They met 40 years ago this summer on the Jones Beach boardwalk -- a gaggle of teenagers who strummed guitars, threw Frisbees in long, gentle arcs over the shoreline, and found love in the dunes. They also elicited some disapproving looks from adults who had to wend their way through this throng of adolescents clogging the busy Central Mall area.
But the teens seemed oblivious, and the idea that in their frayed cutoff jeans and flannels, they looked to some like "bums" became a badge of honor. In fact, the name they adopted for themselves embraced that sentiment: the Jones Beach Bums.
It stuck, as did the friendships among the group. From the early to mid-1970s, their numbers swelled to about 200. This weekend, the Jones Beach Bums are getting together to celebrate the 40th anniversary of when they began hanging out together, back in the summer of 1971.
Exactly where that get-together would take place has been a matter of rare contention in a group that has remained remarkably cohesive, especially considering the decades that have passed since those halcyon days.
"I used to hitchhike to the beach with no money," recalls Sharyn Fuller (nee Friedman), a Plainview native who is now a real estate agent in Raleigh, N.C. To buy eats there, she and a friend would beg for change at the Central Mall, usually targeting adult males, whom they figured might be more generous to female teens in bikinis.
As goofy and hedonistic as they may have seemed, "We were really serious about our love for each other, and for the world," says Fuller, now 55.
They were also bored, alienated suburban teens at a time in history when baby boomer teenagers seemed to run rampant over every code of proper behavior. They came from communities that blanket Long Island's South Shore, in part because they never quite fit in among their own schoolmates, but found kindred spirits running barefoot on the sands and getting splinters on the boardwalk. Thanks in large part to a website run by Fuller
(jonesbeachbums.com), as well as periodic reunions, they have managed to maintain an extraordinary degree of cohesion and connectivity -- until this year.
The problems started last winter, when plans were being discussed on the group's online forum about what to do for the notable anniversary.
Ginger Bonner, an early member of the group, was shocked when none of the suggestions about what to do for the reunion involved Jones Beach. "The beach is the world to me," says Bonner, 53, an activity director for a senior citizens' home. She lives in North Bellmore and still walks the boardwalk regularly. "Life changes people, changes our priorities. But I think it's important to keep grounded. That place, those people, the music of the time . . . it made me who I am today."
Fuller sees it more prosaically. "When we were kids, we didn't worry about sunscreen or makeup," she says. "We wore bathing suits, and it wasn't a big deal to make the walk from the parking lot." Now, she says, some of the aging Bums might not feel as comfortable doing any of that, and for some, tastes have changed.
An impassioned debate ensued on the website's chat room, one that became particularly heated when a cruise -- something that probably would have been seen by the young Bums as the very height of suburban, middle-class conformity -- was suggested as an alternative.
"A cruise entertains all," wrote one Bum who now lives in Florida, mindful of spouses who might not have been part of the original group.
"The Bums on a cruise?" posted another. "How very, very sad."
"Organize both and let people choose what works best for them," opined a third. "Now, let's play!"
The mood, though, was not playful. When someone suggested that some Bums chip in to help pay the cost of cruises for those Bums who couldn't afford it, there was indignation by some at being thought of as a charity case.
Bonner suggested buying a memorial bench for Bums who have died, or helping to raise funds for the aging infrastructure of the state park that holds so many memories for them, but those efforts never got off the ground.
Neither did the cruise.
Florence Kaslow, a psychologist in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., who specializes in the area of memory and reunions among older adults, doesn't know the Jones Beach Bums personally but is impressed by the size and longevity of the group. "They sound like special friends who seem to have a loyalty to each other that's admirable and enviable," she says.
Today, most of the bums are hardly bums: Members of the group who were known by nicknames like Pete the Freak, Mole, Mini Mole, Fred the Bed and Horny Sue are now doctors, lawyers, stockbrokers, teachers. More than half of them have moved from Long Island, mostly to the Sun Belt area. At least one of the Bums became famous: Joe Satriani, a Westbury native, went from strumming his acoustic guitar on the steps of the boardwalk to becoming a rock legend -- and still stays in touch via the website (although his touring schedule has prevented him from attending many of the reunions, Fuller says).
For a few of the Bums, the much-proclaimed love for each other became more lasting than a group hug: Fuller knows of at least two couples who met and fell in love during the beach days, and got married. Still, she says, "It's kind of funny. We all dated each other, but there were not too many marriages."
Other reunions since the first one in 1991 have passed without hassles, and by the end of this weekend, this reunion flap will be history. The majority of the Bums, who are now in their 50s, will attend an all-day party at a local member's house Saturday. Bonner says she and others who still feel the pull of the beach will meet before the party at the Central Mall boardwalk, at noon. "We're going to get together at the boardwalk where we stood so many years ago," she says, "and we'll say a prayer for the Bums we've lost over the years [10 have died], and for the continued love for the beach and for each other."
In other words, a protest or "anti-party," which, when you think about it, is the same impulse that got the Bums together in the first place, when they came as individuals, looking for peers they could relate to more than the ones in their own high schools.
Ira Weiss, 55, a Bum since 1973, says he will attend both gatherings -- and any others that, in the spontaneous tradition of the group, may pop up over the reunion weekend. "I'm about the people, I couldn't care less about where it is," says Weiss, an elementary school music teacher who now lives in East Meadow. "As long as we get together and everyone's happy. It bothers me when people argue and fight, because it doesn't really matter."
Wherever they may pitch their blankets, he says, the Jones Beach Bums "are my lifelong friends."