The lagoons that ran between the Manahawkin bungalows, each showing a metallic shade of grayish brown, were waist-deep in muck. The water had no waves, no wake. Not even a ripple.
Come winter, the lagoon water was so solid, so still, it froze like a quarter-mile-long ice cube. In boredom, I threw pennies from my second-story apartment and watched them bounce like balls on the rock-hard surface.
Those coins would rap against that ice so hard, they'd clang like tiny bells. All the while, and despite the noise, not a single light would pop on. Not even a T.V.
I was in my mid-to-late 20s, and I was alone, in Manahawkin, N.J., living the southern Ocean County life. Life rarely strayed beyond the skinny, wood-panel walls of my apartment. In the dead of winter, entertainment seemed to appear only on the T.V. screen or in a book.
Luckily for me, I was alone, living in Manahawkin, when I finally found love. It didn't actually start there -- it was in Baltimore, at my brother's apartment, where I met the woman who would become my wife.
Kathleen Drinane lived in Long Island, N.Y., actually. But she drove many times -- the whole three hours she needed to get to me -- to my dingy second-floor apartment in the Beach Haven West section of Stafford Township, a.k.a. Manahawkin.
She did it, even as she put up with smelling the occasional sulfur odor that lingered through the neighborhoods. She did it, even though she had to look at, and often complain about the fact that nearly all the sandy front yards for these beach bungalows were made of rocks.
She did it, even as she gazed at the skies occasionally filled with smoke plumes from the forest fires in the Pine Barrens. She drove it, and fought against the ever-present summer traffic that makes the Long Island Expressway look easy.
When I found love, however, I found Manahawkin, and a life that went beyond the mucky lagoons, the traffic, the occasional sulfur smell and the apartment with high steps so weak that, on occasion, I nearly fell completely through.
My wife, my infant son and I left there in late 1998, moving first to Pennsylvania and then back to New Jersey in 2001, where we've raised a family of five. But we could hardly resist coming back when we could, and driving by the old apartment house, through the two-lane roads lined with pine trees and then passing by the lagoons that we eventually learned to enjoy.
Now, as the Barnegat Patch expands today, at 3 p.m., to become the Barnegat-Manahawkin Patch, I can't call it a homecoming, because home -- for me -- will always be Point Pleasant Boro. But I can call it a comeback, a return to the place where I first found true love, first raised a family and finally found life worth leading and growing.
When my wife came, the lagoons no longer looked so mucky. When she came, they had the air of a mini-Venice; or, at least, that's what we pretended it to be, because we could barely afford to travel anywhere beyond where we lived.
We bought that little raft, and floated around from house to house, just to live out what we could in this peaceful town. Sometimes we'd bring a wine bottle with us and even some beer. With a wine glass in my wife's hand, and a beer bottle in mine, we'd lean back and stare at the pale blue skies.
We had many lagoons where we could ride that inflatable boat, a little thing we called "Sunday Morning," and not worry if we ever came back.
When we weren't in the boat, we found Long Beach Island, and its unique and understated brand of sand and fun. Whether it was in-season or off, we never worried about violence, or boardwalks being shut down elsewhere because of fights and traffic. There were no highways that would drown out the chirping sounds of seagulls flying overhead.
There, I found a career that I already had, but never really appreciated. I became the "bureau coordinator" of The Press of Atlantic City's Manahawkin office, and I learned to do what I do now: Manage news coverage in the Jersey Shore.
I used to follow Senator Bill Bradley as he did his annual beach walk; I was there when seals washed up on the beaches, and were ultimately rescued. I was always one of the fools who'd volunteer for the summer stories that the paper wanted us to do, the first-person accounts of parasailing, fishing and even clamming in the bay.
Kathleen worked at the Surflight Theater's box office, and when she did, that theater no longer seemed so small. Kathleen has taught acting for more than 20 years, but there, she couldn't get anything more than a desk job. Still, she would always shed a bright light on a job and a place whose productions were never Broadway, but were always good enough.
With Kathleen, I had come a long way from when I first came to work, but not live, in Manhawkin, way back in 1988. Back then, I felt like I was landing on Plymouth Rock, ready to conquer an unexplored territory.
Back then, I was an intern at The Asbury Park Press, and I found myself writing stories about streets that had no stop signs; about cars crashing on Route 72 because they were drag racing their way to Long Beach Island.
It was an uphill climb. The politics were always a barrel of fun, the town once the home of the late Mayor Wes Bell and his billboard company. He led meetings that were so contentious that the New York Times wrote about them.
Even when I returned to work there, in 1993, then as a full-time reporter for The Press of Atlantic City, the community that went beyond the meeting room was nothing like it is now. My wife and I complained that we needed to go to Toms River just to buy a wrench or any kind of hardware that only Home Depot had.
There seemed to be four businesses that everybody knew about: Kmart, Caldor, McDonalds and Burger King. There, at Burger King, hanging on the wall for several years, was a napkin in a frame that was signed by the area's most famous tourist: President Richard Nixon.
His inscription: "Best wishes to Burger King, home of the Whopper. Richard M. Nixon."
Back then, if we wanted news, or something to do on a long day, we went to Long Beach Island. The beaches required badges; but in my youthful days, I often bragged that it was the only place where I never paid.
In the mid-to-late 1990s, we were a couple that got married, and had our first child there, and had him christened at St. Francis on LBI. Our reception was at A. Paul King Park, right next to Manahawkin Lake.
Back then, at Long Beach Island, we discovered the sand that's softer than any sand in the Jersey Shore. In some other Jersey Shore spots, the sand sticks to you like a soft marshmallow. At LBI, it slides right off.
We discovered Raimondo's, the great Italian restaurant in Ship Bottom that even my mother-in-law, whose standards for Italian restaurants could be pretty high, actually liked. Nobody cared that it was BYOB. They were too busy filling their mouths with the thick tomato sauce that covered the linguini.
We ultimately left the area just before all that's there now was built: the movie theater, the Home Depot and the various other shopping centers that now fill Route 72, from the parkway to the LBI bridge.
But it was a life worth having, and living, and now remembering, even as we moved far away, and only came back to when we were on our way somewhere else.
Now, we're back, writing about it, and living and remembering the life we once knew. It's a happy day.
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