With all that has happened (and is happening) on the Jersey shore, I can't help but think about all the time I spent down there. Ghosts of my youth can be found up and down the shoreline.
In 1979, my friends and I stepped up our presence down on the Jersey shore -- eight of us rented a house for the entire summer in Seaside, and not just for the one week like we normally did. It was on Franklin Avenue, just a half block from the boardwalk. My friends Woody, Billy and I got jobs at the Whistle Stop Restaurant for the season. Truth be told, Woody was the only one that actually took the job. When we stepped on the porch of that house for the first time, Billy and me quickly dismissed any pretense of working. One afternoon, Woody walked back to the house from work and said the manager was coming over to talk to us to see if we wanted the jobs or not. He got his answer when he walked in the front door and saw us as we bolted off the back porch, jumped a fence and headed towards the boardwalk (when properly motivated, I move pretty fast for a big guy).
Actually, Woody only worked there for a little while; he quit after getting sun poisoning on his legs. He had fallen asleep on the beach and his calves and feet were so red it looked like two lobsters crawled out of the ocean and swallowed his legs to the knees.
We were beer drinkers and our brand of choice was Pabst Blue Ribbon tall boys. It wasn't the greatest beer but, as my brother likes to say, 'Hey, it won a Blue Ribbon, didn't it?' (Yeah, in 1893). However, on occasion, we would branch out and purchase other beverages -- like the time Woody and I played our own version of the card game WAR on the porch of the house. After each hand, which went by very quickly, the loser had to take a drink. Woody sat on one side of the table (milk crate) and I was on the other, each of us armed with a 32-oz glass filled with a fine wine called "MD 20/20," affectionately nick-named "Mad Dog." Calling it a wine is generous -- if your car ever ran out of gas and you had a pint or two of Mad Dog, I'm pretty sure you could drive a few blocks with this in your tank.
We played all afternoon -- we played until we couldn't play anymore. Eventually, the sunlight stabbed our eyes through half-closed lids. I stumbled inside to one of the bedrooms (a room with eight mattresses on the floor). I picked the one closest to the door and fell asleep (passed out).
I don't know how long I was asleep (passed out) when suddenly, I felt a wave of bodies roll over me, each thumped on the remaining mattresses, each quickly feigning sleep. I looked up through one bloodshot eye and a Seaside police officer filled the doorway.
"Ok," he said, "I don't care who took it but just put it back."
After he left, I got up to see what exactly we had to put back. Standing on the porch, like a vampire waiting to be invited into the house, was a vending machine which had, until very recently, resided about four houses down on the corner of our street. I don't know whose idea it was to take it so I just turned around and went back to bed.
The vending machine was eventually returned and its spot on the porch replaced a few weeks later with a Christmas tree ornamented with empty beer cans. Someone had the idea that on July 25th we were going to celebrate half-way to Christmas Day. (Ideas down on the shore are born from beer and amnesia -- you know they showed up the night before when you were drunk, but you just didn't remember when or how they got there).
July 25th arrived and that afternoon, we proudly marched up to the beach like drunken dwarves sans Snow White (we were sans Snow White a lot around that tree) and planted it in the sand. Looking back, I'm sure we looked like assholes, but at the time, we thought we were the coolest guys on the beach. I didn't matter to us that no one set up their blankets within a twenty-five yard perimeter of us; we were having fun.
Our Christmas tree phase ended abruptly the next day. Rose, our 90-year-old neighbor (hindsight age? Closer to 60) who had coined the phrase 'dead soldiers' when referring to our empty beer cans (as in "Look at all those dead soldiers you left outside"), called our landlord. He showed up within an hour and told us to clean up our act and fergodsakes throw away that damn Christmas tree or he was going to throw us out.
We did as he said, then waited for the next idea to be born.
We didn't have to wait long.
In 1973, NASA launched SKYLAB, an orbital space station. By 1979, its orbit began to deteriorate and it was going to crash into the Earth. The problem was no one knew exactly where it was going to hit. When a NASA official was asked that very question his response was, "It's definitely coming down."
That's all we needed.
In addition to Pabst Blue Ribbon, our beer budget included Utica Club beer balls, which were about the size of a quarter keg. Today, Utica Club beer balls come in cheap brown plastic containers that, when empty, can be collapsed with your bare hands. In '79, beer balls were made from a thick, milky white plastic strong enough to protect your head if a space station suddenly fell from the sky.
So that's exactly what we did.
In a remarkably short time we had enough empty beer balls so that each of us would have our own 'helmet.' We rinsed out the stale beer and cut a hole in the bottom large enough to squeeze a head through. I drew a caricature of each one of us on the front and printed the quote: 'It's definitely coming down -- Official NASA spokesman' on the back.
For the days leading up to, and including, the time that SKYLAB actually fell to Earth (pieces of it hit Western Australia), we would sit on our porch and sip beers beneath our plastic helmets. The one drawback (only one?) was that we couldn't see anything from under them. We each sat there, contained in our own white orb, oblivious to our surroundings. The only thing I was sure of was the disembodied voices of parents as they re-directed their children away from our front porch.
"I don't know what they are doing either," I heard, voices muffled by my plastic dome, "but let's cross over there."
Somewhere out there is a photograph of the eight of us standing on the porch -- randomly dressed in a combination of shorts, t-shirts and bath robes, each with a beer in hand and SKYLAB helmet on head. We looked like the Mr. MET mascot family reunion.
I don't (won't) drink Pabst Blue Ribbon anymore and it would take me a year to finish a Utica Club beer ball. Sadly, now I'm not even sure if that house on Franklin is still standing. But I take comfort in the fact that at one point, even when the sky was falling, we were safe and sound and protected. Merry Christmas.
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