The Wildwood Boardwalk.
“The more things change…..the more things stay the same.”
I can remember when my parents and certain relatives we only saw on special occasions would utter adult phrases like the one above. Being 12 years old, I would usually just roll my eyes and walk away confused not understanding what those words really meant.
Seven months away from the half-century mark, I now know what they mean!
Less than 48 hours ago, my daughter and I drove down to this beach town, to meet and greet the long lost, missing in action – Sun. It was Friday morning of Memorial Day Weekend. We were merely tracing the footsteps of all those Shoobies, Daytrippers and Weekenders that came before.
We left at 3:30 in the morning, racing down the expressway, chatting about father and daughter stuff, mostly Laur catching me up on her summer plans with her Rider peeps. We were so engrossed in our conversation that I nearly missed Exit 7S on the Parkway. I was making sure we arrived in North Wildwood before Mr. Sun made its long-awaited summer grand entrance! Back home and half-asleep, Marie thought we were nuts. Me – I was just glad that my 19-year-old still enjoys these crazy adventures with the Old Man.
Before long, the Rio Grande exit appeared, signaling me like a long lost friend.
It was still early dawn, but I instinctively rolled down my car windows to breathe in the sweet smell of low tide. The gulls chirped above and I glanced to the left just trying to catch a glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean.
Suddenly, I imagined standing on the sandy shoreline. I am 12 years old again. I am wearing brightly colored “jams” (knee-length swim trunks) and “surfer-shirts” (three-quarter length, pastel colored t-shirts) and of course my barefoot shoes. I am racing with the tide, jumping and diving in the waves, never thinking this play could possibly end!
As a child, my family and my mom’s parents spent annual summer weekly vacations first in Wildwood Crest and years later in North Wildwood. In North Wildwood, I remember staying at those “L” shaped motels which included a small swimming pool in the front of the property. Each motel had an exotic Florida-like name and flashy neon signs that lit up the dark summer night. I still remember the year Grandpop Martino had severe sun poisoning, as well as the year me and my brother nearly drowned my mom horsing around in the deep end of the pool, as neither Chris nor I had any idea she couldn’t swim. In our motel room, we watched in horror as the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics unfolded right before our eyes on this small black and white TV set. Then four years later, we proudly watched as all those American boxers took home gold medals at the Montreal Games.
But it was the nights that we spent on the boardwalk that I remember the most. That was the real treat for us kids. When our parents would finally (give in) after much pleading and whining, and eventually take us up on The Boards. Of course, when we reached our teen years and we ventured up there unsupervised, those moments became ours and ours alone!
The magic and excitement of the Wildwood Boardwalk!
I can still recall that unique smell of Coppertone coconut tanning oil (not SPF sunblock 70!) everywhere on the boards at night, along with all the sights and sounds (to my left and right) trying in vain to grab a young boy’s attention. Neon lit rides and stores brought on the nightly ritual experienced by hundreds of thousands of locals, tourists and travelers–walking the boards.
When I think back, I started my personal record collection on the boardwalk, winning rock albums on the 25-cent record wheels. When the Flyers were winning Stanley Cups in the mid-70s, on Hunt’s Pier, you could attempt to shoot an orange street hockey ball past a live hockey goalie wearing Mylec pads and mask. He shoots and scores – winning a huge stuffed animal. “Band on the Run”, “The Joker”, “Rock the Boat”, “Seasons in the Sun” and “Bennie and The Jets” were just some of the songs that defined my musical soundtrack that particular summer.
I saw "Jaws" at the movie theater on the boardwalk across from Hunt’s Pier. And who can forget Hunt’s Pier. The best rides were the Flyer, Log Flume, Hell Hole and Golden Nugget. I recalled the Himalaya ride and all those rock and disco songs, blaring loudly into the hot thick sweltering summer air. And what about all the girls that hung out near the Himalaya! The trick was staring and trying not to (get caught) as the older teenage girls danced in high-heeled sneakers, faded cut-offs and tube tops looking so adult-like. Ahhhhhh…these were real girls. Hey Joe – did you see that?
Then there was that week (absent my parents) that I spent with Joe Perno at his uncle’s house on the back bay in West Wildwood. We took the boat out and went water-skiing (somehow losing the keys overboard), crabbed off the dock, walked the boards nightly, played Fascination non-stop, rode the rides and played the record wheels. Late one night, we found an upstairs bedroom and discovered the HBO Channel. We quietly watched a George Carlin TV special “Seven Dirty Words” followed by Cindy Williams (of "Laverne & Shirley" fame) performing in an after-hours dance revue show. We heard curse words and saw partially naked women on TV. We were 15 years old at the time!
But as they say “That was then, this is now.”
Today, oxygen bars can be found alongside bars serving alcohol. Salt water taffy and fudge stores, and family restaurants can be found among dollar stores, head shops, henna tattoo stands and body-piercing shops. However, the wonderful tacky kitchy crazy T-shirt shops still thrive on the strand. Nowadays, the clothing style is quite different, there is slightly less material and slightly less innocuous words written across the front (and sometimes rear-end) of the shirts and shorts. For each year, American Pop Culture is on display and for sale (for better or worse). This year is no different. In fact, this week represents the height of Senior Week in which the city of Wildwood takes great pride in welcoming students from the Class of 2011 from high schools all around the Delaware Valley. These happenings have become a summer rite of passage for as long as any of us can remember.
Today, Lauren and I become a small part of that summer legacy storyline. We took some sunrise photos along the jetty in North Wildwood. We stopped at Larkin’s on New Jersey Avenue for some breakfast. We walked the boards and took more photographs of the people, places and things that call Wildwood home. We carried our beach chairs to the waterline and napped while the waves provided our unique ocean soundtrack. When we awoke, we grabbed a couple of slices at Sam’s and toasted the Summer of 2011. A few moments later, we said our goodbyes, and headed north on the Parkway returning home to Moorestown.
When I’m honest with myself, the only thing (well, maybe not the only thing) that saddens me about Wildwood 2011 is the lack of and state of disrepair the piers have fallen into. No doubt this situation is a by product of harsh current economic times as well as constantly changing consumer demographics.
So I promise–if I ever win that million dollar New Jersey lottery, I would bring miniature golf back to the boardwalk, as well as possibly revive the drive-in movie theater experience somewhere along the North Shore. OK, maybe this would not be the very first thing I did with all that cash, but I have to believe it would be in my Top 10 Things to Do.
In the meantime, I‘ll choose to remember my Wildwood for all the wonderful memories of my youthful teenage years, like the ones recalled above.
And to quote another adult phrase….. “You can go home again”.
Sometimes the home you remember growing up in, like you, has also changed, morphed and grown in the years that have since passed…..and that’s perfectly OK.
Meet ya up on the boards. Watch the tram car, please……