Rockaway Summer Memories 1940s

Rockaway Ol`times
Typography

The lazy days of summer have a way of igniting many vivid memories from years past, when I was a young girl growing up on Beach 84th Street, and Rockaway Beach was an unparalleled summertime mecca all its own…    

In the 1940s, when Rockaway was a peninsula of Dutch-style front porch homes and bungalow rows, the summer season provided an annual rhythm of transformation, where the quiet town became a lively and spirited summertime nirvana. Each year come late June, our tight-knit community of varied colors, faiths and ethnicities, were joined by a mighty influx of visitants seeking seaside asylum from the asphalt baked sidewalks, tar roof and fire escape tenements of Flatbush, Canarsie, Italian Harlem, and the South Bronx.

From the city buses, the railroad el and over the then-new automobile bridges, they came in endless droves, welcomed by the sunny wide-open pasturage of ocean breezes and invigorating salt air. Down-for-the-day visitors eagerly jumbled about with transient residents as the rows of empty bungalows became re-awakened with life and many a private house became room and board rentals for weekly and seasonal dwellers.

These makeshift melting-pot communities were the heart of the season as they reunited familiar faces, renewed old friendships (and romances), and brought along new summer friends and neighbors. In our home, Papa rented our three-story house each summer to our Orthodox Jewish guests from Brooklyn. Each June at the end of the school year, Mama, Papa, and myself would dutifully move all of our belongings to the muggy basement and hot third floor (summer seemed more stifling then), wher we would live as our seasonal guests resided in our first and second floors for July and August.

For the tenants, Papa would supply (for a quarter), lockers and showers in the backyard for their busy back and forth beachgoing activities, some three minutes away from the Atlantic Ocean. Oddly enough, above this stirring hoopla recollection, the most vivid memories I have of those long summer days are of being by myself, alone and always in search of little adventures of my own. 

A typical 1945 summer day would find me on a hot July morning ambling a few houses down the block to play out front with some of the other kids across the street from the St. Rose church and Temple Israel. For a brief hour or two, we’d play an unfinished half-hearted game of Monopoly or checkers under the pre-noon broiling sun, until one by one we each went our own way. In the early afternoon with seemingly no one around on the block, I would “borrow” change from under an upside-down teacup (without Mama knowing), and head towards the old boardwalk looking for any familiar faces.

The magnificent beachfront was a vast colorful stretch of white sand, an endless technicolor of vibrant umbrellas, and mammoth crowds of jolly strangers packing the sand from the shore all the way to the board steps. The sights and sounds felt very distant to me, from the crashing waves and lifeguard whistles to the Good Humor ice cream vendors and unfamiliar children building sandcastles close by their family’s blankets.

I remember feeling so small, almost lost, searching in vain for school chums whom I rarely saw during the summer months. Disappointed and forlorn, but determined to make something of the day, I would meander up along the boardwalk, strolling past the liveliness of the sun-drenched setting. 

Walking the stretch of the real, sometime splintery boards required passing the concessions stands, wading through the long lines of barefoot beachgoers coming and going with trays of hot dogs, sodas, and cigarettes. Along the route were bronzed pretty girls in one-piece polka dot swimsuits, men in their Panama hats and white suit pants, Pepsi-Cola signs, and transistor radios blaring the sound of baseball games or the popular Andrew Sisters song “Rum and Coca Cola.”

After about 15 blocks, I stopped at Beach 98th Street, where I decided that I would spend the afternoon at Playland. Standing across the street from the boardwalk on the edge of the New Road (Shore Front Pkwy), Rockaway’s Playland seemed as big an attraction as Coney Island with its goliath-like roller coaster adorning the shore skyline, proudly displaying the bold letters PLAYLAND. With my pocket of change, I would buy my own private amusement utopia for the afternoon with no one to bother me. Welcomed by two giant clown faces, I was immediately ushered into the dizzying timeless sounds of summertime all at once in ten directions, with loud bells, whistles, roaring rollercoaster clatter, Kiddie Park screeches of children’s laughter doused in looping carousel music, popping balloons and the aroma of caramel popcorn.

Roaming the park, I would aimlessly shuffle and bump about for a while, taking in all the wonderous clamor of the “Sideshow Gallery” barkers, trapeze artists and “Loop de Loop” shrieks overhead. Joining in with my own fun, I treated myself to vanilla custard while braving rides with names like “The Rocket” and the “Funhouse Magic Carpet.” To escape from the pounding of the hot July sun, swelter and incessant carnival barking, I would eventually seek refuge in the penny arcade, partaking in the shaded leisures of Skee-ball, Pinball, and Madame Zelda the fortune teller.

After several hearty hours, I was exhausted and ready to surrender, but also satisfied that I had made the most of my day. Under the late afternoon hazy sun, I sauntered back to the safety of my home and Mama’s cooking, content handing off the day to the dusk.

Rockaway at night in the summer was a town lit up with vibrancy, when the endless pubs of Irish Town up to Beach 103rd Street came alive with merriment. All summer long, single guys, gals and groups of pals, hoisting cheers and sing-alongs to the hit-parade & Irish bands, emanated sounds of laughter and youthful gaiety as the PLAYLAND sign lit up the night sky, occasionally beneath bursting fireworks.

On these summer nights, I remember lying in bed able to hear in the distance the excited screams from the roller coaster, while also listening to soft friendly chatter on the front porches below from the bungalow tenants in their rocking chairs as the night crickets chirped away. These soothing “sounds of life” are indelible in my memory as they formed an idyllic haven of bonding that I felt was unique only to my home of Rockaway. And whenever I “hear” those sounds, they give me great comfort today, as they did then as an 11 year old girl, when I would silently say my prayers, treasuring my little summer heaven and drift off to sleep to the ocean surf patter, another lazy halcyon endless summer day on the horizon.

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