Building Castles in Atlantic City

Building Castles in Atlantic City

I grew up in a row house in Baltimore in the 1950s. Every morning, I walked to No. 59 elementary school with my younger brother, Julian. In the early evenings, as my parents sat on the porch and talked, I played games with my friends on the sidewalk and the lawns across the street: hide and go seek, Red Rover, and time.

I rarely included Julian. After all, he was a year and a half younger than I was, and he had his own friends. But every summer I built castles with him in the sand on our family’s annual vacation.

In July, when my father (z”l), who worked as a foreman in a factory, and my mother (a”h), who worked as a cosmetics representative in a department store, took their vacation, we would board a Greyhound bus to Atlantic City. Dressed in fancy clothes, including a purse dangling from a string, I rode in the bus next to my brother for four hours, anticipating a week of family fun.

Atlantic City then, unlike today with glittering casinos, was a place for families to relax. We rented a room at the Marylander Hotel and shared a bathroom down the hall with several other families. In those days, no one cared.

We ate breakfast at Betty’s, a one-room restaurant. It was packed with children in shorts and jerseys like my brother and me. I can still smell the cinnamon French toast and pancakes as we walked through the door.

After breakfast we often fed peanuts to the pigeons on the boardwalk in front of the Planters peanut factory. Then we walked back to the hotel to change into swimsuits and cover-ups. We always wore cover-ups to walk to and from the beach and at lunchtime, crossing the boardwalk to buy a sandwich and fries.

At the beach, my brother and I built those sand castles. We tried piling the wet sand high enough to survive the raging waves at the end of the day, but they never did. It didn’t matter; we kept trying.

The beach held so much fun for us. Holding hands with our parents, we jumped the smaller waves, which sent sprinklings of salt water across our faces. We dug in the sand, trying to reach China, and basked in the sun, waiting to see and hear the Good Humor man as he wove his way from blanket to blanket.

Under the scorching sun, in his white shirt, pants and cap, he would sing out: “Ice cream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream.”

Around 3 in the afternoon, we walked back to the hotel to nap and get ready for dinner. Like traveling, we always dressed for dinner and an evening at Steel Pier. At this unique boardwalk attraction, we swayed to the music of famous singers like Connie Francis and Johnny Ray. And we marveled at circus-type performances like the Diving Horse.

Of course, there was a charge for all that, so we only visited Steel Pier once or twice during our stay.

On other nights, we walked the famous boardwalk. That was free and exciting. There were games to play, souvenir shops to browse and a booth to cut a record. (I still have one of those 45s of my brother and me singing “Slow Boat to China” but no record player to hear it.)

As the rhythmic song of the sea slapped against the shore, we walked back to the hotel. Sometimes we bought saltwater taffy that stuck to our teeth or frozen custard on cones. My favorite was chocolate — a sweet, creamy treat at the end of a summer day.

Year after year, our family took this week’s vacation in Atlantic City until my brother and I became teenagers. Grappling with independence, we worked at summer jobs and hung out with our own group of friends.

But when I was 18 and my brother 17, my mother asked, “Would you like to spend July Fourth in Atlantic City with us?”

We thought we had outgrown vacationing with our parents, but it was only for a day, so we agreed. The morning of the Fourth, in casual clothes, we boarded a Greyhound bus and spent a glorious day at the beach. My brother and I may even have built a sand castle; I don’t remember.

What I do remember is reconnecting as young adults with each other and with our parents.

We thought it was our last vacation day together. But as late afternoon and fireworks approached, my father asked, “Should we rent a room and stay overnight?”

Again, we agreed. At a novelty store we bought what we needed and rented a room at the Marylander Hotel, which still had a bathroom down the hall. We also bought a new device: a tape recorder. After we ate dinner and walked the boards, we stayed up late in the hotel room, laughing and recording our voices.

Now, over 50 years later, I love to hear my brother’s voice on my cellphone when he calls from California. Our beloved parents are no longer alive. But when I shared this article with Julian, he said, “Our memories with Mom and Dad are everlasting.”

Yes, they are — especially family vacations in Atlantic City, where, on our last trip together, we built castles in the sky.

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