get a real job, my sister and her friends moved on to college, and life changed. Today, when summers mean little more than using air conditioning in the car instead of heating, I remember those days of freedom and wish I’d taken more care with them. I wish I’d appreciated more what I had. And I’m grateful for my mom for scraping together those pennies to give me perfect summertime memories.
*(Sea Bright’s below-sea-level elevation, always a worry in the past, spelled real trouble when Hurricane Sandy roared ashore last October. Thankfully, the people of Sea Bright are rebounding and rebuilding.)