The smell of oil wakes us some mornings. Was it a ship sailing by night that perhaps spilled a bit of its cargo? Or maybe a weary deck hand fell asleep on his watch. As kids, we have no concept of the oil’s potential danger. Dirty, yes. Harmful? The word simply isn’t part of our intellectual maze-waze. We merely 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 children - my sisters, cousins and I, 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. Upon waking each morning, my thoughts run to whether or not there are any Sugar Pops left in the box, and how fast can I get my two-piece suit off the line and back onto my behind in order to hit the beach by 10 a.m. when the life guard officially goes on duty. We kids make beds, wash dishes, and sweep up the prior day’s sand that has been inadvertently, though liberally sprinkled over the linoleum floors of my Uncle Jim’s beach house. Aunt Anne is our only chaperone, our adult go-to, 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 egg-like goggles over her eyes, nose smeared with Noxzema. She is also the source of the most lovely 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 the cheap flip flops bought at Jack’s Pharmacy. $.59 a pair available in a variety of bright colors. Cover-ups tangle with beach chairs until we reach our usual spot on the beach, far enough from water’s edge so we don’t have to pull up stakes too soon due to the high tide that will come later on. 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, our lifeguard, looks like a 1960's TV hero. Tan and muscled, Jay stars in my earliest romantic fantasies. We know where he lives and in the evening we traipse 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 (we're certain) a superficial 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 trudge 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 rid of the sand. I wash my hair with Johnson’s baby shampoo. We pull out the new short sets my mother has given us for our vacation for she has remained 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.
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 then plop into the wicker chairs in the 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.
Aunt Anne makes spaghetti and meatballs for dinner. Though I managed to sneak away to Dairy Queen for a vanilla cone dipped in chocolate after the beach, I am ravenous. The cone cost me a dime, and the time to walk home allows me to consume, incognito. Sometimes, my cousins come with me. We leave our empty treat containers 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 and snap our fingers beatnik-style 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.