Jersey Shore vacation, Part III
It's the Labor Day weekend, and all up and down the Jersey Shore, the summer residents are getting their last licks in. Come Monday, they'll be heading back up the Garden State Parkway (and for some, the harshest part of the New Jersey Turnpike) for another crisp fall, brutal winter, and brief spring. For the pleasures of the Shore, this is it. It's one last killer sandwich from the Bay Point Deli, a last round of drinks at D'Jais, one more classic pizza from Luigi's, one last boardwalk ride at Funtown or Jenkinson's, the closing set by the local garage band. Time to take a daring ride and maybe break your boogie board. Cash in all the points you earned at the arcade. One final chance to win that giant stuffed Shrek. Do it this weekend, or wait 'til next year.
I'm thinking of that place a lot these days. So much of our recent two-week jaunt to the Shore still sticks with me nearly a month after its conclusion. My beach tan is almost gone, but the refreshed outlook the experience provided is still quite in evidence. Steve Earle sings, "Won't nothin' bring you down like your hometown," but in this case I'll argue against that proposition.
What was it about returning to the Shore that so uplifted me? No question, it was nostalgia: the sights, sounds, and smells of a place that played such a crucial role in my life for the better part of 21 years. When I was a kid, it was our precious family getaway -- two weeks every year, in the middle of July, off the block in Down Neck Newark, free to run around on the white sand of a real beach, and the distinctive yellow and white dirt and pebbles of a Shore renters' neighborhood. We kids saved all year to have 20 bucks apiece to blow on the boardwalk. Later, when I got to high school and especially during my years at commuter college (still living with my mom), it was a place to spend the summer weekends in blissful, wild independence with the all-important circle of friends.
Both those phases of my life were conjured up repeatedly on this year's trip. With our two children in tow, I relived many great kid moments on the boardwalk and on the beach. As Springsteen once put it, "All I can think of is being five years old following behind you at the beach / Tracing your footprints in the sand / Trying to walk like a man." I felt so connected with the people of my parents' generation, who despite many financial obstacles found a way to this place every year so that we little guys could enjoy ourselves. Only two of that group survive, but we were blessed to have one of them, Mom, with us to enjoy it and reflect on it again after the many decades.
Perhaps surprisingly, though, the most intense memories were of the days just before I left Jersey -- my years as a college student and young adult summering in the ocean burg of Belmar. Years in which all sorts of lessons were learned about friendship, love, lust, making a living, good clean recreation, not-so-good-clean partying, and living near (but not quite on) the edge. So many times on this year's trip, as I dove into oncoming waves in the warm Atlantic, I was 20 years old again, realizing for the first time that I was no longer a child, looking over to see my buddies of the same age, doing their own dives and coming to the same realization.
Toward the end of this year's vacation, my last summers at the Shore fell into sharp perspective. These were '74 and '75, when I knew I was heading west, and didn't know when I was going to be coming back. I loved my life up to that point, but I had heard something calling me on a different path. Suddenly, although I shared my friends' sense of place, I knew it wasn't going to be mine much longer. I was going to give up the security of the familiar, disregard a lot of people's advice, and free myself from the entire East Coast structure. In exchange for what? I had only a vague idea at best. I only knew I was getting the yellow Volkswagen ready for a long, long journey, alone. There was intense excitement and anticipation. But there was fear, too, and as I jumped around in those waves and pounded my last beers, I had already begun missing the place, and the people around me.
Here in 2004, on the last afternoon of the vacation, it all came together. Our bags were fully packed and stowed in the trunk of the rented car. The stuff we were shipping back to Oregon had been dropped off at UPS. We had a few hours to kill before our late afternoon flight out of Newark, and so we cruised into Belmar for a last look. We grabbed some sandwiches-to-go at the famous Freedman's Bakery, which was packed with the tail end of the Saturday brunch set. There I was, standing in the same spot where I had ordered up so many bleary breakfasts, only this time with a clear head and my beautiful, curious, sweet West Coast three-year-old with me, while her mother and baby sister waited outside in the car.
It was a special scene.
And then the four of us drove around looking for a picnic spot. We wound up at the little triangle-shaped park on Ocean Avenue at the very northern end of Belmar. It's not much of a park -- just an expanse of grass losing its battle with crabgrass, really -- but it's a special location. Years ago, a college sweetheart of mine and her friends rented a flat in a house right on that park, and I spent many a, shall we say, formative weekend there. In my book, it's sacred ground. And there I was now with my family, me the dad, 50 years old, chasing a small girl around in a game of tag in the hot sun. Lying at the bottom of a hysterical family dogpile on a blanket on the Belmar grass, kissing and hugging up a storm.
Everything around me was shining. And ringing.