It appears as if I am channeling Noah in my parenting–yes, that Noah. Everything we do seems to involve the number 2: Two boys, two cats, and, now, two dogs. It is no surprise that with such a menagerie, we would need two cars to go spend a week “down the shore” on Long Beach Island.
As I made my way to the beach in the dog car, along with two crates and a variety of other “essentials”, I couldn’t help but think about my own childhood shore travels. How different the journey to my in-laws’ place was from my family’s trek to Wildwood, New Jersey thirty-some years ago. Hard to believe that we crammed into ONE vehicle–all seven kids and our parents. Yes, NINE of us in one station wagon. We lapped it, we sat in the way-way back, and one or two rode shotgun with mom and dad, who smoked their Kool 100s in a futile attempt to escape the chaos that surrounded them. All of this was done without a single seat belt or child-proof lock. I’m sure we even hung out the windows–I know that’s where we threw our trash–the Now and Later or Juicy Fruit gum wrappers.
How did we all fit in that one wagon with all of our luggage? We didn’t. The luggage, I mean. Most of us were given a large green trash bag and told to fill it with whatever we wanted to bring to the beach. Yes, my two sisters belongings were placed in with my parents’ luggage, and the five boys traveled a la Hefty. My bag weighed three times as much as I did, and included the $35.00 I had saved for months from my paper route. I placed the wad of money in my bell bottom jeans, which I packed right next to my Starsky and Hutch sweater. We all received these sweaters for Christmas, and I overheard the older kids–I am fifth in line–say that they were bringing theirs for the boardwalk. I couldn’t wait to belt my sweater around my waist and get in touch with my inner Huggy Bear while cruising the rides at Morey’s Pier.
After placing every piece of summer clothing from my drawers inside the trash bag, I dragged it downstairs to the car. There, I looked at four other similar bags–each stuffed not with trash, but all of our treasures. This was the highlight of our summer, our year. We felt lucky–special–because we got to say we went on a vacation to the beach. Vacations were a luxury in my neighborhood. Yet there we were, headed to The Al Sands Beach Hugger Motel on Third Avenue in Wildwood, where we would rent two rooms for a whole week. Two rooms for eleven people. My grandparents stayed with us (I think they actually paid for our lodging). That meant eleven people crammed into two compartments. Of course my parents and grandparents stayed in the same room with my younger brother and sister (twins) and me. I never seemed to make the cut off into cool-dom. The four eldest got to stay in the other room, right next door. I was still small enough to share a cot with the twins, but I hated every minute of it.
Back in the driveway, my father was faced with a dilemma: Where the hell was he going to put all of this damn stuff? This is what I loved about my parents–with so many kids, they did not have time to check our bags, nor did they have the sense to tell us what to pack. We were left to our own sensibilities–or lack thereof. My dad’s solution was to throw the bags on top of the station wagon and tie them down with string. STRING. Now, we were the type of family who lacked many tools and equipment. There was no garage to store these items in anyway. We were lucky if we could locate a hammer and nail–although never in the same location. And there was no need for a screwdriver–a butter knife would do just fine. So, of course there was no camper thingy to place on the roof–camper-thingys were for rich people, or at least those who were better prepared. And God knows where he got the string. It was equivalent in strength to a spool of dental floss. I would say that it WAS dental floss, but I am certain there was none of that in our house, either–again, made for rich people.
With the bags piled high on the top of the roof, and mom and dad’s luggage wedged in the back with a few pairs of knobby knees, we headed down I-95 to the Walt Whitman Bridge–the portal to ocean paradise–or, if you live in a large, crazy family, Hell in another location. Car rides were always a nightmare, but long car rides were insufferable. This was pre-head phones, people. No one could tune out everyone else–or pretend to. You were stuck–literally stuck– in a position. The radio was a constant source of resentment–nine people just couldn’t seem to agree on a station. Any game attempt ended in a fight that could involve fists and hair pulling; sing-alongs died off in seconds, and everyone just counted the minutes until we could get out and stretch our limbs. Of course there were always fart wars, and staring contests, and name that tune, but nothing made the journey more tolerable. And someone always had to go to the bathroom as soon as we pulled out of the driveway, but we had to hold it. Holding it became a source of pride.
We had just settled in for our misery on the interstate when my mom chirped up: “Look at those people pointing to our roof and making fun of us.” “Joanne, relax,” my father said, annoyed that she was probably right. Embarrassed, my father sped up to get away from them. “Yeah, we know,” he said, more to us than the car he just left behind. “They should mind their own business,” said my mom. And it dawned on us in the back of the car… THIS WAS NOT A NORMAL WAY TO TRAVEL. Other people didn’t travel with trash bags. Other people had suitcases, or maybe duffel bags. Other people would at least hide the bags among the bodies in the back. But noooo, not us. There was our trash bag mountain, on display for the world to see.
Within a few moments, another car was honking at us. My dad huffed and puffed his way out of the passing lane, thinking it was because he was moving too slowly. “Dad, they’re pointing at you,” my brother said from the back. My dad rolled down his window, as did the other car’s passenger. “Hey Pal, you lost your bags a few miles back. We’ve been trying to get your attention.” “Uhh, thanks,” my dad mumbled, a bit dazed. “Oh, no,” said my mom. “Oh, Jesus God, please no!” “Joanne, relax,” said my dad. We made a U-turn on the highway and headed back to the on-ramp. Then, we exited and entered I-95 again. We found nothing. Not one stitch of clothing. All of the bags were gone. This whole ordeal transpired within twenty minutes, and we lost everything–including my bell bottom jeans, my paper route money, and all 5 Starsky and Hutch sweaters.
We witnessed this realization from inside the station wagon. There we were, still crammed like sardines, with my dad standing outside the driver’s seat, looking out at the cold, unforgiving highway. His eyes then turned to the roof of the car–it was barren. My mother burst into tears, “Why us, God? Why? Dammit anyhow!” “Joanne!” said my dad, who hated any curse word.
We drove the rest of the way in stunned silence. Nine people trying to figure out how one family could cause such a ruckus. My brothers and I made mental lists of all of our clothes and other belongings that were now in the sweaty hands of some other family with too many mouths to feed. I lamented every dollar that I stowed away in my jeans–You fool, thought I. Never store your money in a trash bag on the roof of a moving car! Then, my Catholic guilt kicked in, and I considered how the trash bags could have caused a major pile-up on the interstate. How strands of plastic bag could have blinded other drivers’ windshields who could have lost control. So I lost everything I owned. Others could have been killed, for Christ’s sake.
When we arrive at The Beach Hugger Motel in beautiful Wildwood, everyone is hot and tired. Body parts are peeled off of other body parts and vinyl seats. We exit the car. No one knows what to do. Unload the luggage? Ha! Change into our bathing suits for a swim in the pool? We have none. I follow my mom into the motel office. The man at the desk is cheery and kind. He hands her the keys for two adjoining rooms.
We file up the stairs to the second floor. The outdoor speakers blast Paul McCartney: “Someone’s knockin’ at your door, somebody’s ringing the bell…” The pungent smell of the ocean awakens our senses. “Do me a favor? Open the door, and let ’em in.” Our rooms are clean and chilled from the air conditioning. There is an ice machine down the hall where we can get all the free ice we need. I go into the “big kids” room, hoping that this time I will make the cut–I don’t. But for now, we jump on the beds and turn on the TV, catching a groovy episode of The Partridge Family.
My mom goes out to Woolworth’s and buys several packages of underwear, 2 shorts, 2 shirts, and a bathing suit apiece. She does laundry every day. Throughout the week, we swim in the motel pool, we ride waves at the beach, we get sunburned, we eat too much, we lick melting ice cream cones in our hands, we go to the boardwalk. We make do. My family is crazy. We have shitty luck. But we make do.
The Wildwood summers do not last. They don’t become a family tradition. They don’t graduate into a beach house for a week every July, or a vacation elsewhere every summer. The few summers at the shore we had were quite eventful and unpredictable. But there was one thing you could count on from that trip forward: my father never stored anything else on the car roof–EVER!