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Expressway: The innocent summer of '63 in a world about to change

President John F. Kennedy is cheered by crowds

President John F. Kennedy is cheered by crowds in front of Berlin's City Hall. Photo Credit: AP, 1963

It was June 1963. I'd just completed my second year as a full-time student at Long Island University after one semester at night.

Mickey Mantle played centerfield for the New York Yankees, not that I cared. I was a San Francisco Giants fan and rooted for them and Willie Mays when they came to the Polo Grounds during the Mets' second and last season there.

Popular songs were "If You Wanna Be Happy," by Jimmy Soul; "Denise," by Randy & the Rainbows, and "One Broken Heart for Sale," by Elvis Presley.

Of much greater importance that summer 50 years ago, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was our president and the world was young.

Today the Rockaways are still picking up from superstorm Sandy, but five decades ago, summer life there was free and easy. We enjoyed the beautiful sandy beach and ocean waves. No child ever needed to go away to summer camp. The boardwalk stretched five miles from Beach 19th Street through Beach 126th Street. At various points were food, drink and game concessions. One could feast on hot dogs, knishes, Chinese food, frozen custard and Italian ices. At Playland amusement park, we rode bumper cars and the roller coaster, wasted change at a penny arcade and played Skee-Ball. Fireworks drew crowds every Wednesday at 9 p.m.

The boardwalk was a place to join friends, stroll and, of course, meet girls. A boy lucky enough to have a girlfriend often held her hand or walked with an arm around her waist -- and, of course, stole innocent kisses. Some couples even fell in love, as The Drifters sang, "Under the Boardwalk" (OK, that hit actually came out in 1964).

I took a leave of absence from my school-year job as a cashier at the Associated Food supermarket on Mott Avenue in Far Rockaway, my hometown. Instead, my uncle arranged for me to work as a counselor at a camp he directed in the Catskills. He paid me $125 for the summer, considerably more than the normal $80 rate. Since I was on my way to becoming a schoolteacher, I thought it wise to work with children.

Brookwood Camp in Glen Spey was owned by a catering company, so the food was great. If a camper didn't want tuna, he or she could have egg salad, hamburgers or frankfurters. Every Sunday was steak. Only the kids could ask for seconds; after all, counselors were the paid help. A counselor would be fired if caught asking a camper to get him a second helping.

We enjoyed the usual camp activities. I had severely dislocated my knee that April, and that summer it was still sore. But I was still able to swim, boat and play ball with the kids from my cabin. My co-counselor in the cabin attended UCLA and introduced me to the music of The Beach Boys and of Trini Lopez, both still personal favorites.

On the world stage, President Kennedy traveled to Europe. In West Germany, not far from the Berlin Wall and in front of thousands of people, the president delivered his "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech on June 26. Then he went to Ireland and was greeted like a native son.

The summer of 1963 preceded assassinations, riots and the divisiveness of Vietnam. Two months after the summer, President Kennedy was killed in Dallas and the world was never the same. Our innocence was gone forever.