Doing some cleaning today, I got a whiff of bleach water, and was transported back to the beach-and-pool days of my youth. I don’t know why it happened just now – I certainly use bleach often enough, and never think of this. Maybe it’s because it’s so hot and humid out right now, just like those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer growing up on Long Island.
Although we did have a very nice community pool near our house (more on that in another post), our preferred swim spot was the beach, usually going to the Atlantic oceanfront of Jones Beach, about 20 minutes from our house. (We employed, with different influences, varying nicknames for our favorite swimming hole: Dad called it Joanjez Beach, and when Peg was taking Spanish in high school, we switched to La Playa de Jones – pronounced HO-ness.)
With so much anticipation building, the drive there seemed endless and hot as an oven, and we wrestled in the back seat to get close to the open windows (until we got a VW bus and there were enough windows for everyone). Dad would have his cigar (yuck!) or pipestem clamped between his teeth, alternately exhorting us to quiet down, or getting us riled up about who would be the first to spot the totemic water tower. “First one to spot the tower gets a nickel!”
As we neared Ocean Parkway, the trees thinned, and tall, swaying phragmites lined the road on both sides – you could literally smell salt in the air. Over the drawbridge, watching the boats ply the waters underneath, and there was just a little bit longer to wait until we felt the hot sand between our toes. If we parked on the bay side, we’d walk under Ocean Parkway through a long tunnel, and we’d make echoing ghost noises all the way through, along with every other kid.
Dad would set up our green-and-white striped beach umbrella and point out landmarks to try to keep us from getting lost on the way back from the water to the old Indian blanket, but a few times I managed to get disoriented, and wound up on top of the lifeguard stand, the guards blowing their whistles to attract worried parents’ attention. I now know exactly that freaked-out-parent feeling, as at least one of my kids followed in my footsteps with that routine!
Mom always packed peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches, and filled the squat old green jug with Koolaid (lime was my favorite) or a mix of lemonade and grape juice, and as we ate, our teeth chomped down on grit, as sand always seemed to get mixed up with everything!
Sand was the order of the day! In our food, our shoes, our swimsuits and towels, permanently glued to our feet. Even if you stopped at the outdoor showers by the bathhouse to wash off your feet, you still managed to track loads of it to the car. (And when we peeled off swimsuits at home to rinse off in the shower, there was always a sandy residue in the tub.)
Taking a stroll in the Central Mall area was almost like walking in an outdoor art museum. Although we knew our way around by heart, you could navigate by way of some nifty Art Deco silhouette signs, advertising everything from restaurant to playgrounds to rest rooms. The bathhouses and water tower were also Art Deco, constructed of Ohio sandstone and multicolored Barbizon brick with copper accents. And inlaid into the concrete of the sidewalk near drifts of flowers and a tall flagpole flanked by nautical pennants was a huge map of Long Island, and stylized sea horses, crabs and lobsters, all crafted from red and blue slate.
There seemed to be miles of boardwalk, outlined by shiny mahogany railings (now replaced with aluminum), and all the trashcans were hidden inside ships funnels. Along the boardwalk you could see the band shell and the Marine Theater where Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians entertained the masses some evenings, as dancing couples swayed to the rhythm. The Marine Theater was also home to traveling musical shows and later, rock concerts. If you were in the mood for a different kind of cultural experience, you could join the folks on the shuffleboard courts, roller skate, golf, or shoot arrows at archery targets. There were even a few teepees with Indians in full regalia (curiously, Lakota Sioux rather than the Shinnecocks native to Long Island). Last, but not least, there was a long fishing pier where anglers would gather to while away the hot afternoons – one of my sons has even carried on the tradition at that spot!
If we were lucky, rather than having to eat the sandy PB&Js, my parents might spring for some french fries, cups of hot, tomato-y Manhattan clam chowder, or my favorite, Mello Rolls, which were cylinders of Neopolitan ice cream that you unwrapped and popped into a rectangular waffle cone – yum!
I know things aren’t quite the same as they were when I was young – some things have fallen into disrepair, others have been updated in a way that just doesn’t have the same coolness factor. But after almost 100 years, Jones Beach is still a great place, and my own kids love it just as much as I did!