Every year around this time I think of my childhood vacations in Atlantic City, NJ. In fact, if you search Atlantic City on this blog, I'm sure similar posts will pop up, since I am at that stage of my life where I repeat myself. A LOT. Oh, and I sometimes repeat myself.
But this time of year--near the end of August--was always our summer vacation time. My parents didn't make a lot of money. My father was a milkman for many years for Heisler's Dairy (which still exists). My mother--when she did work, before having my brother and me--worked in her father's stationery store/printshop (which sadly does not still exist). We never really struggled, but we weren't rich. So a week-long trip to the Jersey Shore that coincided with my mom's birthday was a bit of an extravagance.
We would take off from Sunday to Saturday and spend seven glorious days on the Boardwalk and beach at AC. 1964 was the first year we went there. I was 9 years old and it was an amazing adventure. For my previous 8 vacation-going years on planet Earth, we had gone to Asbury Park, NJ, a smaller resort town in northern Jersey. We would load up the car early in the morning, pull away from our house and stop at the White Diner, just south of Tamaqua (in the appropriately named South Tamaqua) for breakfast before hitting the road and the interminable trip--all 3.5 hours of it--that seemed to last forever to an impatient pre-teen.
That first year my dad made a seemingly snap decision to go to Atlantic City instead of Asbury Park. In retrospect, I'm pretty sure it was something my parents discussed before "announcing" it in the car. The Atlantic City Expressway had just opened, 70+ miles of smooth, new concrete running from the Delaware Bridge east of Philadelphia directly to the Boardwalk. Plus, I was a big boy now, so Asbury Park's puny environs weren't big enough.
I fell in love with Atlantic City that first year: Its long, wide Boardwalk, the smell of the treated wood filling the air as it baked under the sun. The wide, expansive beaches and the blue-gray Atlantic, always cold and forbidding. The amusement piers dangling out onto the water, at night their bright lights and noise cutting through the cool air and inviting everyone to come play. It was a whole week in a new playground, one so totally different and removed from my small town life that it was like a little slice of heaven.
That first year we drove up to the first motel we saw (the Monterrey, at the corner of Pacific and Pennsylvania Avenue) and my dad got us a room, no reservation needed. It's hard to believe, but again, in retrospect, Atlantic City was a dying resort town, desperate for some kind of savior (like casino gambling) to make it relevent again. The Democratic National Convention was in the city that year, and it sadly pointed out the dying nature of the old resort. I was oblivious to it. If AC had its heyday in the 1920s and before, it escaped me. I loved every minute of it.
We would get up around 9:00am each day and traipse off to a local restaurant (Sindy's) for breakfast. I would eat eggs and hash browns or french toast, things I would NEVER eat at home. From there we would roam the Boardwalk for a while, returning to our motel room to find it already cleaned and its beds made. Then we would go to the beach for the afternoon, undoubtedly getting a wicked sunburn (because nobody knew from sunblock in those days). As we got older, my brother and I would ignore the beach and instead go explore the rest of the city, book and antique stores, looking for old comic books and other stuff (we got a great Flash Gordon foreign poster from one of the 1930s serials in one such shop). We'd also go to movies (I saw Live and Let Die, Krakatoa: East of Java--an early disaster movie--and my first Woody Allen movie--Take the Money and Run--all in AC). On a cloudy or rainy day, we'd spring for 4 admissions to Steel Pier and spend the entire day there, making our way all the way through the long pier, out over the ocean, going to movies, seeing live music acts (Herman's Hermits that first year and again 2 years later; Chicago later on), and eating. We'd meet back at the hotel at 5:00pm or so and then head out for dinner, which invariably took place at the cafeteria at either Woolworth's or McCrory's stores on the Boardwalk. Each year we were there some piece of music would define the summer for us and almost always be playing in one of these cafeterias. Pretty much every time I hear a Supremes song, or "Under the Boardwalk," I'm carried back to that time. The toy department loomed right outside of Woolworth's cafeteria exit, so that was always an after-dinner treat for me.
Then we'd walk the Boardwalk for hours, meeting up again around 10:00pm or so for a late-night snack, usually a burger at Case's on Central Pier or later, at Gino's on Steeplechase Pier, one of the first fast food burger joints I ever encountered. We'd stop at Central Pier and go in the arcade and play games, in an era way before video games ever existed. We'd play things like "Atomic Bombadier," which was a sighting-game with a rolling drum with a landscape painted on it and you bomb things when your sights lined up with a raised object. Or more traditional arcade games (for the time), like Skeeball or Fascination. One year the Sky Tower had spouted up on Central Pier, so once each trip we'd ride that to the top and slowly revolve and see the lights of the city and Boardwalk spread out beneath us. You had to pick the right night, though, clear and cool, for the maximum effect. We'd roam the Boardwalk all night, stopping in shops, eating and drinking (soft drinks, of course), and revelling in this strange, foreign land.
I miss Atlantic City. It doesn't exist like this anymore. I miss those family vacations. Nothing else ever came close in my life, although I love the trips I take now. If I could go back in time, I wouldn't do anything noble like kill Hitler or stop Lee Harvey Oswald from his date with destiny in Dallas in November 1963: I'd go back to Atlantic City and roam the Boardwalk on a clear summer night.
I'm selfish like that, I guess.