Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Summers of Our Content

Season’s greetings: It’s summertime again. I know that for sure because I spied a solitary lightning bug the other night—a rare sighting nowadays. These luminescent insects were—once upon a time—ubiquitous in the old neighborhood. But the one-two punch of over-building and excessive lighting has pretty much cast them asunder in these parts.

As a boy growing up in the Bronx, the fledgling days of summer—and the longest days of the year—augured many things, including a “vacation” of some sort in the near future. Typically, a week or two spent away from the bright lights of the big city. For many years, my family and I vacationed along the Jersey Shore, in towns like Manasquan, Forked River, and Lavallette.

In Manasquan in the early 1970s, we rented a three-bedroom “railroad-car style” cottage for $75/week. It was a couple of short blocks from the ocean and a couple of short blocks from the Manasquan Inlet. We couldn’t ask for more—and we didn’t. From its enclosed front porch, we could even see a sliver of the inlet and a railroad bridge in the distance. At that point in time there was also a sizable ferryboat in view—a working one in its day, but now permanently docked and operating as a restaurant. Although we never dined there—we couldn’t afford to eat in restaurants back then—it was nonetheless a compelling visual. The streets in the neighborhood where we stayed were named after fish: Salmon, Trout, Pike, Whiting, and Perch. The $75/week rental with—as I recall—garage sale furniture, threadbare bedspreads, and sandy floors is now a two-story abode worth a million dollars. Hey, it’s a stone’s throw from the Atlantic.

While a very different experience from Manasquan, Forked River was nevertheless an intriguing place to vacation. We rented a family friend’s cozy little house, which was situated in woodsy terra firma that was slowly but surely becoming less so. Lagoons were being dug all around the area and small homes were rising one by one by one. There were reservoirs of standing water everywhere from all the digging. Now, the mosquito population knew a paradise when they saw one and were a big-time nuisance for two-legged vacationers. A truck periodically passed by spraying some chemical concoction into the air to do away with those airborne, bloodsucking  pests. God only knows what it was, but it probably caused cancer in laboratory rats. The mosquitoes, though, were unbowed through it all and we had to wear rubber bands at the bottoms of our pants to co-exist with them. The sound of electric saws taking down pine trees was commonplace, too, while we vacationed there. But as a kid, such incessant noise and the mother lodes of mosquitoes didn’t detract from in the least the wonderland of wildlife and forest of pine trees that I felt I was in. After all, miniature toads hopped around in the back and front yards. Big box turtles luxuriated in the woods next door. And whip-poor-wills called out in the night. It was like we were camping.

Camping indeed. The water that poured out of the Forked River faucets was brown and needed to be boiled before cooking with it. The nearest telephone was at an Elks “clubhouse” several blocks away. Both Barnegat Bay and the Forked River itself were a stone's throw away. I don’t mind telling you that the combination salty sea-pine needle aroma in the air was intoxicating to yours truly. If I were placed in that same environment today—forty years later—it would be like I was a contestant on Survivor. And with my luck, I’d probably catch the Zika virus.

Life, though, is all about moments. And nothing could get in the way of a grand time all those years ago. Not dirty bedspread, armies of mosquitoes, or rusty drinking water.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

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