Two weeks in July

It's not far from the "Down Neck" section of Newark, New Jersey to the beach town of Seaside Park. It's about 75 miles. You just take Ferry Street all the way to the end and hop on the Turnpike heading south. You switch over to the Parkway in Woodbridge and get off at Exit 82. From there, Route 37 takes you a few miles east through Toms River and over the Barnegat Bay, and there you are.

But for some little boys 60 years ago, it was like a journey to another planet, just about as far away from home as we had ever been and as different as could be. In Seaside, "down the shore," there were sandy beaches, big waves, a bay full of crabs to catch and eat, and a spectacular oceanside boardwalk full of amusements.

My parents didn't have much, but they made sure we got down there for two weeks every summer. We started this tradition by going to nearby Ortley Beach (where we witnessed the alcohol-fueled limbo contest at the Surf Club) and rowdy Seaside Heights. But once we rented a nice house in family-friendly Seaside Park, we returned to that borough again and again. 

The place is a barrier island only two blocks wide, and the street names are simple letters. If my memory serves me correctly, there was a particularly good house on the south side of I Street that we got one year. You'd drive down there on a winter Saturday to pick the place out and watch your parents sign the lease at the realtor's office – then you'd go back to Newark and start dreaming.

To help pay for this luxury, my parents threw in with my father's sister and her husband. They had an only son, who is roughly the same age as my brother and I. This made for a merry trio of boys in Yankee caps with two dads in tow. Other relatives would pop in for a few nights here and there, or more than a few, but they tended to treat the three of us kids like royalty, at least by our standards.

We eventually figured out that the best move would be to rent a place within walking distance of the long amusement park stretch of the boardwalk. No sense having to drive over there and pay to park. The parking meters went all night, and the cops enforced the time limits strictly. So instead you'd walk down I or H or whatever street to the ocean, where the plain old boardwalk ran, then take a left and skip down the boards to the big lights.

The two-week vacation always began with an early Saturday morning wake-up call. We'd drive down the shore before noon, and the lease let us into the house around noon, I think. Next thing you knew, we had bathing suits and beach badges on and were off to the ocean.

Now, to fund our boardwalk adventures, we kids would each save up $20 over the course of the year (the equivalent of $200 or so today), and parcel it out ever so slowly over the two weeks. A game of skee ball might have been a nickel, and you could play some of the wheels of chance for a nickel or a dime. The candy wheel, Victor's, was a must-play at five cents. And the record wheel, where I landed that 45 of Little Stevie Wonder – that one might have been a dime, three numbers for a quarter.

There were two piers, Funtown in Seaside Park and the Casino in Seaside Heights, with amusement park rides on them. They sold rolls of tickets, a nickel apiece, and one of the "big" rides, like the Swiss Bob, might cost you seven tickets. So you had to pace yourself. Every once in a while, let Aunt Margaret buy you a sandwich and a Coke at the Taylor Ham place, and chill.

The games in the arcade would award you "points" for superior scores. I remember one game where you rolled rubber balls of the "Spaldeen" variety down a ramp, trying to land them in various holes representing playing cards. Depending on what kind of poker hand you made with your five balls, you might win 2, 5, 10, or even 25 points (or none). As each ball settled into a hole, the corresponding card would light up on the board at the end of the ramp. If you scored, a disinterested teenager would come by and give you your "point" tickets, then press a button that reset the thing for the next roller.

At the end of the two weeks, you'd have a big stack of "points" earned at the various games. With any luck, you'd get some candy and a couple of Chinese finger traps out of the deal. Maybe one of those balsa wood airplanes with the rubber band propeller, or a boomerang. We'd always "cash in" on that last Friday night, take pictures in the photo booth, and immediately head home. 

It never felt sadder in the car.

You'd arrive back in Newark sporting a heck of a tan from the beach. Back then, the sun wasn't nearly as dangerous as it is today, and when Mom slathered the Sea & Ski on you, it was probably SPF 2, which was enough.

The trip would always be in July. We tried going the first two weeks of the month, but the water was too cold. Once we tried the last week of July and carried it into August, but that was a bust because we had to wait too long for it to get here. The last two full weeks of July were better, although I think the sweet spot we finally settled on was the second and third weeks.

Which means that we'd be in the middle of it all right now.

Hurricane Sandy really took a bite out of Seaside. Half the boardwalk washed away at one point, and both the amusement piers were completely trashed. Then a fire took out most of what the storm had left of our fun nighttime hangouts. The Seaside Park end of the boardwalk will probably never be rebuilt. But from what I gather, they're making something of a comeback on the north end of the strip, in Seaside Heights, even in the pandemic. We walked up to that end many a night, and so there's still hope for the kids staying in Seaside Park, I guess.

Some day that entire island will be washed away for good. But not quite yet.

Anyway, I hope there's a kid from Down Neck on the beach in Seaside Park today, whooping and hollering as he gets thrown around by the waves, and thinking about some boardwalk adventure that might happen tonight. At that age, there was nothing better.


  1. A great memory Jack. My experience was very similar. A la carte, alfresco dinner of sausage and peppers sandwich with clams on the half-shell in the middle of the boardwalk. Polished off with Kohr's custard. And Monday Teen night at the Chatterbox.

    1. Once I got to teen time, it was out of Seaside and off with my friends to Belmar. Dairy Queen, 18th & Ocean, be there.


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