I always knew that we were getting close, when I caught my first scent of the ocean. That usually happened just as we drove onto the Great Egg Harbor Bridge, and it was my yearly invitation to the Jersey Shore. That bridge was just the beginning of a drive that ended at a place I’ve always considered my second home: Stone Harbor, N.J. Two large promenades start from the back of the beach in Stone Harbor, and continue to the ocean. One is a brightly lit extension of 96th Street, well known as the main street for shopping and dining in the little shore town. The other is a darker but more interesting version, extending from 104th Street. The beach that lay between those two bookends, and the town that went beyond the sand, occupied either my time or my mind for more than a decade of my life. When I wasn’t there, I saved my money to be spent there. During the winter, my thoughts always came back to my summer life. Stone Harbor was more than just my shore town – it was my extended neighborhood. I was a lucky kid. After months of schooling and testing and working, one month was always reserved for us, down the shore. While I now find myself using my tax refund for mundane tasks like home remodeling or summer camp fees, my parents took that check and put it down on a pretty home in Stone Harbor. There wasn’t much that I had or did in those days that made people envious, but that time down the shore always made the top of the list. We’d pack the Oldsmobile as tightly as possible, and set off. As you crossed the bridge at the Great Egg Harbor toll plaza, you caught a hint of ocean breeze. The anticipation built as each exit passed, until we saw the old wooden sign that welcomed us to “The Seashore at Its Best.” And it really was the best, at least for me. After unpacking and buying our beach tags, I proceeded to once again make the town my own. The sand and surf at 99th Street was my daily spot each morning. And there was always something for a teenager or young adult to do. Dances were held once a week. Kids hung out by the promenades or on the beach. For a couple of years, I befriended a group of fellow teens from Reading, who sat on the beach at night and played music. We would instantly draw a crowd. Once, when walking home on the beach, I happened by a group of guys who were burying a lifeguard stand. Not wanting to be left out of the fun, I grabbed a shovel. It took the better part of the night, but watching a group of lifeguards looking at the buried stand like it was a science experiment was worth the work and the risk. By the second week, I could walk across the hot blacktopped street without shoes. Since I knew the town so well from years past, I never really considered myself to be a tourist. I was a townie, a regular resident, at least for one-twelfth of the year. I was also pretty independent. The money saved from paper routes and my part-time job at the local movie theater was more than ample to finance any small town activities. Of course, it didn’t stop me from getting into my fair share of trouble. While hanging out with some friends one evening, I suddenly realized that it was well past 2 a.m. Walking home, I noticed some police cars slowing down as they passed, but didn’t think too much of it. That all changed when I arrived home. It seems my entire family was searching for me, fearing that I was lost or had drowned during one of my late-night beach sojourns. My father dragged me to the police station, and instructed me to apologize to the entire department for putting them through so much trouble. Despite that episode, family time made for some of the best times down the shore. We always visited our favorite restaurants, like Henny’s, or the Harbor Light. But nothing beat the fun of just playing pinochle on the porch of that house on 99th Street with my parents and siblings, or going crabbing with my father and brother on the 96th Street Bridge. And you never worried about cramming everything in, because, especially in the beginning, there was always time. Then, suddenly, there was no time. That last week was always the toughest, knowing that life – my real life – lay ahead. The day before we were scheduled to leave, I made it a practice to go to the beach before dawn, to watch the sun rise. Unimaginable colors streak across the watery landscape at 5 a.m. Reds and oranges blend with the movement of the ocean, changing as the surf pulls farther and farther from the shore. The saddest day of each year usually occurred for me when I was crossed the threshold of our home in Northeast Philadelphia, carrying suitcases. There was only one thing to do: save for next year. When the summer approaches each year, I become sad that I cannot give my children the sort of memories that stay with me, like those endless days in Stone Harbor. I sometimes feel like my alter ego is still living that life, his feet black from the macadam, walking toward the white sands.
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Note: This article first appeared in the News Gleaner last summer.