VACATIONS

March 17, 2010 at 6:26 pm Leave a comment

With the snow melted, and winter about to come to an end, thoughts turn to spring, summer and, of course, summer vacations.  These are some of the memories of the summer vacations of my youth.

MEMOIR

VACATIONS

My wife, kids and I looked forward to our summer vacations. Every year, for the last several years, we have rented a house at Sunset Beach, North Carolina. It’s a short walk to a quiet expanse of beach, and during high tide, you can catch fish, crab and go boating in the estuary behind the house. We swim, take bike rides and we all read books, a lot of books. The house has a television, a recent ‘improvement’, but it is never tuned on during our stay. With the hectic lives all four of us lead throughout the year, this time to relax is vital. Now the girls are grown and have lives of their own, but we still go to Sunset Beach and welcome them to join us.
As a child, there were years when my family took no vacations, mainly due to the lack of money.
When I was a kid, summer vacation meant no school and months of totally unstructured time. There was the public pool for the really hot days; we would walk the mile or so to the pool in the late morning and stay until late afternoon, hanging out with friends from school. On cooler summer days, we would play games in the back yard. We also rode our bikes around the block on the sidewalk endless times; to ride on Newark’s narrow busy streets was a death sentence. And there were always books. Lazy summer mornings and afternoons sitting under the biggest tree in the yard lost in a book. Being able to read as long as I wanted, now that’s a vacation.
The spare dollars for vacations were few and far between; we did manage, however, to get a few days away from Newark. Most summers we just took an occasional day trip down the shore or to our favorite lake, at Cheesequake State Park.
Cheesequake was a small lake with a large sandy beach perfect for family outings. The lake was just a few miles from the ocean and I don’t know how the lake was fed, but it was a saltwater lake or at least a little brackish. It was a great kid’s lake, with a swimming area surrounded by floats, and not very deep. They did have a strange custom when someone reported a missing child on the beach. They had all the children get out of the lake and all the adults join hands, forming a line, and walk across the lake in the designated swimming area. If no one stepped on a body they assumed the child was not on the bottom of the lake and was probably at the playground or engaged in some other activity and still numbered among the living.
On those Sunday mornings when we were going to Cheesequake, we started early. The first mission was to get ice. Today we go to the local mega grocery store and buy a few bags of ice cubes. When I was a kid, things were quite different. Before we went on a picnic, the first stop was at the local icehouse. Once at the icehouse, we backed up to the loading dock for a block of ice to be brought out. Out would come a man grasping a block of ice with tongs. It was now time to get out the ice pick, back then everyone that went on a picnic owned an ice pick. It was dad’s job to carve up the ice fit the shards into our cooler.
Once that chore was accomplished, off we went, down route 22 to the New Jersey Parkway. Everyone knew that during the summer you did not go southbound on the New Jersey Parkway on a Friday night or Saturday morning. At that time, during the summer, the parkway was a huge very slow-moving parking lot. But on Sunday morning the road was empty. Of course coming home from the lake Sunday night might be a whole different story.
When we went to the lake we went for the day, the whole day, which meant all three meals. The gates opened at 8:00AM and we usually arrived there about twenty minutes before the park opened and joined the line of those with the like mindset waiting to get into the park. While we waited at the gate, breakfast was served, a hearty breakfast of donuts. Sometimes we would wait until the park opened and cook breakfast on the charcoal grill.
Once the gate opened, we raced to the parking lot at the head of the trail leading to the area where we liked to spend the day. The park was a beautiful place, with picnic tables under tall trees growing in the sandy South Jersey soil to keeping away the heat of summer. There were large fields around which the picnic tables were arranged for games and just running around. We would bring gloves and play catch and racquets for badminton.
After parking, we all began lugging our picnic gear to our table. The trip was usually an extended family effort with aunts, uncles and cousins sometimes coming along. This meant multiple cars and a vast amount of equipment that had to be carried to the table; after all, we were going to be there for the day. We were never unable to get a table, but the closer to the lake and the open fields, the better.
Usually a few of the kids were sent ahead to stake a claim on a table that had the perfect location. Then the adults came, and if they agreed on the spot, the initial wave of picnic equipment was deposited and everyone went back for another load. After some running around and exploring it would be approaching noon and time to start the charcoal fire. All the other tables had more or less the same schedule so soon the area was filled with smoke and the smells of cooking.
Once lunch was cooked, consumed and cleaned up, the kids ran around, dad read the papers and the women would talk. After a spell of playing and digesting, time enough to ensure that no one would sink to the bottom of the lake with cramps, it was time for a swim in the lake. This activity took up most of the afternoon and the hotter the afternoon, the more time spent swimming.
With swimming done and still time before dinner, we would hike around the lake or take a walk to harvest cattails. Then time for dinner, another fire was started, more food consumed, the area cleaned, and before long we were ready to go home. The process started in reverse but the loads were somewhat lighter and the stomachs were full. Once we made it to the parkway we were usually greeted by the endless lines of northbound traffic, the ride home lasting much longer than the ride to the lake.
We spent quite a few Sundays at Cheesequake State Park, weather permitting, and even at times when the weather didn’t permit. One Sunday morning, with the weather stormy with breaks in the rain, we decided to go for it. Once we set up our site it started to rain, but we were prepared and tied up a plastic drop cloth to a few of the surrounding trees for a makeshift canopy. Auntie Zushia came with us on this outing. She was my mother’s oldest sibling, had never married, and usually joined us on our Sunday morning adventures. Auntie Zushia found a spot right under the middle of the canopy and I sat off to one side and watched the water begin collect in the middle of our makeshift shelter. During one especially huge downpour enough water had collected to cause a huge tear right over her head. This was a story my family told over and over whenever we would go to the park,” Remember when ……….”
On another Sunday morning on a trip to Cheesequake, the result was something less than a picnic. We set out in our powder blue Ford station wagon. It had been sometime since we lost use of the old Chevy, my father having rolled it in a cemetery, but that is another story. We had the car packed to the brim with picnic essentials and Auntie Zushia in the back seat. With our ice pickup made, we began driving to the highway that would take us to Cheesequake and a day of fun when Auntie Zushia turned around and exclaimed, “They’re spraying for mosquitoes.” Now, they did spray for mosquitoes during the summer and when they did the trucks would put out great clouds of insect repellent, but they never sprayed on Sunday mornings. It did not take long to realize that Auntie Zushia was not seeing mosquito spray but huge clouds of blue smoke issuing from our tailpipe.
We drove immediately to the nearest gas station, one my dad frequented, not far from our house. Everyone in the car was hoping that it would be a quick fix and we’d be on our way. The attendant at the service station said that our modulator was gone and couldn’t be fixed that day. We were all in shock. Then to add insult to injury he added that we should leave the car doors open in case we should catch fire while trying to get home. The burgers cooked in the backyard just didn’t taste the same that day.
We did go on longer trips, not often, but on occasion we would pack up and go down the shore. Our usual shore destination was Seaside Heights, a small shore town towards the middle of the state. One summer, however, we got adventurous and went to Atlantic City. This was long before a reservation was required for every extended family outing. We just headed south and, when we were close to Atlantic City, began stopping at motels. My mother would go in and check out prices and conditions and soon our lodging for a few days was secured. We also discovered a nearby diner that served a great breakfast, eggs and French fries. Now is that a vacation breakfast or what. The highlight of that trip was a day spent on the Steel Pier. This was, in its time, a major tourist attraction. The exhibition hall contained displays that made a lasting impression on me. The time was the late fifties, early sixties, and the scourge of polio had just been conquered. I had an uncle who was crippled by polio; it was not an uncommon illness. There, in the hall, was an iron lung. I had seen pictures of them but had never seen one in real life. It resembled a cylindrical coffin and it breathed for those severely afflicted with the disease. At the time, this was a piece of recent history.
Another exhibit were two or three rusted hulks of old cars. Near the cars was a sign stating that these cars had been near a nuclear test blast. At this early age I knew nothing of radiation, half-lives and such, so I thought nothing of seeing these cars sitting there for public inspection. I often wonder what would have happened if someone had taken a Geiger counter to this attraction. Looking back, an iron lung and potentially radioactive cars were strange exhibits, but they held my attention.
But the attraction that made the Steel Pier famous was the diving horse. At the end of the pier was the diving tank. It looked like an above ground swimming pool and stood about eight feet tall and had a diameter of twenty or thirty feet. Into this pool, from a platform above, the horse jumped, ridden by a bathing suit-clad girl. This was the must see attraction for anyone who visited the Atlantic City Steel Pier.
* * *
I have mentioned before the characteristics of my father’s driving. He was not known as a lead foot so a trip to Atlantic City from Newark was quite an undertaking. But there once was a trip that we took that dwarfs our drive to Atlantic City. We took a trip, an epic journey, an odyssey to Tampa, Florida. We went there to visit my Uncle John, my father’s great uncle, my grandfather’s brother. Uncle John was managing a sixty-four acre orange grove down near Tampa and asked us to visit. So we all piled into the Chevy and off we went. I don’t think I had ever been beyond the boarders of New Jersey up till then. This was also well before the age of the interstate, so we got to see the states we traveled through up close and personal.
I kid my girls that I have no accent at all, but in reality I have a ‘slight’ hint of a New Jersey accent. On this trip I encountered accents different from my own. We stopped at one place in Alabama for lunch and a man came in and started talking to one of the employees and I didn’t understand one word he said. We were definitely not in New Jersey anymore.
I have also mentioned that I love catching things and putting them into jars so for me, Florida was nirvana. Our car’s radiator collected insects bigger than any I had seen before. There were also lizards running around at my uncle’s place. One day we went for a swim in a small nearby lake. I was on the shore and my mom was in the water and I said, “Mom there’s a snake in the water behind you!” She thought I was kidding until she turned around. She flew out of the water and I had to be restrained from flying into the water to capture the reptile.
This long journey was a rarity and created in me a lasting impression. Our usual shore vacation destination was north of Atlantic City, Seaside Heights. It wasn’t every summer or every other summer that we had a chance to go there, but a week spent at Seaside Heights on Sumner Avenue was greatly anticipated.
A few years ago I took my family to Seaside Heights for a weekend just before Easter. You know, Thomas Wolff said it best. We drove down Sumner Avenue and all the small shore bungalows had been torn down. The area was a sea of parking lots and bars. Once again I had the chance to tell my wife, Joni, how it once was, how great a week at Seaside Heights was as she stood there not hearing the waves but the music roaring from the bars. The boardwalk, though, hadn’t changed much, we still had fun in the arcade and our girls enjoyed the merry-go-round.
When I was young, a week at Seaside Heights, a week at the shore was sheer enjoyment. Spending the day on the beach and the night on the boardwalk, going on the rides and playing miniature golf was the way to spend a vacation. There were times that, because of money and time constrictions, we took a daytrip to Seaside Heights. Those days we spent maximum time on the beach soaking up the sun and paying for it on the ride home with a case of ‘the disease’. By the end of the day, we were bright red and, sitting in the car going home, shaking like a leaf. Of course these were the days before fancy sun blocks, long before the little girl with her butt hanging out adorned Coppertone© billboards. How we are not all dead from melanoma is a small miracle. For protection from the sun we used a few drops of iodine in baby oil. We would baste each other on the beach, leaving an oil slick when we went in the water. The cure my mother used for ‘the disease’ was vinegar – don’t ask me why. By the end of the day the closest thing we resembled was a bright red salad.
But a week at Seaside Heights was great with a more realistic and slower approach to the perfect tan. Getting to the beach early while there was still room for a blanket near the water was the first mission of the day. Once that was accomplished we could relax, spending the morning swimming in the usually frigid water, taking walks under the boardwalk looking for the small shell casings beneath the shooting gallery. Lunchtime it was back to the house and after an hour or two returning to the beach until dinner. Back in the late fifties and early sixties, Navy blimps were still patrolling the waters. You would be sitting on the beach and hear this distant drone, look up, and there would be this large gray blimp majestically sailing overhead, sometimes appearing mysteriously from the low clouds of a summer’s morning.
Even rainy days were fun. I would save my pennies all year and then hit the arcade. They had a baseball game on the order of a pinball machine I played for five cents. As my score increased I accumulated free games so I could easily spend a long time playing for maybe a quarter. Then there were the claw machines full of charms and toys small enough so that the claw could actually lift something almost every time. I would go home from our vacation with a box-full of miniature false teeth and other valuable plastic charms.
There were also games of chance on the boardwalk. For a nickel or, if I wanted to cover a portion of the board, a quarter I could take a chance to win various prizes depending on the stand. My family always seemed to gravitate to the stands offering candy bars or bath towels. We would go home with boxes and armloads of each.
A week spent at the shore was an extended family affair, with cousins, aunts and uncles staying for the entire week or a few days. It was a chance to catch up on each other’s lives and share the summer experience.
Summer vacations are great, a great escape, but in reality one cannot escape his life and the burdens he carries along. But eventually, we must all return to the daily routine of life. Summer vacations, however, make that return a little more bearable.

Entry filed under: memoir, Walt Trizna. Tags: , , , .

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