One of the pleasures of a gloomy, mid-winter day is thinking about past summers. People who live where it is always summer miss this, their endless, warm sunny days slip by unnoticed and unappreciated. We need this yearly time of reminiscence.
A few years ago as our 50th reunion approached, I was in Ocean City on one of those perfect June days, and thought I would drop in on Audrey Lewis just on the chance she would be in. She was, and to my surprise I immediately recognized her yellow building as a former small hotel across from 833 Third Street where my family rented for two weeks each summer until I was about 10.
The charm of a beach vacation was going to a simpler lifestyle, kind of like camping. The point was to go back to basics, not wallow in unaccustomed luxury, so that on returning home our house, toys, and friends would look special again. Vacation time was supposed to be a visit to the old-fashioned past, old-fashioned even then.
We stayed in a third floor apartment having a tiny porch tucked under the eves with a great view of the street below. We had no phone nor even radio. We were too far from Philly to pick up any stations.
Later we had a refrigerator, but earlier all we had was an ice box. Ice was delivered mid-morning by high school boys from a horse-drawn wagon. We could hear them in the neighborhood long before they arrived. They would run up the steps of each house, shout “Iceman!,” barge right in, drop the ice in the upper section of the box, and were gone in seconds. They weren’t about to politely wait at each door with a 50-lb block of ice on their back. Everyone left their doors unlocked or they didn’t get ice. My sister, three years older and uncomfortably close to their age, would squeal and hide in the bedroom as they barged in.
Fruits and vegetables were delivered each morning by “hucksters,” also in horse-drawn carts. They would come slowly down the street chanting “Veg-ta-bles,” stretching out each syllable, and stop in mid-block to meet the mothers streaming out of houses up and down the street.
There was a lot of hollering in those days. We would get the newspaper on the boardwalk each evening from newsboys who would chant something like, “Getcher 4-star (breath) sports-final (breath) Bulletin ‘ere!”
The first week was exciting as we enjoyed the beach and boardwalk all over again, but the second week was the best as we settled into a comfortable routine of morning chores, afternoon beach, and evening boardwalk.
When I was about 10, we changed our rental to the narrow southern end of the island at 5547 Asbury Avenue. We discovered that location from a classmate friend of my sister, Joline Wright, a slim, stunningly beautiful girl with long blond hair whose family rented there. She once sat on my hand and jokingly accused me of goosing her. I didn’t know what “goosing” was and was appalled when I found out. It would be like goosing the Virgin Mary. I’m still blushing as I write this.
Gillian’s Fun Deck had the landmark amusement of the boardwalk, the Ferris wheel, the old one still in the back, not the humongous one you see now. But Playland, now Wonderland, at 6th Street, was my favorite place. It had pinball machines, skee ball, penny movies that flipped photos as you turned a crank, a carousel, bowling alleys, and a roller skating rink with a subtle, pleasant smell of the oil in the skate wheels. I mainly remember the sounds, the bells of pinball machines, the carousel calliope, the bowling balls hitting the pins, and the popular tunes played at the rink. You could even hear the sharp clack of the bakelite disks at the nearby municipal shuffleboard courts. At the bowling alley, the pins were hand set by sweating shirtless boys who could be glimpsed quickly jumping in and out of the shadows to avoid the oncoming balls. My mother told me that’s how I would end up if I didn’t do well in school.
There was always some event at the Music Pier which were free to standees. Snacks at that time were limited to Johnson’s popcorn and Kohl’s custard. I was not allowed to have a chocolate-covered molasses taffy on a stick. It’ll rot your teeth out. Salt water taffy and fudge were only gifts to take home.
The lifeguard stands were the same as today. The lifeguard boats were also the same except they were of real wood. The 6th Street beach was for blacks where they had to carefully swim under the boardwalk without being slammed into the pillars by the breaking waves. Somehow, everyone just knew that was their beach. At high tide, those same waves would occasionally spray up between the boards causing women to scream and children to laugh.
On Sundays, everything closed. Fun was evil. The 6th Street playground gates were locked and even the swings chained together so they could not be used, which struck me as downright mean. The boardwalk movie theaters ran church services in the evening, which was not mean but bizarre as we walked through the lobby past the posters of upcoming attractions showing gangsters and torrid romances.<
Each year, my mother signed me up for one week of swimming lessons at the Flander’s salt-water pool. The manager was Lansdowne’s Mr. Horner. One year, my instructor was George Savitsky, a U of Penn lineman who later played for the Eagles. At the end of the lesson, I would hold on with both hands to the extended thumb and forefinger of his huge hand and he would swing me up onto the deck in one motion.
The superficial reason for going to Ocean City was to get away from the summer heat. We could feel the coolness as we approached Somer’s Point and ritually rolled down the car windows to “smell the salt air.” We didn’t know we were really smelling rotting seaweed in the bay.
We noticed the temperature difference more going home. It hit us like an open oven as we drove through the back streets of Camden to get the night ferry to Philadelphia. We could have taken the faster Delaware River Bridge right beside it, but the ferry ride was the last treat of our vacation.
It would be a full year before we saw again the yellow hotel that one day would be Audrey Lewis’ home.