Friday, July 27, 2007

Oh, Those Wildwood Days!


There is peaceful serenity in the clear blue skies and the fast-rising sun, in the swooping and squawking of the seagulls, in the clatter of bicycle tires along the boardwalk on a typical laid-back summer morning in the Wildwoods.

There is excited chaos in the colorful lights of the amusements, in the smells of the incredible variety of foods, in the dull roar of thousands of conversations taking place among the throngs along the boardwalk on a typical free-wheeling summer night in the Wildwoods.

For my family and me, and for countless others for nearly a century now, summer means “Wildwood Days”, a trip “down the shore”, where every day’s a holiday, and every night is a Saturday night.

The place is known by many names: Wildwood, the Wildwoods, Wildwood-By-The-Sea. There are the old names: Anglesea, Holly Beach, Wildwood Crest.

Today we have the three boroughs that include Wildwood, North Wildwood and the Crest. But whatever name it goes by to you and yours, the place is known by all of us as the epitome of the family summer sun and fun vacation spot.

As a boy, my family had a place on Magnolia Avenue, just about a half-block off the boardwalk, not far from the famous Groff’s Restaurant. It seemed that every night the line would form outside Groff’s for the dinner crowd, stretching all the way down Magnolia away from the boards. We had a small place, usually crowded with parents and kids, aunts and uncles and cousins, and many friends.

After a few years, a few of the aunts and uncles organized and bought a place farther away from the madness, on Leaming Avenue at the far southern end of Wildwood, about 2-3 blocks from the Crest and about five blocks from the boardwalk. It was much farther away from the action, but it was still down the shore, and the new house was bigger with a number of bedrooms and a nice sized backyard.

For most of the 1970’s and even into the 1980’s, this was the Wildwood of my youth. A family shore house filled with uncles rising early to go crabbing and then coming home and playing pinochle on the front porch, aunts cooking up those crabs and many other meals while keeping the conversations flowing on family news, and us cousins running around the house, the streets and the boards.


That’s what we call the boardwalk, “the boards”. Most evenings after some kind of dinner it was time to shower up, get dressed in your best t-shirt and shorts or jeans, and head on up to the boards. In the 70’s, I remember well that my dad would give us five dollars each, and that would be enough for us to get a book of ride tickets, as well as a soda and a slice of pizza.

The ride tickets back in those days would usually be used up on Hunt’s Pier, where all the best rides were located. The “Flyer” roller coaster and the “Golden Nugget” were the highlights. The Flyer was a typical old white wooden roller coaster that clattered and clanged around its main drop and the usual number of twists and turns. It had a huge neon sign at the front that was a boardwalk icon for decades. The Golden Nugget was in the back of the pier, and was itself a roller coaster with a twist in that it incorporated a mine shaft atmosphere.

Hunt’s Pier had a number of other featured attractions as well. There was the “Jungleland” ride, a kind of lazy river adventure trip through the Amazon. The “Keystone Kops” was your typical whip-like car ride inside a darkened hall that featured crazy, colorful characters popping out at you. And then there was the “Pirate Ship”, a full-sized version of an old-time sailing ship complete with an array of crusty, crafty pirates that would have made Jack Sparrow proud.

Some nights you could skip the rides, and instead take in a movie at one of a number of theatres on or near the boardwalk, or you could head to the opposite side of Hunt’s Pier for a round of Skyline Golf, a miniature golf course on the roof of a movie theatre that was another boardwalk icon for decades.

When you got hungry, you had a million choices from Italian food to seafood, from shish kebob to Curley’s Fries, from Kohr’s soft ice cream to funnel cake. But for most of us, there was really only one major food choice to make: Sam’s or Mack’s. Which pizza place was your favorite? As a little kid, I went with the Mack’s tradition, but that all changed sometimes around hitting puberty. Once I actually tried Sam’s, I was hooked, and remain a loyal customer of Sam’s Pizza at 26th & the boardwalk to this day.

Oh, and while walking along “the Boards” for the past forty years you needed to pay attention, because along with the wooden boards there are two concrete pathways, one on either side of the boardwalk, used for a unique conveyance to transport folks up and down the nearly two-mile long boardwalk in easy, inexpensive fashion. Known by many simply from its distinctive megaphone-like warning call: “Watch the tram car, please!”, the Sightseer is a people carrying electric-powered tram that has been a signature to the overall boardwalk experience.

During the days, most of the family would pack up the gear and begin the trek down to the beach. Wildwood has a free bathing beach, and even back in those days before the beach was reconfigured it was still a large beach at most spots. We would be down there digging in the sand and splashing in the water for hours on end, tanning up our bodies and bleaching out our hair as kids as we never would again in our lives.

The beach had its own chorus of sights and sounds that was completely distinctive from the din of the boardwalk. The sound of the seagulls and kids at play, radios playing the tunes of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s coming from various beach blankets. The smells of suntan lotion, not sun block mind you. The hum from the engines of the small planes flying out over the ocean, trailing huge advertising messages behind them of a restaurant offering a dinner special.

There also were two men walking the beach carrying huge boxes over their shoulders, and their distinctive calls were as much a part of the beach scene as the gulls, planes, music and ocean waves. You didn’t have to wait long to hear the cries of “Phiiiiiiladelphia Daaaaily News…..Daaaaily News here!” from a newspaper hawker, or “Heeeey, ice cream here! How about an ice cream sandwich…creamsicle…fudgie, wudgie, wudgie……heeeeey, ice cream here!”

Every once in awhile, rather than hitting the beach, we kids would head down to Sportland pool at 23rd & the boardwalk for an afternoon of splashing around in their huge pool. Sportland used to have a big water show spectacular featuring high-divers and other water performers at night, but during the day they opened the pool for public use for a small fee, and here was an opportunity to use a high diving board, something right up a kid’s alley.

These were the features of Wildwood that made most of my childhood memories, but like the famous Starlight Ballroom dance hall of my aunts and uncles generation, many of them no longer exist. Hunt’s Pier gradually died out and gave way to a new generation of piers and rides, and even Skyline Golf and Sportland pool eventually disappeared.

When my own kids were born, money was tight for me and my young family, and our trips down the shore as they grew through the 1980’s were not nearly as frequent as those from my own childhood. But they did get down enough to pickup their own love of the Wildwood scene. Having my girls down on the Wildwood beach, digging in the sand and riding the amusements, being able to provide them even a taste of that atmosphere, was as much a joy for me as it was a thrill at the time for them.

As they got a little older and we moved into the 1990’s, we took a few trips down for a days at a time, often staying at the Shore Plaza, a hotel located right on the boardwalk in the heart of the action at 26th Street. They had a rooftop pool and restaurant, and the place sat right on top of Sam’s Pizza. So we had it all right there spread out before us: boards, beach, food, fun, pool. What more could a human being want on vacation?

Tragically, a couple of winters ago the Shore Plaza burned down in a spectacular fire that also destroyed the old Sam’s Pizza location. This was a huge blow, the loss of such a landmark, but like a phoenix rising from the ashes by the time the summer season rolled around there was the reborn, bigger and as good as ever, new Sam’s Pizza palace. Thank God, the delicious tradition lives on!

The rides and amusements live on as well. It’s no longer Hunt’s Pier, or the good old secondary amusement piers like Sportland Pier, Marine Pier, Fun Pier, or the Casino Arcade. The amusement piers were all taken over by the Morey family, and the amusement rides and attractions that they have brought to the Wildwoods are spectacular. They are now stretched among what are now known collectively as Morey’s Piers with the nicknames Surfside Pier, Mariner’s Landing and Adventure Pier, and include all manner of modern rides and water parks.

Later this summer, my wife and I will be heading down for a week in Wildwood with some of the kids. Our youngest will be there, now 21 years old, as will my oldest, now 27 years old. She will have her 5 year old with her, our granddaughter, so it will be time for a new generation to experience the shore. My granddaughter Elysia has been to Wildwood before, but this will be her longest trip, and she is a little older, and this one will really start to form her own memories, so it is extra special. We even hope to have the other daughter, now about to turn 26, down with us for one of the days.

That is what Wildwood and all the memories are really about. Having a great time in a relaxed, fun setting with your family. Wildwood has nightlife, for sure. Clubs, bars, party spots. But the ocean, the boardwalk, the amusements, the restaurants, the pools, the games, the shops; these are the things that truly make the memories. Good, fun, wholesome, All-American times shared with your family and friends.

Time to set aside the troubles of today’s world, the daily grind of work and school, the asphalt jungle of the city and head down for more of those Wildwood days and nights. I can’t wait to hear the ocean roar, the amusements clamor, the tram car warning, the gulls cawing. I can’t wait to see the beauty of the beach in its nature and in it’s people-watching. I can’t wait for the taste of a refreshing Kohr’s ice cream cone, and of course, Sam’s pizza.

But mostly, I can’t wait to spend time with my family, to see the joy in my granddaughter’s eyes, and to create some more of those memories that we have been collectively creating now in our family for at least four generations. Oh, those Wildwood Days! Wild-wild-wildwood days! Every day’s a holiday, and every night is a Saturday night!

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