When I was nine years old, my family relocated to Long Branch, NJ, from Queens, NY. Long Branch was a medium-sized town on the shore mostly known as a resort for the people from New York. Our house was located in the west end in the city, about two hundred yards from the ocean. It was a small, two-bedroom house with one bathroom. A typical Cape Cod-style residence could have been considered a beach house, except it, was meant as a year-round home. Very bare bones.
Down the street on the ocean was a hotel called the Vendome Plaza. It was a four or five-story affair with one elevator that, as I recall, was out of order most of the time. Occasionally I would work as a bell boy, especially when the elevator was out of commission. During the summer, the hotel had guests many guests, mostly on weekends. During the off-season, it was closed most of the time. Across the street from the hotel was a cliff leading down to the beach and the ocean.
I have many good memories of living in Long Branch. I lived there until I was fifteen years old, and today when I reminisce, I am glad I still can remember many things without too much exaggeration.
We moved to Long Branch because my family had some financial reversals, and my dad was out of work. My mother’s brother had a flourishing hardware business in the area and gave my father a job. Additionally, he owned the house we were living in. In reality, my family was somewhat of a charity case. My uncle was a terrific guy for helping us out, and I enjoyed being part of his family. My cousin was my age, and we became good pals. His friends became my friends, and wherever he went, I was in the group and the activity.
My aunt was like a second mother to me. She treated me as a second son, and I loved how she would care for me. My uncle was extremely generous to me, and I often wondered if I wasn’t the son he wished he had. He would take us to Yankee games, including world series, car races, and many other events. He made sure I had a bicycle and all the sporting equipment I would need. I ate at their home at least three or four times a week and they made sure I always had seconds.
After a while, my folks became a bit sour and would tell me that my uncle and aunt were using me as a stepping stone for my cousin. To this day, I don’t believe it, but the suggestion became self-fulfilling, and as a result, I broke away from their family and developed my own network of friends and associates.
Unfortunately, to this day, I have very little to do with my cousin, although I have attempted reconciliation. Who knows, maybe my folks were right. Anyway, about twenty years ago, I visited with my aunt a few times and told her how much I appreciated all that she did for me as a child. I would take her for lunch, and we corresponded often. I made peace, and when she passed, my cousin called to let me know she was gone. That was the last I heard from him, although I attempted to contact him a few times.
I did not mean to get off the message, but my mind drifted a bit. One thing leads to another.
My proximity to the beach and ocean was a blessing to me. I became a regular beach bum. I would spend entire days on the beach and in the sea. My pals and I would get old tire tubes and float around for hours without getting out of the water. I became an outstanding swimmer and learned the art of body surfing. A group of us became water daredevils and would swim out under hazardous conditions, even during and after storms, to do body surfing. One day we had some perfect waves and were surfing very close to a jetty that was under construction. I caught a beautiful wave, and as it broke, I found myself heading straight down on a rock that was stashed near the jetty for later use. At the last moment, I turned my body to avoid hitting my head and struck the boulder with my left shoulder. Fortunately, I only suffered a dislocation otherwise, I would have crushed my head and probably have died from the blow. It was an agonizing injury, and I washed up on the beach half-conscious from the pain. If my parents only knew what I was up to, they would have killed me for certain. That was the end of body surfing for the summer, although I have another beach experience I’d like to share.
As I mentioned earlier, we would spend hours floating around in the ocean on an old rubber tire tube. One day some of my tubing buddies and I became adventurous. The water was extremely calm, and the weather was as clear as a bell. We decided to make a trip out to sea about one and a half too two miles out to the offshore fishing nets. We set sail on our tubes. We must have looked like a flotilla. Anyway, none of us had ever made this voyage before, and we didn’t know what to expect. We were a little further than halfway out when the weather began to change, and we decided to head back to shore. No matter how hard we paddled, we were still heading out to sea. Oh, shit, we were in for it, and there wasn’t a single boat in sight. We tried and tried and tried but made no headway back to shore. Believe me, it was a little dicey, and some of the guys were getting frightened. Panic was setting in, even for me. I wasn’t paddling very well with my shoulder aching but I soldiered on.
All of a sudden, coming in our direction was a boat. It was a Coast Guard Duck heading straight for us, coming to the rescue. One by one, the sailors hauled us on board and gave us life preservers. We were forced to abandon our tubes and headed back to shore, where we were driven directly up the beach to the open arms of the local police. I think it was a pretty close call and an adventure worth remembering. Someone had spotted us and reported our predicament. Thank God. We were in trouble.
When I was there, West End Long Branch was a very active area. There was always something to do. There were some shops, restaurants, a kosher deli, and a bakery. One of my favorites activities was attending the annual Firemans Fair. It was so much fun, and it went on for at least a week. It was always well attended and was more like a carnival than a fair with booths and a sixty-foot-high dive into a four-foot pool of water. Even in those days, I thought the diver was out of his mind. Who in their right mind would do that stuff?
One night I won a prize by throwing pennies into little water jars sitting on a table. I did so well that I had my choice of several prizes. I selected a small fiberglass fishing pole with a cork handle. The next day I borrowed $9.00 from my older brother and rode my bike down to Stephens Tackle Shop on Brighton Ave and bought a spinning reel, hooks, line, and sinkers. I was ready to go. That night my Dad offered to teach me how to fish from Brighton Ave. Jetty. The following day we went back to Stephens and bought a couple of frozen squids and a knife. We walked down to the beach and then on to the jetty and set up our fishing station. This is one of the rare special moments I had with my father. He demonstrated how to cut the squid into strips. How to do the leader, hook, sinker, and most of all, how to cast the line. We had such a good time, and for a short moment, I saw my dad as a young boy and cohort. That day was an ice breaker for both of us and one I will always remember fondly. We didn’t have many of those, but the ones we had were great.
A few years ago Carole and I were involved in a musical production at the Brighton Bar in West End Long Branch. Before the show we took a stroll up Brighten Ave. towards the beach when we stopped at Stephen’s Bait Shop. We went in and I introduced myself to the owner and relayed the story of my first fishing rod, reel, and the day with my father. The owner told me that this was their last day in business and presented me with a fishing cap with the Stepen’s logo as a memoir. Now, how nice was that. I love that hat and will keep it forever.
I have so many childhood recollections of my days in Long Branch that led to my sweetest memories of my time in Asbury Park. In the future I’ll be writing about many of them as they come to mind. Just remembering those days bring peace and mostly happiness to my heart.
All roads lead to where we are and some of those roads were very special.