Glued to the television during the last quarter of 2012 as events unfolded, the senatorial and presidential debates and triumphs, Hurricane Sandy, the northeaster, and then the tragedy and long mourning in Newtown, Conn., I had a mid-course emotional reaction, a sadness which now seems rather trivial.
At the height of Sandy, while watching the boardwalk at Atlantic City break up piece by piece and float out to sea, memories of childhood summers spent there visiting my grandmother floated in on a tide of nostalgia — even the old song, On The Boardwalk in Atlantic City. It was August in the mid-1930s, when I was six years old, that I remember in curious detail.
My parents and decade-older siblings were traveling (out west? to Europe?) and I was packed off to join tiny, nearsighted Nanny at the Hotel President, some distance away from the elegant hotels, Claridge’s and the Chalfront, where high tea reigned. After breakfast Nanny would let me help her arrange the smooth mysteriously marked tiles for her daily day-long game of mahjong. Then she’d give me a purse full of coins and say, in effect, “Go have a good time on the boardwalk dear. Come back for lunch. And don’t go near the water!”
I would immediately buzz the elevator, wait for its 16-year-old operator Dick McCormick whom I had a crush on, then take it to the basement. From there I would walk carefully over the slippery white tiles and out the wide opening of the hotel to the beach. After a glance at the forbidden ocean (and the handsome lifeguards) I would trot up the wooden steps to paradise.
Money in my pocket, freedom in my heart, maybe devil in my eye, I’d begin my magic morning. First stop: Fralinger’s Salt Water Taffy. Second: Skeeball, the game I thought I excelled at, getting the little ball into the 100 hole over and over. Third: the Steele Pier.
This welcoming structure held delicious terror and awe for me. Heading down a narrow stairway I’d enter the vast world of Davy Jones’s Locker. Undersea creatures, bold, clandestine and huge, seemed to emerge, suddenly sweeping toward me. My nose was pressed to their glass tank waterscapes and I’d invariably recoil. Then, after climbing to the top of the tank, I’d watch breathlessly as a young woman, then another, snapped her heels and plunged on her steed into the water far below.
Afterwards, I might walk further, to the Million Dollar Pier, where I recall ballroom dancing, the waltzers’ gowns not as beautiful as my mother’s satin and velvet ones which I often helped her pack in her steamer trunk for voyages. Then I’d drop in at an auction house or two, a bit baffled by the vigorous betting for carpets, jewelry and paintings (who would want them?). I’d be sure to save time to climb up into the high Elephant House, imagining I was a conqueror of some far-off continent. This was all before lunch.
Afternoons, with more coins and encouragement from Nanny who had full confidence in my ability to read, write, make change (and have judgment?), I’d set off again, perhaps riding in a scratchy seated rolling chair pushed by a gentleman of color, and attend a movie (no PG 13 or X-ratings then) that made little sense to a six-year-old, but had awesome scenes like Hedy Lamar rising naked out of a small pond (Ecstasy). Luckily, no gambling casinos had yet opened!
Imagine that scene today? My trusting grandmother would have been excoriated by my parents (I never told them, somehow knowing it should be my heady secret and hoping for a repeat when I’d be seven). I was obviously a privileged child. I knew I was loved and protected — overprotected at home in Baltimore after the Lindbergh kidnapping (probably one of the only unimaginable crimes of 1932). At three, I pulled the sheet tight over my head at night for months, lying flat so the man whom I feared would raise the ladder to my window wouldn’t see me.
At six years old, Atlantic City was my ticket to the circus. I attended alone, safely each day, and my confidence in life and its adventures to come burgeoning. I decided I wanted to live by the sea and travel as did my favorite girl series fictional heroines, Susannah of the Yukon and Beverly Gray who went to the Orient, a journey far beyond local super-sleuth Nancy Drew. They and Atlantic City surely set me on a path to becoming a peripatetic Pollyanna and nature nut, if not a poet and activist, too.
Decades and careers later, some involving very conflicted downbeat stuff, I’m still an optimist. Except when I’m reading in the USA Today (12/27) that a majority of Americans oppose banning assault weapons. Or when I’m wondering what each of the 20 children for whom the bells tolled at year’s end, the smiling Charlotte, Ana, Madeline, Grace, Daniel, Noah and the others whose faces shone from newspapers and TV sets daily, were dreaming, thinking and planning when they awoke that fateful Newtown morning. I would like to believe that by New Year’s Day they were walking on a boardwalk in heaven.