This time of year makes me nostalgic for the summers I spent in Atlantic City as a child. I grew up in Philadelphia, which is in a large valley that holds the heat and humidity, making summers intolerable. Many, many Philadelphians make the pilgrimage to the Jersey Shore, or as we called it, “down the shore.”
My experience was quite different from the famous reality series. I was very young and life was more innocent and safe. At the age of 8 or 10, I was allowed to go on the boardwalk at night with just my friends – no adults. We would walk around for hours, surrounded by hundreds of other people doing the same thing: enjoying the ocean breeze, playing games in the arcades, eating Kohr Brothers soft ice cream and James’s salt water taffy, buying trinkets in Irene’s and just hanging out. We weren’t even looking for boys at that tender age – just fun. It is amazing to me that the world was perceived as a safe enough place that young children could go out on the town on their own.
Photo credit: jamescandy.com
The adults also enjoyed the boardwalk. When I was very young, women dressed up in fancy dresses, bedecked with jewelry and topped off by mink stoles, for this activity. Their high heels always got stuck between the boards of the boardwalk, so some clever entrepreneur invented a little rubber device that slipped over the stiletto heel and widened the base so the moms and grandmoms could easily stroll around and show off their finery.
There were rolling chairs on the boardwalk in those days. A rolling chair was a big wicker cart that could seat an entire family. Each family-filled cart was pushed up and down the boardwalk by a single African-American man. This was the 60s and that did not seem unusual at the time, although looking back, I am horrified. I hope they earned a decent living doing this humiliating work. I think it was fairly expensive to take these rides, because my family very rarely did it. But that doesn’t mean the man who pushed them was making the money.
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The days were spent on the beach, playing in the sand and going into the ocean. I really miss the ocean, living here in Connecticut on the Long Island Sound. We had big serious waves in Atlantic City! There were lifeguards with big row boats, ready to rescue us from the dreaded undertow. I liked being on the beach but really loved being in the water. Of course, I had to wait a half hour after eating my sandwich before I could go in the water. Back then, everyone thought going in too soon would cause FATAL CRAMPS! Did they really think a little kid splashing at the edge of the ocean would suddenly be felled by cramps and drown in 2 inches of water? I suspect it was just a ploy for the moms and dads to be able to spend those 30 minutes not having to watch their kids in the water.
Usually, our Philadelphia friends were right there with us, so we played with the same kids, just in a different setting. My neighbors owned a rooming house a few blocks from the beach, so many of us stayed there, renting a non-fancy apartment for a few weeks. It was 2 long blocks from the ocean, and every day we made the pilgrimage, carrying chairs and buckets and shovels. It seemed like miles when I was little. When I went back as an adult, I was amazed at how close to the beach we actually were.
Later in life, my parents were able to buy a condo down the shore. Atlantic City was out of style by then, so the action was shifted to Margate, a few towns south of Atlantic City. Every summer I took my kids for a couple of weeks down the shore, which was now a five hour ride (depending on traffic) for us, coming from Connecticut. They were always amazingly well-behaved on these long trips and really loved spending that time with my parents, and their 5 cousins, who visited for part of the time, too.
There was no boardwalk in Margate, so we would drive to Ocean City, about 15 minutes away, which was an old-fashioned town that echoed the Atlantic City of my childhood. My kids spent their time doing all of the same things I did as a child: eating crappy boardwalk food, enjoying soft ice cream and salt water taffy, playing in the arcades. Although they usually chose the video games, there was still skee-ball available for me to play. In Ocean City, there was a Planter’s Peanuts store, and a life size Mr. Peanut stood outside shaking hands with everyone. I’m still afraid of him, but not the kids! And no one dresses up in high heels and jewelry any more – do they anywhere?
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These are really treasured memories for all of us – so much so that I have heard that my ex-husband still visits Margate with his second wife! There is really nothing like waking up every day with your entire agenda consisting of relaxing on the beach, followed by strolling on the boardwalk. I hope everyone gets a chance to do this at some time in their lives.