Post Hurricane Sandy, people wonder if it's wise to spend mega-billions to reconstruct beach communities increasingly at risk for catastrophic weather events. I wonder too in the face of devastation bound to repeat itself in an age when climate change should no longer be questioned.
Still, I'm a Jersey Girl, and I can't imagine my home state without Atlantic City. When I was a kid I went "down the shore" every Sunday during the summer in the 1950s. For those who have never had the pleasure, this is what it was like.
We piled into our big black Buick and eagerly headed east toward Philadelphia's playground and home of the Miss America Pageant. My siblings and I watched as bumper to bumper, Jersey and Pennsylvania tags crawled to the ocean for the day. My mother had packed a picnic lunch, towels, buckets with plastic shovels, soap, shampoo and dress-up clothes for dinner at Cap'n Stearns Restaurant and "walking the boards."
We parked at the Chalfont Haddon Hall where we secured showering towels, lockers, and a little key on a rubber bracelet. Stuffing our belongings into the long lockers, we hung our evening clothes in plastic bags and stowed our shoes and accessories on the top shelf of the locker. Then we put on white rubber beach slippers, slathered suntan lotion, fought over sunglasses and hats, and dragged striped cotton towels to the beach.
There squawking seagulls strutted at the water's edge. White-clad ice cream vendors, cold boxes slung over their shoulders, pants rolled up at the ankles, bellowed "Pop-sicle! Get your ice cold fudg-sical!" Ocean breakers slammed onto the beach, impatient parents scolded their children cranky from sand between their toes. After a while, to sooth themselves, the parents wandered up to the boardwalk to eat salt-and-vinegar French fries in a paper cup, or the sticky sweetness of salt water taffy, or chocolate covered turtle candy.
Striped umbrellas dotted the terrain against a backdrop of endless baguette-shimmering sea to one side and boardwalk kiosks to the other. The salt smell in the air complimented the humid breeze that cooled our dry bodies, lulling us into believing that we would not blister.
After lunch, compelled to wait one hour before swimming so that we didn't suffer fatal stomach cramps, we ran to the ocean's edge where frigid water attacked our toes. We turned our backs to the breaking waves and jumped above the crests. Sometimes a wave was so big we couldn't get above its peak. The wave washed over us while we held our breath, praying to survive. Racing back to our umbrella, we lolled on the blanket, snacking and reading comic books.
At five o'clock my father grumbled "We'll be late for dinner!" We folded the towels, shook the blanket, returned the umbrella, and trudged across the still-hot mini-dunes toward the Chalfont locker room. A half hour later, emerging squeaky clean and dressed "to beat the band" as my mother said, we headed for the seafood restaurant where we ordered the same thing every Sunday before walking the boards.
Sometimes huge spotlights roamed the sky in long white beams and we wondered if Miss America was in town. We begged to ride in a wicker rickshaw pushed by strong-armed men from pier to pier but were always denied. At Steele Pier, we viewed shiny new GM cars on display and marveled that a lady would dive into the ocean on a horse the way the sign said. My brother rode mechanical airplanes that went round and round and all three of us spun on the merry-go-round if there was a horse free that went up and down. We window-shopped at galleries with sculpted shell seagulls and china plates with lighthouses on them. At linen and camera shops "OUT OF BUSINESS!! EVERYTHING MUST GO!" signs competed for our attention. In fudge and salt water taffy stores demonstrations filled the windows.
Finally we piled into the Buick to return home. My brother slept while my sister gazed dreamily out the window. My father crouched over the steering wheel; my mother was pensive.
The following Sunday we headed again for the Chalfont, the frigid water, Cap'n Stearns, and the boards. It was a ritual and in one way or another -- even though the restaurant, the Chalfont, and other landmarks of my day have given way to casinos and other landmarks - it has been repeated by others to this day.
That's why I can't imagine a New Jersey life without the shore. Neither can anyone else who has memories like mine, climate change or not.