OCNJ Memories

I was now on my way as Philadelphians say, “Down the shore,” to Ocean City New Jersey. This was my annual, at least for the last seven years, one-week stay at an upstairs apartment that I rented from Nancy and Frank O'Connor. It was a block from the Ocean City boardwalk and beach.

“Down the shore” meant going from the Philadelphia area to any of the New Jersey beach communities; actually barrier islands. They stretched sixty-one miles, from Long Beach Island, 75 miles south of New York City, to Cape May, at the southernmost tip. I, and my older brother Glenn, had grown up as “shoebies” since just after World War II. People who lived at the Jersey shore, or vacationed there for a week or more, called people who came to the shore for one day “shoebies,” because the legend was that they came in their bathing suits and carried their lunches in a shoe box. 

As I proceeded north on Route 202 toward the Schuylkill Expressway, I put a CD into the player, searched for number 4, and turned up the volume. The song was well-known in Philadelphia and South Jersey, but not elsewhere: “On the Way to Cape May,” by Al Alberts, formerly the lead singer for the popular, in the 1950s, group “The Four Aces.”

- You looked so very pretty, when we met in Ocean City,

- Like someone, oh, so easy to adore.

- I sang this little ditty, on our way to Ocean City,

- Heading south along New Jersey’s shore.

The song, which is played every summertime Friday at 10:00 am by a popular Philly oldies radio station, then follows the pursuit of a spouse through the beach towns south of Ocean City: Sea Isle, Avalon, Stone Harbor, Wildwood, and Cape May, all connected by the beautiful Ocean Drive, which is a slow, island-hopping leisurely drive.

Crossing the Walt Whitman Bridge, I glanced to my left at the dilapidated SS United States, once a majestic passenger liner. Built to US Navy standards, it could cross the Atlantic at an average speed of almost 40 miles per hour. I looked ahead at the mostly flat New Jersey landscape. It was a wonderful view on a perfect day. Normally, Ocean City was two hours away, but I increased my speed to get there at least 20 minutes sooner.

After coming off the bridge, I continued on Route 42 and then onto the Atlantic City Expressway. I continued past shopping centers and farms, past pine tree forests that were like cliffs lining both sides of the four-lane highway. After going through the Great Egg Harbor toll booth plaza, I pulled my Mustang convertible onto the side of the highway. Screeching to a stop, I replaced the CD, undid the latches on the convertible top, and pressed the top down button. As the top moved, I envisioned the car transforming itself from a somewhat noisy, cramped, rough-riding vehicle into a lean, mean racing machine. Well, not quite, but after five cars passed, on their way to Atlantic City, or other Jersey Shore vacation resorts, I stomped on the gas.

As the tires squealed and the car quickly accelerated to 75, I took a deep breath and started to relax. Once again, I was on my way to my dream vacation in Ocean City, New Jersey, the only shore town I really felt comfortable in. The car seemed to know the rest of the way by heart. 

I eased the stock Mustang onto the Garden State Parkway South and stomped on the gas again to force my way into the steady stream of cars, most all on their way to take their weekend or weekly vacation rentals. It was the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, 2001, and I had reserved the second-floor apartment at the O'Connor’s for the week. It was a beautiful day and the week ahead promised more of the same. The traffic, mostly on its way to Ocean City, funneled off the Parkway and onto the crowded two-lane street that connected the highway to the Somers Point traffic circle about a mile away. Easing into the circle, I punched up a Beach Boys CD and turned the 400-watt stereo almost full on. 

As I exited the Garden State Parkway, I smiled as I thought about Somers Point, on the mainland across from Ocean City, and its drinking spots, fueled by summer crowds of almost all ages coming from the much larger Ocean City. I remembered the 1983 cult-classic movie, “Eddie and the Cruisers.” Set in 1964 and shot in Somers Point, many rock and roll music scenes were filmed inside Tony Mart’s, a Somers Point bar popular with the 18-28 crowd before it closed for good shortly after the filming was completed. This led me to reflect on my fraternity days, graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1964. While Penn had never been known as a party school, two or three nights a month my fraternity had parties with live rock bands, including Dicky Doo & the Don’ts, whose “Click Clack” was a minor hit in the late 50s.

I passed the Circle Liquor Store on the right, always a booming business, due to Ocean City being a dry town. Turning right off the circle, I entered Route 52, the 2.1 mile Stainton Memorial Causeway that most people called the 9th Street Bridge. I accelerated up the first drawbridge, and looked left at the big bayside restaurant; below were the Somers Point docks. I backed off the gas as I entered the metal grating of the drawbridge, and looked ahead at the outline of the bay side of Ocean City. Through the slight haze, I could see the Ferris wheel at Gillian’s Fun Deck, on the boardwalk at 6th Street, and straight ahead, I could see the venerable Flanders Hotel, built in 1923. I smiled as I thought back to my early days at IBM, when my customer was Atlantic City’s Boardwalk National Bank, which was headed by Elwood Kirkman. The Flanders Hotel was owned by Kirkman and he had lived in the top floor penthouse for many years.

Moving down the drawbridge, I entered the flat part of the causeway. The tide was low and I inhaled the pungent smell of the marsh gases, most likely caused by methane gas. I loved that smell, however offensive, because it clearly announced that I was at the shore. “Ahh,” I said aloud, and turned the Beach Boys “Surfin’ USA” up louder. The metal grating on the second drawbridge made a buzzing sound like a swarm of bees as I looked at the condos on the right. They had replaced Hogate’s Restaurant, where I had eaten as a child coming home on the one-day trips with my family.

I was now on 9th Street and in Ocean City! I turned left, heading north on Bay Avenue, passing more condos and then the bay docks with their Sailfish and jet ski rentals. I turned right onto 3rd Street, proceeded through too many stops signs, and then turned left on Atlantic Blvd. I turned right into a narrow alleyway, and then turned right into the O'Connor’s parking spot, next to their garage.

On the boardwalk, I noticed the dark suntanned college girl in a bikini, who was wearing designer sunglasses. She was checking beach tags at the steps down to the beach. I looked out to the stone jetty that reached out into the ocean like the blade of an electric hedge trimmer and saw a lone fisherman. I saw a family with two children, one being carried, walking through the dunes carrying chairs and towels, and onto the burning hot sand. I looked across the wide beach, much wider than in my childhood due to beach refurbishment, and at the black rock jetty; the waves gently kissing it like two women hugging hello. There was a cooling breeze coming from the relatively calm sea and the sky was turning from white to a robin's egg blue. I looked at my watch. It was 11:30 and the beach was already starting to get crowded on this perfect Labor Day weekend in Ocean City.

I turned right and headed down the boardwalk. At 4th Street, I stopped at Ove’s Restaurant and checked when they opened. Good, 5:00 pm; I wanted to get there before it opened, to be sure of getting a seat right against the boardwalk. I’d get my usual fillet of flounder, cole slaw, and corn on the cob tonight. Walking further, I passed the high school football field. It looked like there was going to be a football game there that night. I decided to check it out later.

I walked past Gillian’s Wonderland Pier, which wasn’t a pier at all; it had always been called Gillian’s Fun Deck. It had a high Ferris wheel, a log flume, and a kiddie roller coaster. But mostly it had kiddie rides. The steel curtains at the front were part way up; Gillian’s would open at noon. 

I passed 7th Street and walked up to Mack and Mancos Pizza, the first of three on the boardwalk. I sat on the first seat inside the door and ordered two slices and a Coke. As I waited, I stared at two well-tanned and well-developed teenagers who were giggling and leaning over the counter that faced the boardwalk. They were flirting with the twenty something guy who was taking their order. 

The pizza came and I reflected on how, that night, there would be lines across the boardwalk for people waiting for Mack and Mancos, while pizza shops two doors away would have only a few customers. I relaxed, enjoyed my pizza, and issued an almost audible "Ahh."

Little did I know that one sentence soon to be pointed out to me in a book would change my life. Little did I know that two different groups related to the legacy of my paternal grandfather, archaeologist Dr. Clarence S. Fisher, would threaten my life. Little did I know that I, Steve Fisher, computer guy, grandfather, ordinary guy, might impact history.