When I was a kid growing up in Southwest Philly, I never once took a “vacation” with my mom and dad and siblings. Not once. Now before you break out the violin, let me remind you that I had a terrific childhood that I wouldn’t trade for anything. (OK, I wish my Dad played centerfield for the Phillies.)
I just didn’t realize that we weren’t taking vacations. No one ever talked about it.
July nights came and went and I considered myself incredibly lucky that my playground had the only pool in six parishes. There was not one snot-nosed kid on my block whose parents had just come back from Vegas or Florida. After a hard day of stickball, nobody ever yelled out “See you suckers in a couple weeks, my mom and dad are taking us to Disneyland!”
But there was always that one dream location achingly beckoning you. New Jersey! Although Jersey by car was only about 20 minutes away from our street, it might as well have been in Utah. Jersey! The Shore. Waves. Rides. Mack’s Pizza. Nate’s Hot Dogs. Girls!
No one in my neighborhood ever did the Pocono thing. What did the Poconos offer? Peace and quiet and trees? Heck, the Buist Street Park had trees. Granted, Quaalude Bob was always sleeping under one, but what did a tree have to offer besides some shade?
Now, I don’t know if it was a money thing, but before I even got to Wildwood, we used to do daytrips to Pine Lake. Pine Lake was somewhere in Washington Township and I had no idea how we got there since we didn’t have a car. Over the years, when I ask friends and listeners if they’ve even heard of Pine Lake, most say “no” and the few who do recall it, remember it as a crummy little, rickety mud hole.
To me, however, Pine Lake was magical. The water was always warm (hmm, wonder why?), the sand was always mushy and soft on your tootsies, and they had a huge, mammoth slide in the middle of the lake. You had to swim out to it, climb a thousand rungs, and then slide down and hurl off into the sky before you crashed into the water. Fantastic. Up and down I would go all day. You could also rent inner tubes and catch tadpoles by the hundreds.
But without a doubt, what I loved about Pine Lake the most was that it had this band shell that teenage girls would dance on. There was no DJ, just a jukebox that you didn’t have to put money in! One great Motown tune after another and there’d be 50 chicks out there dancing with themselves. I was only about 9 years old, but I would sit at the edge of the dance floor and just watch endlessly. My tadpole era quickly ended.
However, there was one destination and one destination only as far as my Philly neighborhood was concerned and that was Wildwood. The second you got out of school for the summer, you would start plotting and scheming to get down there.
Remember Ralphie from A Christmas Story leaving hints to get his air rifle? Same thing.
Some of the luckier kids would take a week vacation there, but that was never the case with us. It was usually a day trip and, if we were really lucky, two nights at the Poplar Motel during the week when the rates were cheaper. We’d take a trolley down to the Trailways bus terminal at 13th and Arch and slowly plough our way down. I remember we’d make a stop at a diner in Collings Lake where the owner would play Louis Armstrong on the jukebox and actually play a trumpet live along with the record. You can’t make this stuff up.
Now, the Poplar was not to be confused with the Borgata. It was a room with one bed and a bureau and a window with no screen. No air conditioning or TV and no bathroom. If you had to go, you used the toilet at the end of the hall. You would pass other rooms along the way and sometimes people would leave their doors open and you would get a quick unwanted glimpse of somebody’s Uncle Fred in his boxers. It was similar to the walk Jodie Foster makes on her initial visit to Hannibal Lecter.
But what did I care about the lack of luxurious amenities? The Poplar was two blocks off the beach. The Wildwood beach back then was much smaller. You didn’t have to ride a camel a la Lawrence of Arabia to get to the ocean.
Ah, the ocean. To a kid from a rowhome community the ocean was awe inspiring. I swear I have never gotten tired of looking at it to this day. I can’t imagine what it’s like to live somewhere like Kansas. We’d battle the waves all day, only once taking a break for a milkshake and a burger. Of course, my mom wouldn’t let me back in the water for 30 minutes. Where did that insane moms’ urban legend come from?
But at night? This same Poplar Motel was the same two blocks from the boardwalk and the amazing Hunt’s Pier with the most fantastic rides in the world. The Golden Nugget! The Flyer Roller Coaster! The Scrambler!
And best of all? The Himalaya. On the Himalaya, you sat in a coach that went around and around and then midway through the ride it would stop and go backward. But what separated the Himalaya from all the other amusements was that it blasted the Top 40 tunes of the day and teenage girls would gather and dance the night away.
Hmm, I’m seeing a pattern here. Although I’m a Sea Isle guy now, nothing can ever take those Wildwood days away.
So here’s the point: Don’t take all that this state offers for granted. I know if you grew up in Collingswood or Cherry Hill, it might be difficult for you to imagine that there were once thousands of kids who dreamed of getting to New Jersey, but dream of it I did.
Now if I could just stay out of the way of the Tramcar.
Big Daddy Graham and his Two Funny Philly Guys partner, Joe Conklin, will be appearing at the Cape May Comedy Festival on Friday, July 26. For tickets, visit CMCFest.com.
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 4 (July, 2013).
For more info on South Jersey Magazine, click here.
To subscribe to South Jersey Magazine, click here.
To advertise in South Jersey Magazine, click here.