I can only imagine what the town looks like now in the wake of Sandy, given that the entire New Jersey coast was effectively torn apart. Cape May Point, a miniscule community that sits at the very southern tip of the state, must have seen the worst of it and could never have been adequately prepared. The event took me back. When I was a kid, we spent a couple of weeks on two successive years at the Point and it was one of those experiences that stay with you for a lifetime.
Just by chance, I had recalled those days several months ago in a book I’m now in the midst of writing that takes a look at the 1950s. Below is a small portion of that section that offers a view of the better days of a time and place that are surely gone.
In August of 1954 my dad took advantage of an offer made to clergy and rented part of a beach house at Cape May Point, and on the heels of a six-hour drive from a small town in upstate New York, the family moved in for a two-week stay. We did this on two summers, and on a third we spent a like amount of time in Ventnor, another beach town that was literally within walking distance of the Atlantic City boardwalk.
Cape May Point was and is a classic small-town-on-the-beach that lives and dies on tourism. On both occasions we stayed in a three-story clapboard house that was back from a narrow asphalt street and a sand dune from the beach itself. We were on a flat on the second floor, while my grandparents were on the ground floor. On the living room table was Mom’s book for the stay, “The Caine Mutiny.”
The uniform of the day and every day was a T-shirt and a pair of swimming trunks, whether or not we actually went into the water – which required parental supervision. We could all swim, but our experience in Atlantic surf was non-existent for all practical purposes. Shoes remained in the closet.
We did not spend a lot of time in the water proper, thanks largely to the floor of the ocean being rough and necessarily shapeless, with the result that you couldn’t reliably gain a sense of depth and where you were. For the most part, it was a matter of going in up to your waist, and then retreating to dry sand, which was notably coarse. Farther back and nearer the street the sand was of a finer grade.
More to our liking was the opportunity to explore. Still remaining from World War II were concrete structures that were used for observation and a modicum of defense against U-boats and the always-feared enemy landings. Now a decade after the war, those decaying structures that were left were ideal for our own battles where we could rebuff imagined attacks on the homeland.
But there was an unexpected problem. Being 12, I didn’t have a clue what poison ivy looked like, but into the second week, Mauri (my older brother) and I saw the results on our feet and ankles. Those trips to the bunkers had taken us into fields of the stuff. Even then, we found that “you’re gonna need an ocean, of calamine lotion,” as the Coasters’ song of the ‘50s suggested. The itching blisters did not go away over night, and we considered ourselves suitably cautioned to avoid the area with the red and green leaves along the ground.
Concrete was also the material used in an amazing ship that lay in sections a quarter-mile from the shore. Called the S.S. Atlantus – that was the spelling that was used – the ship had been used to ferry troops back from Europe following World War I and had broken free from its moorings up the coast in Cape May (proper) in 1926. It had ran aground and the hull was fractured.
“Could we take a small boat out to the ship and check it out?” we asked. Not hardly.
One of the towns up the coast was called Wildwood, which we assumed was deliberately named because we were not allowed to go there. A half-dozen years ago I met a woman in a local bar who had lived there and she said the reputation – or our assumptions – was well-founded. Had I been in the area, say a number of years later, I’m betting I would have loved the place.
In that environment of sand, baseball continued, both in the street and in the words of my grandfather. We played on the two-lane road in front of the house, with bases that were obscure, at best. In those limited conditions we settled for just two, plus an imaginary home plate. There was a neighbor kid who hailed who had come down from the New York area, and whose specialty was calling each game, crying out, “And now, for the New York Giants, Number 24, Willie Ma-a-a-a-a-y-y-y-y-y-s-s-s-s-s!!” He did not seem to be familiar with heroes of the Brooklyn Dodgers – my favorites – but it was O.K., and the fans weren’t complaining.
My grandfather, who did not play, talked a great game instead.
Like my dad, Harry Shimp was a career preacher who had served a series of churches in western Pennsylvania, all of them in small villages, with the exception of a church in a suburb of Pittsburgh. I always found it comfortable that he was a “man of the cloth,” after my dad’s calling (a word or expression that has a significantly deeper value in the religious context).
He was an easy guy to love, and I did, especially after those marvelous talks – which he did the most of – on the front porch of the first-floor flat. Grandpa Shimp shared my love of the game and shared my pleasure in simply talking about it in the most vivid terms possible.
He was a life-long fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates and could recall in great detail the actions and players of the team for decades before I was born. And that meant that he had, well, vigorous opinions on how the game was played, the decisions of managers, unnecessary errors (if any are), down to how broadcasters called a game. And this was shaded with a hint of racial bias that would on occasion surface: He wasn’t so sure about the then current Dodgers’ phenom, Jackie Robinson – the “colored players” tended to perform with less energy in the summer heat, he said; an up-and-coming second baseman for the Pirates had “ape-like” arms.
No excuses, but it was the 1950s and we all had a lot to learn, including one of the kindest men I have ever known.
We talked – again, I mostly listened – about how to run the bases: Indian-style, he said, with your toes pointed inward. He showed me the scars on his leg that he claimed were the result getting in the way of a sliding base-runner. He lamented that the Pirates could win it all if it weren’t for that fumbling manager. The announcer for the Pirates, Bob Prince — who I rather enjoyed — was hardly a match, he said, against his predecessor, Rosey Rowswell. Rowswell, according to Grandpa, would dramatize a home-run (hit by the Pirates, of course) as “Open the back window, Aunt Millie!” – then there was the sound of breaking glass — “Too late, Aunt Millie!”
Later on, he taught me how to score games: You wrote down the numbers “6-3” in the appropriate box if the batter grounded to the shortstop, who subsequently threw him out at first.
Nights at the beach were like that, and I could never get enough. Harry Shimp had an adoring and rapt audience of one, and I know he enjoyed it as much as I did.
In fact, that was best of it after the sun sank over the western side of Delaware Bay. As darkness began to prevail, the Point seemed even more remote, with the breeze and the surf on the other side of the dunes the only real sounds. A reality show was what you saw and felt through the screen door.
But it’s gone now. All of it. Or at least it’s in the huge process of being revived and re-built. Over the years I’ve often thought about going back for a nostalgic look; now I’ll just have to wait a little longer. But the memories? Indestructible.