The smell of oil wakes us some mornings. I imagine a ship sailing the sea by night, spilling a bit of its cargo. Perhaps a weary deck hand or oil company employee fell asleep on his watch. Hey, it happens. We have no concept of the oil’s potential danger. Dirty, yes. Harmful? The word simply isn’t in our intellectual maze-waze. We just assume the oil dissipates and washes away just as the shells and seaweed do with each new wave. We don’t worry about anything at all because we are kids, my sisters, cousins and I, and we are on vacation in Brigantine, New Jersey. Oil spills, as far as I know, are not reported as such in 1963.
All of us love these long weeks spent at “the Jersey shore.” Usually when I wake, my two thoughts are whether there are any Sugar Pops left for my breakfast and how fast can I get my two-piece suit off the line and back on my behind so that I can hit the beach by 10 a.m. when the life guard officially goes on duty. We make our beds, wash our dishes, and sweep up the prior day’s sand that has been inadvertently and liberally sprinkled over the linoleum floors of my Uncle Jim’s cape cod home. Aunt Anne is our only chaperone, a welcome, go-to adult, who knows how to work behind the scenes lest she ruin our fun. She walks around bra-less, a fact for which I admire her greatly. She suns herself wearing those egg-like goggles over her eyes, nose smeared with Noxzema or Coppertone. She is also the source of the wonderful aroma of fresh-perked coffee, which wafts through the house and wakes me every time. I still think of Aunt Anne when I smell morning coffee.
Aunt Anne Early Morning - Peace & Quiet
My cousins, sisters and I tramp up to the beach bare-footed, or wearing cheap flip flops purchased at Jack’s Pharmacy. $.59 a pair available in an array of colors. Cover-ups tangle with beach chairs until we reach our usual spot far enough away from water’s edge so we don’t have to pull up stakes too soon due to high tide. Blankets are weighed down with carry-all bags stuffed with towels. Buckets and shovels are hauled to the shoreline. We search for interesting shells as we skirt along the eastern side of a continent down to Fisherman’s Pier. Atlantic City skyline, before casinos, frames the view to the south.
We wiggle our way past the lifeguard stand several times a day. Jay McDonald resembles 1960s tv actor, Glenn Corbett. Tan and moderately muscled, Jay stars in my earliest romantic fantasies. We know where he lives and in the evening we purposely walk past his house on 36th Street hoping to catch a glimpse of him dressed in shorts and Hawaiian shirt, headed out on a date with an unknown, imaginary bleach-blonde. Maybe he and I will make eye contact and when we do, he’ll smile and realize I have a crush on him just as my cousins, Mona and Nan, do. My sister, Peggy, loves him, too. After dinner, we walk back to the beach. We climb up into Jay’s stand and scrounge for mementos.
Jay's stand - modern times
Around 3 p.m., the seven of us traipse back to the house, only a half-block away from the dunes. Sand in our suits, sunburned skin – we head to the outdoor shower and rinse off. The private shower is up on the back deck. We use soap, it feels so good to get clean again. I wash my hair with Johnson’s baby shampoo. We pull out the new short sets my mother has given us for our vacation. She stays at home with our little brothers. She must love the break from routine. Her daughters are well cared for and out of her hair at the same time. It’s a deal most mothers can buy into.
After clean-up, we play cards, or we go off, either in pairs or by ourselves, to the pharmacy to buy Teen Beat magazines. We bring them home, plop into the wicker chairs in Uncle Jim’s outdoor cabana, where we read from cover to cover - stories of the Beatles, Rolling Stones and American Bandstand. I marry Paul. Peggy marries John. Denise Liebowitz of Philadelphia dates Danny Epstein – they’re a regular couple on Bandstand. The article says that Denise hates that she must cut her fingernails for typing class. I empathize despite the fact I bite my own nails.
Aunt Anne makes spaghetti and meatballs for dinner. Though I managed to sneak away to Dairy Queen for a vanilla cone dipped in chocolate, I am ravenous. The cone costs me a dime, and the time to walk home allows me to finish before I return to the house. Sometimes, my cousins come with me. We leave our ice cream trash on the steps of the Christian Science reading room. We must think no one will notice mostly because no one ever seems to be there.
After dinner, the bunch of us pick up assorted sunglasses lying around the house. We don them, cool cousins. We form a conga line, make beatnik sounds and snap our fingers as we move through the house in unison, singing to Stevie Wonder’s “Fingertips” We are happy and carefree, oblivious to oil spills and everything else that life will ultimately bring our way.