Monday, June 25, 2012


My mother's parents are a bit of a mystery to me.

I do not remember my mother's mother. She died in a freakish accident when I was in utero. She drowned just off the beach in Brigantine, NJ.

My mother's father was a large, loud Irishman. But my memories of him are clouded by his illness—we'd now call it dementia—that often left him belligerent and a little scary for a kid to interact with.

My Dad’s dad, my Pop-pop, looms hugely in my recollections of my childhood.

I’m sure my memory of him is absolutely colored by the mist of time and sentiment. I’m sure he had his bad days, his failures, his faults. But as kids, we never saw them. All we saw was the impish man who was quick with his stories, complete with G-rated variations for when the kids were around, which was often; generous with his laugh; firm with his handshake; and straightforward with his opinions.

He’s gone now. Cut down by cancer in the mid-1980s. A crappy ending to a guy who deserved better.

But the stories remain.

For instance, I closely associate him in my mind with the New Jersey shore.

My parents fell in love with The Shore, and we rented the same apartment there for decades: 3859 Asbury Avenue, Second Floor, Ocean City, New Jersey.

This was a ramshackle apartment, two bedrooms, and not one amenity that the multimillion-dollar shore homes nowadays sport. The furniture was Early American Garage Sale, and the apartment had no washer-dryer facilities, no color TV, and no air-conditioning. The carpet was threadbare, the artwork that adorned the walls was of the paint-by-number seascape variety, and daily, we had to puff our way up a rickety staircase, perhaps two-dozen steps or so, for entry and exit.

But we loved it. Every square inch.

And much of the fun of this second-floor hideaway came when Nana, Pop-pop, and Grammom would come to visit. "Grammom" was my father's father's mother. My great-grandmother.

Eight of us huddled in this nest, sweating away, escaping to the beach and the surf at every opportunity, partaking of shore delights like boardwalk rides and salt-water taffy, having the time of our lives.

Pop loved the shore. I’m certain that my own dad received his appreciation for the beach from his father, just as he passed it down to me. Pop’s shore-stories were doozies:

  • He’d talk about, when he and Nana were dating, they would take the train from Philadelphia to Atlantic City for day trips. And how visitors rented swimsuits. Woolen swim suits. He described the unique challenge of trying to shimmy into a wet, woolen swimsuit—wet because, more often than not, a renter had just vacated the same suit moments before and returned it to the vendor for re-rent. 

  • And how once, in Atlantic City, he was almost ticketed for indecent exposure. He’d been fishing that morning and agreed to catch up with the rest of the family on the beach in the afternoon. For convenience’s sake, he wore his bathing suit under his fishing outfit. When he arrived at the beach and began to lower his pants, a nearby group of women were so shocked and dismayed at the apparent flashing that was about to assault their virginal eyes, they ran to a policeman on the boardwalk. Pop had a lot of explaining to do that day. 

  • And how, when he and Nana (Dad's mother; his wife) and their friends would go to Atlantic City and spend the day on the beach, they would then use one of the many available bathhouses to change and “walk the boards” at night. Strolling the various shops and piers on the boardwalk in those days required full dress: jacket, tie, and straw hat for men; long dresses and parasols for the ladies. Easter Sunday, too, was a big day for the boardwalk for Nana and Pop-pop, dressed to the nines for a Boardwalk Easter Parade right out of the MGM musical. 

  • And when we’d complain about shore traffic, how, when he was a kid, there were no bridges over the Delaware River. Ferries carried cars from the Pennsylvania side to the New Jersey side, and on Sunday nights in July and August, the line of cars waiting for these ferries would stretch for miles, sunburnt kids snoring in rumble seats in flivver after flivver. 

  • And how once, on a return train trip to Philadelphia from a day of crabbing—with a creel full of snapping, clawing, crustaceans—one of the critters escaped and began scuttling down the center aisle. And how this escapee eventually made his displeasure at being removed from his briny home known by clamping down on the Achilles’ tendon of a unsuspecting passenger, who let loose with a scream that sent the entire car into turmoil. 
But Pop wasn’t all about what had happened long-ago at the shore. He was also a part of what was happening right there and during these shore vacations. The shore with Pop was the ultimate. It was a place we already loved, augmented, if that’s even possible, by an element—him—that made it even more fun.

Pop rose early at the shore, and while on vacation with us there, he had a morning ritual that we didn’t much understand: Without fail, before his breakfast, he had a shot of what I think was Scotch but that he referred to only as “hooch.” He did this only on vacation at the shore (not that he was a teetotaler, but he certainly didn’t drink every day—much less every morning!), and when asked why, he always supplied the same answer: “It gets rid of the collywobbles.”

Now, we kids never knew what the collywobbles were, and we were sure that none of us had been afflicted with them, but Pop was convinced that “the water” at the shore would give them to you unless you fought them off with hooch.

“But Pop, you’ve never gotten the collywobbles at the shore!” we’d point out.

“See? It works!” he’d counter.

Some mornings, post-hootch, Pop and Dad would go surf fishing. In the morning darkness (they didn’t want to turn lights on and risk waking everyone), the two of them would stumble around the tiny apartment, stage-whispering (they didn’t want to talk full-voice and risk waking everyone).

The 3859 apartment had a battered chest of drawers in the living room. One of the drawers in this chest was infamous for the loud raspberry it issued at every pull: “Braaaaaap!”

And without fail, this drawer would be assigned to Pop for storage of his clothing and other travel items.

So he and Dad would flounder around, dressing quickly, gathering their fishing gear, knocking into furniture, and shushing each other. And with the predictability of Fibber McGee’s closet, Pop would invariably pull that drawer: “Braaaaaap!” If we weren’t awakened by the din of them trying to be so quiet, the screech of chest would be the kicker.

Thank goodness they were trying to be quiet!

One murky morning, he and Dad arose, bumbled through their dressing, took all the paraphernalia out and readied it, grimaced at the “Braaaaaap!” that shattered the early morning silence, and headed out the door. Just before stepping out onto the back porch, Pop grabbed his fishing hat, a brimmed, flat-topped yellow oval of well-loved “lucky” cloth.

Mom was awake at that point (how could she not be?), and she watched them from the window next to her bed. They made their way across the alley and then across the far street and were headed to a set of stairs that bridged the bulkhead to the beach, long fishing poles and tackle-boxes bobbing with every step.

To the west, the sky was dark and ominous. As soon as the intrepid fishermen reached the top step, just prior to their descent to the beach, an earth-shattering bolt of lightning electrified the island. And, worse, the skies opened with teeming gray rain.

They turned on their heels and immediately became players in a Laurel and Hardy short. They valiantly tried to maneuver their fishing poles around each other to navigate the about-face and then scrambled back down the handful of steps and scurried back to the apartment, sloshing through the sheets of rain that were pounding down.

Drenched, they took to the huge staircase at flank speed, thundering up quickly in an attempt to escape the deluge. They exploded into the kitchen, drenched to the skin, and dropped their tackle boxes and poles in a heap.

They stood there in silence for a moment, catching their breath and recovering from the shock of the cold rain.

“Not a very good beach day, I’m afraid,” Pop wisecracked. And as he did, he tipped his head forward and a small rivulet of rainwater drained from the flat-top of his fishing hat, pouring onto his shoes in a long, noisy patter.

The sleeping arrangements at 3859 were cramped at best. Mom and Dad had the “master” bedroom, such that it was, and the second bedroom held my brothers, Nana, and Grammom.

That left Pop and me in the living room.

The living room at 3859 was equipped with a sofa-bed, but the term should be applied loosely. That piece of furniture failed both as a sofa and as a bed. As a sofa, the seat cushions sagged miserably. We have numerous photos of the gang of us seated there, slumped cheek-to-cheek. What these photos don’t reveal is that our close proximity wasn’t staged for the camera or the result of a harmonious moment of family unity; it was, instead, a natural outcome of the limp cushions and battle-fatigued springs!

The sofa’s second significant drawback as a sitting device was its material: “stylish” 1950s-vogue vinyl. In the heat of those August evenings, we who sat thereupon to watch TV or read often stuck fast to the back, virtually sealed in place by gluey sweat.

But it was a loser as a bed, too, being nicknamed “the rack” by those of us who endured 8–10 hours of darkness spread-eagle upon it, chasing elusive sleep while its center support bar threatened to cut through not only the mattress but also a few vertebrae, like a wire through a block of cheese.

Pop and I faced this torture-chamber device nightly. Sleep was often difficult, but the exhaustion that resulted from a day of running, swimming, playing, biking, hiking, and other shore-time activities usually prevailed, allowing us to be carried away… eventually.

There were times, though, when staying asleep was a challenge. One simmering night, Pop and I were snoring away, when the dark, quiet apartment exploded with a blinding flash of lightning. It was as if the Almighty were wielding a camera with a flash attachment the size of Cincinnati. Within seconds, this awe-inspiring illumination was punctuated by a bone-rattling boom of thunder that tossed us from the sofa-bed and sent us scrambling.

The apartment was being blown with a gale force; every one of the window shades was at full attention, standing 90o out. Newspapers, comic books, magazine sheets, and other loose items were being tossed willy-nilly by its power.

We dashed for the windows, but before we could reach them, the rain started, a virtual wall of water descending from the sky in a gush.

The storm stomped and marched outside our tiny apartment like a monster from a Stephen King story.

Sleeping on The Rack was bad enough. Sleeping on the rack with Armageddon right outside our windows was impossible.

We huddled in that dark apartment feeling like we were the only people alive and watched the hellish night. Eventually, the storm passed, and sometime before dawn, sleep carried us away.

One of my favorite “chores” with Pop—something we did, just he and I, just about every morning on vacation—was walk to a nearby bakery for “cakes.” I never understood that terminology, but it was a catch-all for various breakfast goodies like donuts and cinnamon buns and such. Cakes.

The bakery was an old-time German bakery using old-time German recipes and staffed with old-time German workers, the Leuschner Family. Oompah music played in the background, and the counter-help wore traditional German garb and still carried their hard-clipped Teutonic accents with them. Intricate cuckoo clocks hung on the walls. Being an old-time German himself, Pop loved it there.

I accompanied him not only because it was a fun thing to do and because what we brought home was always delicious but also because it was financially advantageous to do so.

First off, when Pop announced that we were going, Dad would slip me some money, whispering, “I want this to be my treat. Pop paid for cakes yesterday and the day before and the day before that. Don’t let him pay for them today.”

“Okay Dad,” I’d say, pocketing the $10 bill he pressed into my palm.

And on the way, just about the time we could breathe in air that was thickening with the scent of sugar and flour and shortening and fruit spreads and nuts, Pop would ask, “Did your father give you money for cakes?”

“Yup, Pop-pop, he did.”

“Well, let’s reach a little agreement, you and I: Let’s have you keep that money in your pocket for the boardwalk tonight or for some ice cream or a kite or whatever you want. And let’s just tell your dad we used his money for the cakes. And instead of using your money, we’ll use mine. Okay?”

Well that was certainly okay with me!

The other fortuitous occurrence that would happen on these walks is that he’d find money. Or rather, he’d direct me to find money.

We’d walk along the sidewalk, and he’d point to the gutter: “Danny, there’s a dollar bill. Go get it.” “Danny, there’s a fifty-cent piece. Pick it up.” “Danny, is that a quarter by the storm drain? It’s yours.”

I was always in disbelief. The guy’s luck was incredible.

In my teen years, I caught on: Pop planted those bills. On the walk to the bakery, he’d surreptitiously drop a bill here and a coin there. So that on the walk from the bakery, I’d reap the benefits. But those were teenage sensibilities, brought on by a relationship that had developed beyond the Pop-pop stage and onto the Pop stage. In the realm of Pop-pop, he was as mystical and magical as any storybook creation.

Butter cake. I remember huge family discussions revolving around the Leuschner Dutch Oven Bakery’s butter cake. We would be in the store, me with my nose pressed up on the glass, selecting cream donuts, coconut donuts, chocolate-sprinkled donuts. And Pop would ask: “What about a butter cake? Should we get one for dessert for dinner tonight.”

“I don’t know, Pop-pop. We had one last night…”

“Yeah, wasn’t it delicious?” And to the counter girl serving us: “Throw a butter cake into that bag, why don’tcha?”

And after we returned home, Mom or Dad would inspect the booty. “Another butter cake?”

Pop beamed: “Ooh, that counter-girl. I told her not to put one in our bag! Danny, how did the counter-girl screw up our order again?” He would nudge me conspiratorially.

“I don’t know, Pop-pop…”

“Oh, I remember,” he said. “Butter cake was free today with any purchase,” he lied.

Many evening meals at our beach bungalow of my boyhood ended with butter cake.

Pop’s ability to find loose change and dollar bills (the ones he didn’t plant for the benefit of his grandson) was legendary. And during one trip to the boardwalk, it backfired on him.

Pop was walking with us on the boards, taking in the cool ocean breezes and engaging in some window-shopping. He was loosely holding my hand, when he happened to note a dollar bill stuck to one of the boards.

“Look at that! I found a—” His crow at his good fortune was interrupted by a quick, shrill whistle from a group of teenagers leaning innocently against the boardwalk railing. And in a z-z-zip that lasted only a blink, the bill disappeared into a crack between boards, just seconds before Pop could snag it.

The teens exploded in laughter.

Pop knew he had been victimized by a practical joke, and he chuckled confusedly, but his curiosity compelled him to find out exactly how he’d been bamboozled. He walked over to the teens, only to find a second crew emerging from beneath the boards—one of them with a dollar bill in hand.

He then made the necessary connections to figure out how he had been scammed: The undercover crew pushed the bill up in the slit between two boards and held it there. The above-ground pranksters watched for an innocent victim. Just when the bill was within reach, a warning whistle would issue forth, cueing the bill-holder to quickly pull the bait back to safety. The mark was left to quizzically wonder how his luck had escaped right before his eyes.

Once Pop was in on the trick, he stood there for quite a while after, watching other rubes fall for the sleight-of-hand and doubling over, with the teens, as the bill disappeared time after time.

He loved a good joke, especially a practical joke, and never so more than when it was on him!

I learned so much from my Pop-pop. How to laugh. How to tell stories. How to look for money in the gutter. How to love butter cake.

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