Summers were a time for mom and dad to shed their city garb and don their leisurewear. Dad’s city clothes were almost always the same, just like shown in the photo of him holding a pre-memory me. He wore his uniform of suit and tie to work, to synagogue, to parties, to meetings, to family gatherings, you name it. Getting casual at home usually meant taking off his suit jacket and hat and lounging in his starched white shirt and tie.
Mom and dad in city attire with tiny Steve (left); casual attire (right)
And summer was a time that found us, appropriately attired, headed to the New York Jewish Riviera—Far Rockaway (aka Rockaway) beach in Queens New York, a short distance from Idlewild Airport (later to be renamed JFK). It was a summertime ritual that began when I was a toddler. That is, unless we were going to Jones Beach or I was being sent off to summer camp (which I wrote about in Get Rid of the Kid).
A typical beach day when I was about 5 years old (in the late 1940s) went something like this . . .
With all our beach gear loaded from our Bronx apartment into the car, we did the drive out to the Rockaway Promised Land. We crawled through what seemed like endless Belt Parkway beach traffic, sweating like proverbial stuffed pigs because car air conditioning was not yet available, at least not in our working man’s Plymouth. Traffic often slowed to a crawl because multiple cars would overheat and stall in the middle of the road—the automakers hadn’t yet quite figured out engines and radiators that could withstand blistering hot and humid New York City summers.
We eventually exited at a secret shortcut that it seemed like only we knew about. When we passed “Frogs Legs” we knew we were getting close. Frogs Legs was what we called a small three-story brick hotel near the airport that was surrounded by nothing but sand and circling sea gulls on patrol for hotel garbage. The hotel sported a bright neon sign with the catchy advertisement . . .
Steaks, Chops and Frogs Legs
Soon after passing Frogs Legs, we’d officially be in Rockaway. And thankfully, just blocks from the beach.
The Fun Begins
The beach was kid nirvana to me. Just getting from the car to the beach was an adventure.
We parked our car in what felt like another state and walked with all our gear towards the boardwalk at the end of Beach 19th Street. The block closest to the beach was an amazing row of fun. First there was the bumper car ride, next to that was the carousel, next to that the boardwalk, and then finally, the beach. On the trek from the car, I carried my fair share of the beach gear, which was mostly just a big folded up blanket, but the weight didn’t bother me because I knew we’d soon be at “the rides.”
Even just approaching the bumper cars on the walk down Beach 19th Street was electric, literally. The sound of zizz, zizz, zizz could be heard, first faint and then louder and louder as we approached the bumper car ride entrance. There was always a long line of parents and kids waiting to get on the ride.
With mom guarding all the beach gear, dad and I joined the line and inched our way up the long ramp until finally, we were close to the entrance to the bumper cars. From there, we watched close up as the cars whizzed around the track and then bam!—a massive collision and pile up would occur as we onlookers raised a loud cheer.
The jam would usually be freed up with the help of the attendant who put his life (or at least his legs) in jeopardy, dodging his way around the speeding cars. (Although the video game Frogger wasn’t invented till decades later, watching him was like watching a live game of Frogger.) At the pileup, he’d pull, tug and yank on the stuck cars (which had no reverse capability) and get them disentangled. Then they’d be off to the races again, with the attendant left in their dust shouting at the recalcitrant drivers to follow the rules and “YOU CAN ONLY GO CLOCKWISE.” He didn’t seem to grasp the whole concept of bumper cars: a time to break the rules, and cause chaos and mayhem until our ride was over, even if it meant not going clockwise.
In what felt like a month, the previous ride was eventually over and those riders were herded off the track through the side exit. Soon it would be our turn—and I couldn’t contain my excitement! I didn’t even try as I jumped up and down. When all the previous riders were off the track, the attendant unhooked the chain gate and started waving the next batch of riders onto the track. There was always a mad scramble as everyone raced for their favorite color car that was pointed in the clockwise direction. (Picking one that was facing the wrong direction or off to the side meant you’d lose precious seconds righting the car into the flow of traffic when the ride started up.)
Oftentimes we would approach the open gate only to have the attendant put his arm across the narrow entrance and then the chain across the entry while grumbling, “This ride is full.” My disappointment was even greater than missing the Good Humor or Bungalow Bar ice cream truck on a hot summer day. (I was always partial to Bungalow Bar.) So we waited there, first, second or third in line, with my excitement building even higher, if that was even possible. But I felt a unique kind of joy and even power knowing that when the current ride was over and the gate opened again, there was no stopping us. WE’D BE IN THE BUMPER CARS!!
Finally, it was our turn. Dad grabbed my hand and, like the riders before us, we scrambled across the slick silvery metal floor to a yellow car. It was always a yellow car. Dad loved the yellow car and it didn’t matter where it was or how it was facing.
Being a little kid, I had to rely on my dad to be the chaos engineer, which he did with gusto. He’d get in the car and then lift me in and plop me down alongside him. We were seated side-by-side in the cramped seat, snug as two bugs in a rug while he strapped both of us in with the attendant now yelling “FASTEN YOUR SEAT BELTS.” Finally, all the riders were in their cars and the attendant reminded us for the 20th time to “FASTEN YOUR SEAT BELTS.”
There was no clear Go signal that I could identify, but somehow some riders knew that they could hit the open road. Suddenly there was a whirring of electric motors and a zapping sound from the bumper cars’ vertical rods that contacted the metal roof and completed the electric circuit that powered the cars’ electric motors. Even more noticeable were the flying sparks where each rod touched the metal ceiling. The air was literally electric with crackling sparks showering down on us. I could feel the electricity, and the smell of ozone filled my nose.
Finally, it was our turn to start up, and we were moving as I threw a look of “Take that, you suckers!” to the riders-in-waiting envying our good fortune from the sidelines. We went round and round the oval track smashing into other cars, spinning around, and then driving the wrong way—breaking the golden rule of “YOU CAN ONLY GO CLOCKWISE.” We’d hear the ritual yelling of the attendant for us to turn around. Often we didn’t have to as other cars smashed into us spinning us around again. Breaking the bumper car rules was so much fun.
Mini races, bumps and crashes continued for the duration of the ride that, in reality lasted only a few minutes. Then eventually, the cars slowed down and came to a halt. The power had been turned off and our ride was over. Dad unclipped my seat belt, we exited the car and were herded off the track through the side exit.
The bumper cars were over but now it was time for the next adventure . . .
The Wild West Calls Me
You might think things couldn’t get any better than the bumper cars, but they did. Between the bumper cars and the boardwalk was the carousel with a herd of brightly painted horses that went up and down, and a calliope playing as the carousel went round and round.
All the while we were on the bumper cars I could hear the carousel calliope calling to me. The carousel might seem pretty tame compared to bumper cars, but for me it was right up there on the super fun scale because I would be riding my trusty steed, all by myself. Being on a beautifully painted wooden horse, going up and down, round and round was thrilling to me with my being barely out of toddler stage.
I sat alone on my horse while images of Hopalong Cassidy played in my head. (Hopalong Cassidy: star of screen, radio and later, TV—“the most amazing man ever to ride the prairies of the early west . . . a name to be feared, respected and admired.”) For the next minutes it would be just me Hoppy and California (Hoppy’s loyal sidekick) riding the prairie and capturing mean varmints before we returned to Hoppy’s Bar 20 ranch.
I spent my early youth preparing to ride the prairie with Hopalong Cassidy.
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Several years later I got to meet Hoppy in the flesh. He was signing autographs at the grand opening of our local Queens New York Associated Foods supermarket on Utopia Parkway near where we lived after moving from the Bronx. I shook his hand as he handed me his very own Secret Decoder Badge. The badge needed the secret code sheet that you requested in the mail and took weeks to get. By eventually pairing the badge and the code sheet I got to decipher the super secret message: “Drink Ovaltine.” (Ovaltine was a show sponsor; it was a chocolate syrup substitute that we mixed with milk). Meeting up with Hoppy in a New York City supermarket was not exactly the prairie-riding experience I had dreamed of, nor was the secret decoder badge’s special message very special. Overall, it was rather disappointing.
But on beach day, there was even more to the carousel ride than just my trusty steed . . .
Reaching for the Brass Ring
What made the carousel super special was the opportunity to grab a brass ring. At the perimeter of the carousel there was a pole with a brass ring holder that dispensed brass rings if you were skilled enough to grab one just right as your horse galloped past the pole. I always sat on a horse on the outside of the carousel so I could reach for the brass ring. Dad lifted my onto the horse that I picked out, tightened the mottled leather strap around my waist, and then he got off.
I was on my own now waiting for the ride of my life (for about the hundredth ride over the years). Soon the carousel lurched forward and slowly started to gain speed as the calliope played. At first, it sounded like an LP record slowly spinning up with the tone arm on the record so that the sound went from low moan, to rumble to the unique sound of calliope music.
I was going round and round and up and down, enthralled by the motion as I leaned back and laughed out loud while holding onto my horse’s brass pole in front of me. I felt superior to the little kids sitting nearby in the stationary sleigh-like elephant or hippopotamus seats with their mommies and often crying. Sissies!
Eventually, on every ride, I’d awake from my Hoppy daydreams and remember the brass ring that I had completely forgotten about. So I’d put all my attention on getting one. I’d mentally time how long it took my horse to make the circuit, and how long it would take to get to the brass ring. As I approached the pole with the brass ring, I’d stretch my right arm waaay, waaay out to grab one. Sadly, I never did get one—my arm was a foot or two too short. But that never stopped me from reaching for the brass ring.
When the carousel ride ended, it was onto the beach . . .
My Beach Family
After the bumper cars and carousel rides were finished, our beach day was just getting started. And it involved joining family on the beach. Rockaway was the year-round home to a fair number of our raucous, fun-loving extended family on mom’s side.
They were the Rockaway crowd: Aunt Leah and Uncle Charlie and their kids, cousins Sandra and Muriel; Aunt Ray and Uncle Jack and their kids, cousins Anita and Joan.
My mother’s parents, Grandma and Grandpa Albert, were often there too from the Bronx. And Grandma also moved to Rockaway after Grandpa Albert died around 1950.
Aunt Fay and Uncle Stewart would occasionally join us from the Bronx but rarely with their daughter, my cousin Elaine, who was 15 years older than me and married. It also wasn’t uncommon for Uncle Harry and Aunt Rita to also show up from their Bronx apartment, but usually without their kids, my cousins Bobby, Gerry and Claire. They were much, much older and married.
(NOTE: There’s a special formula in the family description above: my mother’s sisters (my Aunts) or brother (my Uncle) are named first, followed by their spouses, then their kids (my first cousins) are named oldest to youngest.)
One summer, we actually spent the summer living in Rockaway on a side street next to Aunt Leah and Uncle Charley’s apartment building. We stayed in a two-story boarding house owned and operated by a nice grandma-type lady. What was special about her was she was rumored to be Benny Goodman’s (the famous clarinet player’s ) mother. Of course at an early age I had no idea who Benny Goodman was but it made for some idle grownup conversation on summer evenings. Benny Goodman grew up in Chicago so I have no idea what his mother would be doing in Far Rockaway. But that was the rumor.
Our Tribe Gathers
Our Rockaway family all lived within blocks of each other on Greenport Road a short distance from the beach. Too join them on the beach after my carousel ride, first we traversed the boardwalk—a wooden ribbon that stretched along the shoreline as far as the eye could see. At the very, very end of the boardwalk was the fabled amusement park Rockaways’ Playland. (I say fabled because I never got to go there but heard endless tales of its wonders.) And then finally, there was the beach with sand stretching along the shoreline, again, as far as the eye could see.
We’d find our spot alongside the gaggle of nearby family, like Jewish Bedouins in a desert encampment. We spread our blanket and opened our beach chairs. The sun was blazing hot. But here’s the curious thing: we always knew that we’d be baking in the hot sun all day and by the end of the day would look like steamed red lobsters and suffering with sunburn pain what could be heightened by the beating wings of a housefly a foot away. But mom and dad never, and I mean never, used a beach umbrella. It was like it was against our religion to use an umbrella. I guess the old adage is true, real men (and Bronx Jews) don’t use beach umbrellas.
A Dunk in the Ocean
For the rest of the day I would mindlessly dig in the sand with my shovel and pail. But in between sand excavating and castle building, mom or dad took me to the ocean for ”a dunk.” I’d hear, “Hey Stevie, want to take a dunk in the ocean?” I was always ready for a dunk. I’d hold mom or dad’s hand, sometimes both in either hand as we screwed up our courage to take on the giant waves—at least they looked giant to me even though now I know they were mostly ripples. We timed the waves, being careful to avoid the killer 7th wave that had the reputation as being the one to avoid or risk your life. So we waited for what we thought was the 7th wave to crest and break. Fairly regularly our timing was off. We’d tip toe into the water when we thought it was safe only to be mauled by the sneaky 7th wave.
Being little, I’d be swept off my feet and in an instant I’d be upside down and thrown every which way all the time holding onto a parent’s hand for dear life, and swallowing half the ocean. Then the surf would settle down, I’d spit out the salt water, and we’d continue on with haste to make sure that when the next 7th wave came we’d be safely out far enough so that we could just bob up and down on it as it passed instead of being where it broke and the ensuing mayhem.
Once we were out far enough in safe territory, mom would go into her Ester Williams routine. She’d roll over on her back like a graceful porpoise and float like a cork in a prone position. She bobbed up and down as each wave passed, as relaxed as taking an afternoon nap on a Sunday afternoon with her arms folded behind her head. When she stopped floating she would take me from dad’s hand and encourage me to float. I did, for about a second and then I’d sink like a stone. I never did learn to float. I decided early on that there’s something different about the female anatomy but I wasn’t sure what.
But even with all the strategies to avoid the dreaded 7th wave–or not, I can confidently report that a 7th wave never killed me.
Sand In Pants Jack
Being with my extended family at the beach was pure pleasure for me, but I had to be wary of Uncle Jack. He had advanced degrees in teasing, and he often kept his skills sharp by practicing his mischievous arts on me. To make things worse, he was a teasing role model for cousins Anita and Joan.
Anita and Joan teased me, often during our visits to their second floor, two-family house apartment. They regularly told me about the Indian Chief who lived in a teepee in the attic above their apartment. Occasionally, they’d take me up to the attic to meet the Chief where it smelled like dog shit from Buttons, their mixed-breed dog, part cuddly companion, part killer wolf. When we looked for the Chief, he was always out of town, teepee and all. But I believed them every time.
Jerk that I am, I became a teaser. It wasn’t a conscious choice. I suppose I just absorbed teasing as a way to be. I was never a practical joke kind of teaser but rather a verbal teaser. (To this day, I still am, but most people don’t get it, even close friends and the people that love me the most. In some ways it’s served me well by helping to shape my sense of humor. But I also regret teasing my kids a lot, and their friends too. For example, the time when one of my young son’s visiting friends asked how the New Jersey State Park across the street, Cheesequake Park, got it’s name. I quickly and offhandedly responded that giant cheese cakes rolled around at dusk and would roll over anyone who got in their way. I later learned the kid was so scared that he refused to visit again. I forgot about how kids take seriously everything an adult says. For a long time, my kids always believed me.)
The beach teasing started when I was three or four when the whole mob was at the sand encampment one day. I was playing in the sand with my shovel and pail when Uncle Jack snuck up behind me, pulled the back of my swim suit open and dumped a huge fistful of sand down my ass. I went running to mom and not having fully mastered the art of language I’d be crying and yelling, “Sand in pants Jack. Sand in pants Jack.” Mom soothed me, and I was good till the next Jack attack.
After a while I wised up and began to sense when a Jack attack was coming. I would grab my mother’s hand and pull her to the ocean for a dunk, and Jack attacks became less of a menace.
I Get Even with Uncle Jack
But one sand-in-pants day I inadvertently got payback on Uncle Jack.
It was the end of a long tiring day at the beach, and we were sitting in Aunt Ray and Uncle Jack’s kitchen after a delicious feast that included fresh steamed “piss” clams, boiled lobster and corn on the cob. They were called piss clams because of their long protrusion that would squirt water on you or your neighbor when you bit into it. Laughter often followed. On this particular day, the clams were preceded by my first taste of raw oysters. Because of my naiveté and out of a sense of curiosity, I downed one just like the adults did. The disgusting mess slithered down my throat making me gag. Till this day I won’t eat oysters. Piss clams yes, oysters no.
Probably to make amends for a day of sand-in-pants attacks, after dinner Uncle Jack made me a deluxe banana split ice cream sundae. It was a multi-layer masterpiece with three scoops of ice cream—chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry—as the base layer, gobs of U-bet chocolate syrup on top of that, and above all of that a mountain of whipped cream. Along both sides of the ice cream were the halves of a banana, split the long way. The sundae spectacular was topped off with a neon red maraschino cherry atop the mounds of whipped cream. It was a joy to behold.
Never deterred by the feeling of being full, I dug into the sundae with the zeal of coming off a week-long fast, and finished the whole thing in short order. I was now beyond full but content. Until the stomach rumbling started. Apparently the banana split sundae had met up with the oyster plus piss clams plus boiled lobster plus corn on the cob. Witnesses said I turned a funny shade of green and then promptly threw up everything, spewing it all over the kitchen table.
In retrospect, it was a case of “Who gets the last laugh now, Uncle Jack?”
And so ended a day at the beach. There were many, many more. And Rockaway and the beach days are treasured memories. But with all those memories, to this day, one of my happiest times ever was simply sitting next to my dad in an always-yellow bumper car.
9 thoughts on “A Day at the Beach”
Nicely told childhood recollection, Esteban.
Thank you Larry.
Your memories are so vivid and honest and fun… and bring back so many similar memories to me!
Thank you Rivvy.
I love kiddo beach stories. Beach, family, food, fun…. My family still goes to the beach in the summers…Thanks Steve.
I’m so glad you enjoyed it Jackie. And I’ve heard about some of your family beach escapades.
Love the details, I feel like I was there! Thank you for sharing!
Thank you Sandy.