Life Is A Beach, And That's Just The Point
What keeps pulling me back to Point Beach year, after year, after year....
The sloping, swirling roller coaster sure looks the same, the same one I once had to push uphill - knowing that one little slip, and I was roadkill - to get it where it is now, on the Point Pleasant Beach Boardwalk.
We got in the back of the truck trailer that carried it, flattened our hands, pinned our arms against it and moved the strapped-down machinery slowly, inch-by-inch, up a rocky driveway that seemed steeper than a hill in Appalachia.
With every slow, careful shove forward, the big two-ton hulking mass would roll one quick and perilous step back toward us, ready to roll us onto Ocean Avenue.
The thing got so close to us that the wheels nearly clipped our toes. Or so it felt. I could sense the weight of the rubber trailer wheels rolling off the tips of my shoes, and taking my toes with them.
We took few breaks even as we moved what seemed like a microscopic inch at a time. In every break, we gestured in desperation. Just imagine a bunch of teenagers pushing a bull into a horse's stable, then throwing up their hands, as if to say, "What's the point of this?"
When we finally got it on that boardwalk level, the same one that is now part of Jenkinson's, we were a bunch of sweaty 17-year-olds who felt like we risked our lives for no good reason. I even remember hearing one of us saying out loud, "What the hell they gonna make us do next?"
The big ride on the small trailer would become, as it turned out, the steel-grinding, wheels-spinning, metal-on-metal sounding roller coaster that provided a sort of soundtrack for Herman's, and then Jenkinson's. Bruce Springsteen actually borrowed the ride's sound - giving due album-liner-note credit to its owner, then Herman's Amusements, and it's proprietor, Burt Schiffer - for a song on his 1987 album, "Tunnel of Love."
Back then, I worked for Herman's, and this ride - indeed, if it is the same Tornado ride that's there now - was called the Dragon. I used to stand and hold the joystick control, and watch hundreds of kids the same age as mine ride it up and down, and around and back, just as my 6-year-old daughter did last weekend.
I'd stand there and get yelled at by Burt for not running it right, even if it took just a couple of yanks of the stick to make it move, always in the same direction.
I used to wonder what the big deal was about a roller coaster ride that's about three minutes long, if that. But the Tornado, along with a bunch of other rides at Jenkinson's, are the only things that get my daughter anywhere near a beach these days.
She hates the beach, hates it more than any vegetable she's forced to eat, or the bad thunderstorms she has to listen to outside our windows.
She hates the sound of the waves, the look of them as they pound on the sand, and the foam that bubbles up to the blankets she won't go near.
But this assortment of flying helicopters, spinning cars and jumping buses, the stuff that makes Jenkinson's amusements what it is, has cast the same spell on her as it did on me nearly 30 years ago.
No matter how crazy it was to be pushing that big ride with the small trailer up that hill ....or how goofy it was to be working there, earning $2.50 an hour, doing work that they didn't give to men and women who were 10 years older than us ....
No matter how many times we got yelled at by Burt, who threatened to fire us more than he ever said hello... or how much the boardwalk has changed since then, with its bustling nightlife scene that just wasn't so bustling 30 years ago, and once even caused me to think I'm out of this place, gone for good...
No matter what happens there - yeah, just like Pacino said - I get pulled back in.
Every year, or close to it, we come back, armed with our discounted tickets that Jenkinson's sells on Easter weekend every year. We'll go through a half of the book; then spend the rest of our time, our money in those arcades that drain us even drier.
My wife and I watch helplessly as my 14 and 10-year-old boys shove dollar bills into those games with the claw that's never strong enough to pick up what's sitting there, even though the prizes look like they're begging to be plucked away from the pile.
Something brings me back, back to the place where I got my first job, in 1983, at Herman's. That job as a ride operator came after my family spent a long time away from the sands and splashing waves that were merely a couple miles from our house.
Before I was old enough to go down there on my own, and before I was allowed to ride a bike across Route 88, we almost always chose the quiet mountains of Pennsylvania - and even the pools at motels in upstate New York - over what was merely a bike-ride away.
Perhaps it was my mother's knee injury, back when I was 6, that was what turned us away. A life-long love of the beach, for my mother, ended when a body surfer landed on her twice, in Manasquan, tearing the ligaments in her knee.
Until that time, in 1973, there were few pictures in my grandfather's photo album in which she didn't have a smile on her face, with her feet dug in the sand, and water washing around them.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, I felt her fear, and worried, too, just like her, that the beach was just not a safe place to be. The thought of a man landing on me, and tearing my ligaments, too, was worse than seeing "Jaws" on the movie screen, or feeling the bee-sting effects of a jellyfish sting, as I once did.
In those days, we did go to the beach, though rarely; even when we did, I usually stsyed close to the waterline. The thought of a big wave, and the riptides that my mother kept worrying about, and warning me against, washing me away forever, was too much. It was enough to make me feel plenty secure just riding my bike around my inland Point Boro neighborhood on a hot summer day, feeling as far away from the beach as I would have been if I was in Missouri.
Even when I got old enough to ride my bike down somewhere near the beach, and shopped at Radio Shack and Borden's on Arnold Avenue, I usually stopped short at Route 35, where the beach first comes into view.
Friends in my eighth and ninth grade classes would see me, and practically beg me to follow along. "Why aren't you going to the beach?" they'd ask. You could hear the amazement in their voices, as if they were saying, "Would you rather live in Iowa?"
I never could muster any kind of legitimate response, offering nothing more than simply saying, "I don't feel like it."
Eventually, I would force myself down there, only because I was so desperate to get a job. I grew tired of getting dragged to the trips to Pennsylvania, and I eventually felt the pull of a certain social life that prevailed at Point Boro High School, but was rare elsewhere.
This was a culture that considered Brave New World shirts as classy attire, practically formal clothing. This was a world where the kids took off from school in a big storm, because the waves were so high.
But even then, it wasn't my first choice of a way to be. I didn't even apply there, at Herman's, or any other beach business, until I was rejected everywhere else. The rejections came from a laundry list of local businesses, including McDonald's, the Shrimp Box, the Lobster Shanty and on and on and on.
At Herman's, I handed in an application that I'd filled out in pencil. I don't even remember Schiffer's wife looking down to read it when she said, "When can you start?"
I said the day after July 4, in 1983.
"Why?" she asked.
"I've got something to do," i told her.
I thought about staying home and watching baseball, as I usually did on a sunny July 4. But that wasn't what was pulling at me, and causing me to beg to delay work for a day.
All the while I was talking to Schiffer, I could see, feel and sense the peace and serenity of the sands and sun around me, in a way I never felt before.
I heard waves splashing, better than I ever heard before. Maybe I just had never stopped long enough to hear that sound - or maybe because there just wasn't a lot of people around that day. But with every splash, I could feel my shoulders drop.
I could feel the sensation of relaxation, something I couldn't feel when I rode my bike between the cars that lined up everyday at the River and Bridge Avenue light in Point Boro, a routine traffic jam that was hard to dodge whenever I crossed the street.
I saw the happiness and energy of a community in the sun, and a world I largely spurned and turned against in the years after my mother's injury. I saw people carrying mallets and pounding on fake lily pads that propelled rubber frogs in the air, landing nowhere near their targets at some boardwalk game stand.
But the people didn't care, because watching the frog flop on the floor was funner than winning the prize.
After I got the job, I talked to some of my soon-to-be Herman's colleagues. I thought I'd meet a bunch of bored kids, like the ones I always saw pushing shopping carts at Grand Union on Bridge Avenue in Point Boro.
Instead, they were people who took pride in showing me some of the tricks they pulled. A couple of them liked to run inside the Herman's haunted house; as the car pulling the screaming tourists rolled through the darkness, and the metal wheels scraped hard against the tracks, sending sparks in the air that could burn our shorts, the kids jumped on the back of the car, and pounded on the sides.
They made ghostly noises as the sparks flew closer at them, and the screams got louder.
The next day, on July 4, I finally gave in to temptation and went to the beach, hanging out on the sands at Maryland Avenue. It was a day of serenity and sand, so peaceful that I forgot about baseball, the injury, and even the job.
When I came home, I turned on the news and was shocked at what I saw. I missed watching Dave Righetti of the Yankees throw a no-hitter against the Boston Red Sox. I was a Mets fan but I rarely missed a local game of any sort. Nobody had thrown a no-hitter for a New York team since 1956, so this normally would be must-see T.V.
But I quickly got over it. I just had the best day at the beach I ever had. The next day, I was about to begin one of the best jobs I ever had, helping to make it one of the best summers I ever had, pulling levers and spinning cars for $2.50 an hour at Herman's.
I've lived in a bunch of places since then. But I've always kept it mind: Never get too far away from the water; because, when it finally does pull you back - and it will - it takes a lot longer to get there.