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Opinion

Essay: Mom’s coins bought us a beach vacation

Rockaway Beach at Beach 106th Street on July

Rockaway Beach at Beach 106th Street on July 19, 2018. Photo Credit: Jeff Bachner

It was the fall of 1964, and my mother was determined to take my family on a seashore vacation the next summer. The glass Hellmann’s mayonnaise jar she washed out after Thanksgiving dinner was our ticket to paradise. She used it to save every coin from her change at the laundromat on 24th Avenue in Astoria. Seven months later, on my last day of fourth grade, she proudly held up the filled jar.

On July 1, Dad, Mom, brother James and I boarded the elevated subway at Ditmars Boulevard, dragging suitcases twice my size, and rode the train for two hours to the Beach 67th Street station in Arverne, a beachfront community on the Rockaway peninsula.

As we got off the train, I asked my father where we would stay. “We’ll find something,” he said.

From the platform we inhaled the salty air and saw vacation bungalows. I dreamed of a summer to last a lifetime.

But house after house with “rooms to let” signs had no vacancies for as many as the four of us. Dad’s gloomy face seemed to say that our vacation might not happen. But then a passerby suggested Beach 69th Street, so we staggered into an old three-story Victorian with a cupola on the roof and a planked porch.

Miss DeWitt, an elderly white-haired woman in a checkerboard-green cotton dress, ushered us into her parlor. The sad look on her face seemed to indicate no vacancies, but Mom pulled out her jar and poured its contents like a waterfall onto the long wood table.

“I want my kids to have the best summer of their lives,” Mom said, her eyes desperate.

Miss Dewitt’s response was unexpected. “We play Pokeno every night,” she said, referring to a popular parlor game and staring at me, “and my guests are expected to play.”

Our first-floor room had a stove, sink, a queen-size bed and a single bed for James, 17.

A tiny alcove was my heaven for our eight-week vacation. It had a ceiling-to-floor screened window that let us savor the breezy air. On my springy cot, I hid James’ transistor radio under my pillow and sang along to “Satisfaction” by a new group, the Rolling Stones, with the “Good Guys” on WMCA radio.

Eager to make money, I asked Miss DeWitt for chores. “You get 50 cents to sweep my porch every morning,” she said. She thrust a wooden broom at me and said, “Get to work, you’re on the clock.”

Miss DeWitt was my favorite boss. When I finished, she always handed me a garlic bagel sandwich with thick slabs of butter and American and Muenster cheese, a combination I still relish.

My salary was spent on Skee Ball at the boardwalk arcades and 12-cent comic books at the candy store under the elevated train. On Saturday nights, Mom let me feast on fresh-baked waffles and ice cream sandwiches on the boardwalk, a treat you could smell for miles.

One drizzly day, my brother asked me to walk about 3.5 miles on the boardwalk from Beach 69th Street to the Atlantic Beach Bridge, but once there, the 5-cent pedestrian toll ended our trek. I’d spent my last nickel on banana Turkish Taffy, a hard candy you would slam on the counter, breaking it into a thousand pieces, so we sadly turned back.

A few months ago, I visited a friend in Atlantic Beach and noticed the Atlantic Beach Bridge. Without hesitation, I paid the $2 toll and drove along Shore Front Parkway to Beach 69th Street. I’d hoped to snap a selfie for my brother in front of that Victorian vacation house, but a townhouse complex now takes its place. Still, even today, the aroma of fresh waffles transports me back to the way it was in 1965.

Reader Frank Vespe lives in Springs.

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