Fast forwarding just a year would bring me a second opportunity to experience the thrill of flight. Each year, the Eilenbergs would throw caution to the wind and spend a week at the southern New Jersey beaches, usually Wildwood Crest.
With a year’s lead time squandered, the Sunday near August 5th, we would pack up the Buick with a porcelain potty, sunscreen, a handful of copper sandwiched quarters, hardboiled eggs with gray yolks and plenty of Carnation nonfat powdered milk. We were clearly ready to PARTY! We would have left on Saturday, but preparations were too involved. Come Sunday morning, I would stand by the kitchen’s phone station and remind my mother that we probably should call for a motel reservation. She would smile at me, undoubtedly thinking “look at the monkey trying to communicate with me! I wonder what he is saying…?” I would add: “Mom, remember last year, and the year before…we had to stay at a crap motel that hated kids… can’t we call ahead…?” She would say “Steven! Don’t say crap! That’s a bad word!” My father overheard and added “Steven! Stop whining! We like to go with the flow…” I would repeat “Come on! Just call! I’ll call! Let’s stay somewhere cool, like the Admiral. I hate the Barnacle Motel! The janitor smelled like hotdogs and liked taking my picture”.
Mary: “You never told me that”.
Me: “He let me play pinball for free when no one was around.”
David: “Mary, think of the quarters we saved.”
Mary : “David..?!”
Me: “Canni call?…PLLLEEEZZZE?”
David: “I’m not gunna tell you again!”
Me: “Tell me WHAT?”
David: “Don’t you raise your voice! Do you hear me? Do you hear me? Do you hear me?!”
Me: “Yeah, I heard you the first time.”
David: “Get in the car!”
Mary: “Karen, did you find your shoes?”
Susan: “There’s not enough room for my books!”
Mary: “Karen, did you find your shoes?”
Meanwhile, our black but graying dog, Lady, was cowering. You see, dogs don’t understand much language, but they know a few words (walk, food, eat, vet, and get out of here). Killing time, David was repeatedly asking Lady if she wanted to go to the vet. He said it like this: “Who wants… who wants…who wants to go for a wwwwa…. who wants to go to the VET!!!!!” Lady would initially shake her head and snort, thinking a walk was coming. Hearing VET, she froze, turned, shivered then ran. She ran into rooms in which she was not allowed. This momentary indiscretion resulted in David yelling “Get outta there, you mutt!”. He would then fold up the New York Times and swat her a few times. At this point, she would crouch down, whine, shiver some more and perhaps urinate. Dr. Nestles, the Vet, was not only a stupid man but would kennel dogs in stacks of cages meant for cats and miniatures. There would be no play time. A normal sized dog could barely turn around but could break a tail on the metal bars. I know this because we returned once to find Lady’s tail bent and in a cast. Not actually a cast, but her tail wrapped in about 5 rolls of sticky white tape. Her tail had been turned into a softball bat!
Knowing that Karen’s shoes were not forthcoming, David would take Lady to the vet, the long way. When he returned, there were no shoes, just bored cranky kids already starting to fight.
Susan: “MOM! Steven’s bothering!”
Mary: “What’s he doing now…!”
Susan: “He’s looking at me…”
Me: “Why would I want to look at such a freak?”
Karen: “Mom! Steven’s bothering!”
Mary: “What’s he doing…?”
Karen: “ He’s looking at me!”
Me: “Why would I want to hurt my eyes?”
Mary: “Karen, did you find your shoes?”
Karen: “Why do you keep asking me that?”
Mary: “OK, David’s back. Is everyone ready?”
Karen: “Wait! I can’t find my shoe.”
And so on and so forth, until we left.
Soon, we would pass TWA (Totowa-Wayne Airport). Moments later, the Thomas’ factory, where they made English muffins. Before you knew it, we were on the New Jersey Parkway, heading for the Jersey shores. It now being 2 pm, there was bumper to bumper traffic for the duration.
There were three diversions forthcoming. First, along the way, we took turns throwing quarters (copper sandwiched quarters) into the toll booths. All four children took after their father’s extraordinary athletic prowess. We averaged one quarter in for every three tossed. Consequently, we were responsible for scurrying like crabs on the oily asphalt to fetch our errant change. I took the opportunity to grab extra quarters littering the ground. This would give me additional opportunities to suck at pinball and if a Good Humor truck happened by, I was ready!
Diversion two was the white enamel, black rimmed toilet pan. This was generally brought out from under the passenger seat soon after a bathroom stop was requested, regardless of the availability of an actual rest stop toilet. David would stop on the shoulder and the pan was placed on the ground, towards the rear right salt pitted chrome bumper for all the world to see. To this day, I’m still not sure what this was about!
Diversion three was a prolonged drive by a series of spewing factory smoke-stacks in mid-Jersey. It went like this:
David: “You kids smell that? Do you know what those factories make?”
Us: (In unison) “Ummm…”
David: “Stink! They’re Stink factories. Guess what they make?”
David: “They make stink. That’s what New Jersey is famous for!”
Me: “Ummm…why did we move here?”
David: “We moved from Cleveland, where you were born!”
Me: “Did Cleveland stink too?”
David: “Uh huh… We only live in stinky places”.
Me: “But why did we move here?”
David: “So you could be close to your relatives.”
Karen: “What’s a relative?”
David: “What’s a relative!.. (exasperated), Mary!..”
Mary: “Your aunts and uncles.., your cousins.., they are your relatives!”
Me: “But dad makes fun of them…”
David: “What did you say?!” “What did you say?!” “Do you want me to take my belt off? Do you? Do you? Do you?”
Me: (quietly) “I don’t know, do I?”
David would unbuckle and in one smooth motion swing the belt towards the back seat. I don’t intend to paint a picture of practiced athleticism as the car would swerve madly across the lanes and sometimes onto a soft shoulder during these outbursts. Horns would sometimes blare but inside the car, it was stunned silence and a din of AM radio news.
David: Whhip! “Don’t talk back to me!” whhap! “Don’t talk back to me!” Whhap, whapp! “Don’t talk back to me!”
Arms smarting, face red with anger, I would glare back at him in the rearview mirror. Never did a 3-hour drive seem so long!
We would arrive in Wildwood Crest around 5 pm and on cue, the neon “No Vacancy” signs would light up as we approached. Did they remember us from last year? Undeterred, we idled in front of one lobby entrance after another.
Mary would emerge from lobby after another, her posture and red head each time telegraphing a resigned “no”. Dog-eared Mobile guide in hand, we pressed on to motels with fewer and fewer stars. In desperation, David told us to duck down as Mary soldiered on to the last one-star motel. Once ensconced in a dank, sticky, dingy room, they would order up a cot and crib with apologies to management for not mentioning 3 cranky and one bruised children. Susan and Karen got the second twin bed. Susan was all too aware of Karen’s bedwetting habit and slept on top of the scratchy, threadbare, nubby bedspread. Sarah was in the crib and I got the aluminum framed, urine soaked, sagging cot. Nursing the welts on my arms, I fingered the oily quarters lifted earlier in the day from the toll booths. What I didn’t spend on pinball, I would spend in the room getting a bed massage.You had to feed the chrome control two quarters for a vigorous 5 minute, non-therapeutic vibrating bed shake.
Fast forward to a side trip to Atlantic City, which was crappy even before Trump’s casino arrived there. We would pass on the hot dog and hamburger shops. After all, we had powdered skim milk and bananas back at the motel. We lingered in front of the Mr. Peanut shop, where they roasted peanuts and made peanut butter. The smell was intoxicating, but Dr. David said that they used too much salt. We stopped at the Salt Water Taffy shop and watched the robotic stainless steel machines pulling the breakfast cereal colored taffy round and around on metal armatures. Mary was allowed to buy us a satchel of this horrid crap, proving to themselves that they were indulging our every wish.
Remembering from previous years how much we hated salt water taffy, all but Karen would stop at one. If we lobbied for a hamburger or fries, they would let us know that there was plenty more taffy. “Don’t be shy, kids!” my father would say with sadistic glee.
One place they did indulge us was at the spin art kiosk. For $2, we could create our very own vertiginous Pollack-style art “suitable for framing” or festooning a refrigerator! We were handed an 8×10” piece of white cardboard which would be affixed to a recessed turntable. Rimming one side of the contraption was a series of paints in plastic catsup and mustard style squeeze bottles. First came yellow, then green, then red, then blue, then white, then purple, then black, then white, then yellow, then blue. Our results were indistinguishable from one another. A soppy, muddy and profoundly ugly 10” piece of paper suitable for nothing. Nonetheless, it was fun to make a mess and not get hit.
Two shops to the north of the spin art arcade was a toy shop vending postcards, tee shirts, souvenir snow globes,
drunken clown ceramics for decorating home wet bars, and (wait for it) a green soldier holding a sticky plastic parachute. Throw it in the air, and it lofted down slowly with parachute aloft, and they were buying it for me! I must have thrown it a dozen times before I got bored, but it did spark an idea.
“Oh man, is this going to be fun!”
What if I was the green soldier, and had a bed-sheet for my parachute? The next day, I practiced jumping from the rickety, splintery motel deck to the sand below and then from the boardwalk to the sand.
Jumping from the boardwalk was treacherous, not because of the height but because of what lived underneath. I once landed on a dead horseshoe crab. It crunched under my bare feet and I thought I was going to vomit. That feeling lasted only a minute until I saw a bum (that’s what we called the homeless then) actually vomit just a few feet away.
While this vacation was especially horrible, it ended with a bang. On our trip home, we found ourselves surrounded by a wildfire on both sides of the Parkway. We rolled up our windows and soldiered on through stop and go traffic. Our Michelin tires had sidewall bubbles when we got home.
Fire on the Parkway
This was the same year we got a big screen color TV for the living room. It was a 21” Magnavox with a brown wood surround and brass colored legs. This very same TV eventually saw NASA land on the moon, but first had to be hooked up to a new roof antennae. David had extended the aluminum ladder to the roof of the then-two story house and proceeded to install it. It was a large multi-branched candelabra to be strapped to the chimney. It took no less than 9 trips to Rickel’s hardware store to procure the proper tools and accessories, as well as the tools and accessories needed to repair the damage caused by his installation. This was a two-week affair. I made a pact with myself to experience flight before school started and before the ladder came down. When my father was at Rickel’s, I would gather my green soldier and throw it off the roof, carefully studying its technique.
During David’s 8th trip to the hardware store, I grabbed a dirty white sheet from the basement laundry and ascended the ladder. Giddy and weak-kneed, I clutched the sheet and put a foot on the gutter. It groaned and I stepped back onto the hot black sandy asphalt roof tiles. I turned back and regarded the antenna, by now held on with cable, but otherwise flopping downward. I swung my gaze forward, towards the swing set and jumped. I must have immediately dropped the sheet. Pitching forward, I had no time to react. I landed hard on a play sand pile which contained only a few desiccated dog poops. I landed face down on one of my arms. The sheet gently lofted down after me, eventually tucking me in. Skeptics hearing this might think “Really?.. really?”, but I can assure you this not only happened but was witnessed by my mother. She was washing dishes in yellow Playtex gloves directly in view of my jump. She ran out, with dog underfoot. Lady, in a show of solidarity, grabbed the sheet and gave it a brief shake. I would like to say I was drunk with adrenaline, but really, it was with pain and humiliation. Soon after, David arrived with some clamps and roof patch. Later that day, he almost fell off the roof but never heard about my adventure.