In the Good Old Summertime
Summer Crushes and Ham Sandwiches in 1950 Rockaway
The mystery of summer’s magical ability to tap into nostalgic feelings and long-lost memories simply through its sights and scents is a forever pleasant enigma that often holds a certain edge over the other seasons, particularly in its romantic connection to our coming-of-age years. Whenever the air is a humid and muggy hot 90 degrees, I am transported in memory to my own coming of age in the hazy lazy days of yesteryear that feel as vivid and alive as if they were happening today.
Mama is in the kitchen, the calendar displays July, every day is Saturday, and the sounds of summer beckon just outside my window. Passing crowds with coolers and folded beach chairs in tow are cheerfully heading up the block towards the boardwalk’s distant lifeguard whistles, and I can’t wait to get to the beach! Being a young teen, this year’s summer is to be different for me than those before, one destined to be indelibly saved in my memories. For I am going through an all-important rite of passage for a teenage girl: my first summertime crush.
Although I have had crushes before, this one is unique because it is the kind that every girl remembers; where the beach and summer are back-drop scenery and life is blossoming perfectly in-step with the sunny optimism of the times. Rockaway in this mid-century year is setting a summer visitor attendance record as every day is one sunny hot snapshot picture. The film “In the Good Old Summertime” has rekindled post-war summertime nostalgia and it seems more autos than ever are on the road, shuttling down-for-the-day visitors to the peninsula.
Even Sunday Mass, teeming with local parishioners and scores of seasonal bungalow tenants from Brooklyn and the Bronx, overflows outside onto the sidewalk. The beach, not 100 feet away, is a daily chock-full ‘blanket to blanket’ sea of camped sunbathers. The mobbed wooden boardwalk is just as lively, swarming with packed concession lines extending down to the sand. Songs like “La Vie En Rose” sung by Bing Crosby can be heard flowing from portable Studebaker radios as Peggy Lee’s sultry “Summertime” mingles with the stifling humidity of the hottest summer in recent memory.
Life for me is also excitedly changing, as I am in my junior summer at Far Rockaway High School. The P.S. 44 days of Playland, hopscotch, and Sunday comics have ebbed into the past in exchange for Modern Romance Beauty magazines and warm Wednesday night fireworks by the swing park following sing-alongs of popular songs like “Goodnight, Irene” with my girlfriends and the fellas. On this mid-summer day in 1950, my chum, Rose Rios, and I will meet as we do occasionally, and stroll to the beach to socialize, bask under the steamy blazing sun, and cool off intermittently in the refreshing ocean. We are also sure to sit very close to the familiar and towering lifeguard chair.
In our one-piece bathing suits and fashionable head kerchiefs, we cut our best Esther Williams and Doris Day pin-up figures, hoping to make an impression on the two lifeguards perched atop it. These days, our fancies are Johnny Cornell and Walter Moran, who are stationed at Beach 84th Street. But to us, they may just as well be movie stars, Van Johnson or Cornell Wilde. Sporting beautiful tans and sitting up so high as if on pedestals, they are like bronze sculpted Adonises in dark sunglasses and noses doused with Noxzema.
Staring up at them more often than not, we are in enamored awe of these cool modern day gladiator knights, confidently gazing out over their domain, ready to come to our rescue at a moment’s notice. They are several years older than us and not only do they make us feel protected, but we are also taken by their down-to-earth friendliness. Rose and I have been vying for their attention and our frequent visits have paid off as we have struck up a friendship with them, sharing friendly banter, Coca Cola’s, and posing for photos with my Kodak Brownie.
Both fellows are quite likeable, but it is blond haired Johnny whom I am smitten with. Our daily visits to their chair tower have become a ritual, and we feel like big shots keeping company with these iconic hero-like figures who are the center pieces of the vast beach blanketed umbrella commune. A brimming sandy thoroughfare of canoodling couples, chatty transistor radios, older ladies in beach chairs playing ‘gin rummy,’ loud vendors trekking the hot sand peddling Schlitz beer and Chesterfield cigarettes, and children romping back and forth to the water, all serve this busy sun-soaked community, but also tend to pose challenges for us in holding the lifeguards’ attention as often as we would like.
Devising a ‘perfect’ plan for us to have an upper hand in staying noticed, as well as subtly showing my fondness for Johnny, I conclude that the best way to man’s heart is through his stomach. I know that today is Mama’s weekly trip to the A&P on Beach 88th Street for bread and cold cuts. Rushing back through the crowded sand, over the boards, and crossing the new beach front road, (Shorefront Parkway) my pal and I hurry up the block to my house as fast as can be. Papa has rented our upstairs to tenants through Labor Day, and we use the basement kitchen facing the backyard. Hurriedly waving through backyard mosquitoes buzzing around the open back doorway, I “borrow” from the refrigerator, with Rose standing by on watch, quickly making ham sandwiches with sliced tomato and mustard on Wonder bread. “Surely this might do the trick”, I’m thinking, as we speedily make our way back to the lifeguard chair, coolly delivering the goods, as if we just happened to have some extras to share.
With a big smile, Walter and Johnny gladly accept, with Johnny adding simply “thanks, girls.” That alone is enough to make my heart flutter, and for the next several days this ‘goodwill’ gesture is casually repeated. The beach trips often-after are never without a prepared sandwich or two for the always appreciative lifeguards, (particularly Johnny), making this summer a worthwhile 90-degree nirvana – until one day when Mama asks where the ham has been going.
Rose and I are caught in the act making sandwiches and I confess, with Mama immediately yelling at me; “No, No! I buy the ham and tomatoes for you, not the lifeguards!” I try to downplay it with “but Ma, they gotta eat”, and “it’s just for today,” but with no luck. Undeterred, I quickly make the sandwiches above her animated protests, stuff them in the bag with a one-track mind, and run back to the beach with my “partner in crime,” determined to keep this good thing going. Nothing seems to matter more to girls with a crush.
These gift deliveries of cold cuts and heart thumps will last through another smitten hazed week or two and each time will be rewarded with an appreciative “thank you” and a skipped heartbeat. Then, to my sudden surprise, the kitchen fridge will bear no more ham and tomatoes! Mama’s patience will have thinned, and in her wisdom, she will put her foot down and end the issue in the most direct way-by cutting the supply! With no fuel to feed the flame, Rose and I will nevertheless return daily to the beach, reveling in our place in the sun next to the lifeguard chair, none the richer or poorer. The rest of summer will be enjoyed the same until the warm months dissipate and Rockaway returns to normal as life moves on to new seasons and new crushes. Until then, the ardors of youth and summer’s bliss will still be served, minus the ham sandwiches!
Looking back, the boys probably didn’t even notice or mind that the sandwiches stopped coming, though Rose and I might have been embarrassed, hoping it wouldn’t hurt our standing with them. But memories tend to grow in legend over time. The fervorous crush was actually more of a harmless fantasy that I knew would never amount to anything. And the ‘bronzed Adonises’ were more like cute 19 or 20-year-old college boys with sunburned shoulders.
I can still, however, hear my mother’s objections over my giving away the cold cuts she had bought for me to enjoy with the little money she had. Such shenanigans can only be chalked up to the youthful fervor of a teen’s folly; of things that seem so important at the time, and like everything else, soon pass. Like those enviable teen years, all of the happy pieces of that exciting summer have too, long since gone away. The house and Mama, Playland, and even the old boardwalk have taken their place in the memory of time. Yet the thrill of summer, where the warm air, the beach, and the hope of young love all meet, remains timeless.
And on this hot July day in 1950 Rockaway, everything is timelessly stilled in its perfect place. It’s 12 noon, the roller coaster clatters and roars in the distance. Mama is hanging the clothes in the backyard, life is young, the boardwalk, my first summer crush and the beach are waiting, and this will all last forever!
By Jean Caligiuri Mckenna