I came to my love of the Jersey Shore slowly.
As someone who grew up near the solitary, dramatic beaches of northern California, my initial impressions of The Shore leaned more toward circus than serenity.
On my first trip to Seaside Heights in the late ’80s, I discovered a booth on the boards where one could win a carton of Marlboros by shattering a Budweiser bottle with a baseball.
Today I saw a picture of those same boards, fractured like matchsticks, in front of the Jet-Star roller coaster, which apparently has been washed to sea. That’s the roller coaster my thrill-seeking son, Jacob, now 16, couldn’t wait to ride every year of his childhood.
Just a couple of towns north of Seaside is Lavallette. For several summers running, we joined my sons’ godparents and their son in Lavallette for two weeks in a tiny shore house. (It has since been torn down and replaced by a multi-unit monstrosity.)
The Henrys would begin prepping for the trip in the spring by reading the classic, “Not the Piano, Mrs. Medley!” It told the tale of a kindly old woman who could never make it to the beach because she kept turning back to pick up extra items she thought she might need. Finally, you guessed it, she returned to load up the piano.
Come July, my two boys would be all giggles and squirms just at the reading of the book’s title, which someone had rechristened: “Not the Piano, Mrs. Smedley!” (I can still do her trademark laugh.)
The book got funnier every year as we pictured our own Mrs. Smedley (their real-life godmother, “Aunt” Kathy) packing and repacking whatever beach wagon she brought that year. It would bulge and teeter so much that, when we finally took off for the water’s edge, we looked like a family on vacation from The Grapes of Wrath.
I’d play my role, fuming all morning about how “All I want to do is throw a towel over my shoulder and get going!” And Aunt Kathy would bid me gently to “Put a sock in it for once in your life, Don Henry. Would you?”
At maybe 2 p.m., we’d lurch onto the sand, carpeted with umbrellas and people.
An advance party from Aunt Kathy’s giant Irish family, the McCorrys, already would have established a beachhead. All sunscreen and hats, they’d wave us over and before we could sit down we’d be munching their chips and discussing whether the flies were biting.
Tiny Jacob would see the waves. In a flash, he’d break for them, with either his mother or me in hot pursuit. In the early years, one of us actually wore a bracelet to signify which of us was on “Jacob duty.”
If I had time, I’d set up a beach chair that I knew I wouldn’t spend five minutes sitting in all day. I preferred playing with the other little boys. In Lavallette, I originated a bit of surf ballet I like to call “The Flying Whale.” Let’s just say it’s one of the few aquatic maneuvers in which a person with a belly of my dimensions can distinguish himself.
As I survey the devastation along The Shore, I am grateful that Sandy didn’t cause great loss of life. And I want to believe what New Jersey Gov. Christie said about the grit of New Jerseyans to endure and to rebuild.
But in my mind’s eye, all I can see is a 3-year-old boy sprinting into the waves, with me, laughing, one step behind.
Some places simply are not built to accommodate tragedy. The New Jersey Shore is such a place.