I’ve been dredging my life for recollections to include in a memoir, which will come out in October with the title Where the Light Fell. Here’s a memory from one of the annual trips my family in Atlanta made to visit relatives in Philadelphia. I was ten years old at the time.
One summer, to give us relief from Philadelphia’s heat, Mother drives us to Ocean City, New Jersey—“America’s favorite family resort,” the billboards proclaim. She feels safe there because the Methodist ministers who founded the town passed a law that alcohol could never be served or sold.
While we are driving across New Jersey, Mother decides that my brother Marshall and I need haircuts. She pulls into a parking lot beside a white frame building with a barber pole out front, a red-and-white-striped cylinder spins around and around like a giant candy cane. When the door opens we see eight men sitting in chairs waiting, and only two barber chairs, both empty. “Oh, sorry, it looks like you’re busy today,” Mother says, and starts to leave.
“No, no, not at all,” the barber replies, jumping up and adjusting his white apron. “These are just friends passing the time. Come right in. Your boys are next.”
I climb in the barber chair and notice that the barber’s hands are shaking. He runs the electric razor over my head and I feel a sharp nick. “Ow!” I yell. “That hurts!” Mother shoots me a disapproving, behave-yourself look. It happens again, and then again. Each time I yelp, and each time I get that look. I pull my hand out from under the cloth, reach up, and feel blood.
Just then the door opens and three policemen walk in with their hands on their holsters. “Don’t anybody move,” the biggest one says. “You’re all coming with me.”
It turns out that the barber shop is a front for an illegal bookie joint, where gamblers bet on horses. Everybody in the area knows it, and no one goes there for a haircut. The “barber” is the main bookmaker. Now my mother has to explain how she, in a car with a Georgia license plate, just happened to end up at that particular barber shop in New Jersey. Whatever she says must satisfy the officer, because he lets us go.
At last I get some sympathy for the ordeal of my ragged haircut, which has left me with razor burns and at least four bleeding nicks. The best part comes next. Women at the beauty shop next door have been standing outside watching the police raid, and a kind beautician offers to cut my brother’s hair. I tease Marshall for weeks about going to a beauty shop.
After we escape from the barber and complete our drive to the coast, my first glimpse of the ocean takes my breath away. I want the scene to freeze for a second so I can take in the view, but nonstop waves break one after another in curls of white. The sea seems to stretch out forever, and off in the distance I see an ocean freighter headed for another continent. Suddenly I feel small, very aware of how little I know about the world.
Eager as a puppy, I change into a bathing suit and dash into the water, only to jump back, startled by the cold and the tug of undertow on my legs. Each wave leaves a deposit of sand and shells and foam, and then, with a sound like a flushing toilet, tries to slurp it all back into the sea. I wade out a little farther, lean back, and let the current carry me. Gradually I learn the calm spots just beyond the waves, where I can float in peace, gazing at puffy clouds in the blue sky above. I lick my lips and taste salt.
Every time I duck under the water, my head stings in four places, like tiny needles embedded in my scalp.
At night, the famous Ocean City boardwalk beckons. A searchlight plays back and forth across the sky like a giant windshield wiper. A sign at one pizza place promises a hundred pizzas to anyone who can eat one of their giant concoctions in less than fifteen minutes. Half the food is new to me: funnel cakes, frozen custard, caramel popcorn, stromboli, and something called saltwater taffy.
Marshall and I explore the boardwalk’s amusement park. Marshall leads me to bumper cars, and we speed around and smash each other so hard that the manager orders us to leave. Next we try the Ferris wheel. We go high in the air, and when the wheel stops to let in passengers at the bottom, our seat sways in the cool night breeze. Far below lies the ocean, black as the sky, its waves shining in the moonlight like bands of snow.
Beneath the stars, off in the distance I barely make out the lights of Atlantic City. All that evening, women in skimpy sequined outfits on our boardwalk have been handing out pamphlets about the evil twin of Ocean City, a few miles up the coast. People drink liquor there, and gamble, Mother has warned us. I look at it with longing because I’ve heard about its animal shows with trained sea lions, boxing cats, and dogs that do tricks on a trampoline. Best of all, Atlantic City’s Steel Pier has a world-famous diving horse.
A man at the amusement park tells me he’s seen the show. “That dumb horse walks up a ramp—oh, I dunno, maybe some sixty feet in the air. It stands there on a platform trying not to look around until a pretty woman jumps on its back. It don’t even have a saddle. Then, with her clinging on bareback, the thing dives headfirst off the platform into a twelve-foot pool of water. I seen it with my own eyes.”
Oh, how I want to see that fearless horse! Yet, like the rest of Atlantic City, it remains tantalizingly out of reach.
This story, along with many others, had to be cut in order to keep the memoir a manageable length. As I include it here, I wonder what family vacation scenes stand out from your childhood?
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