I’ve noticed that today’s television and newspaper travel advertisements are filled with enticements for vacationers and weekend get-out-of-towners designed to appeal to members of the most sophisticated segments of society who wish to experience ready-made heaven on earth. Parents in our well-appointed suburbs these days provide their children nearly unlimited exposure to all manner of sightseeing including the many wonders of our beautiful nation as well as the world. Any casual observer of the activity in an airport terminal during the holiday travel period can attest to the movement of vast numbers of the population to an ever-wider array of destinations. I’m certainly not critical of this phenomenon. But it stands in stark contrast to the simple summer outings and activities of my early years.
I was born and raised in New Haven, Connecticut, whose harbor is located on the northern shore of Long Island Sound, a coastline that served as the primary site of our summer playground activities. “Vacations” then hardly resembled today’s extensive excursions, as ours were organized as singular “days at the beach.” This usually meant a 30-minute ride by open-air trolley to Lighthouse Point Park, a public beach run by the city which, according to Wikipedia, was “a popular tourist destination during the Roaring Twenties, attracting luminaries of the period such as Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb.” Despite the many passing years, I can still clearly recall the familiar smell of the salty sea air that heralded our arrival and stirred our anticipation of the day’s joys that lay ahead. The park certainly was not on par with Atlantic City or Coney Island, with their teeming boardwalks, ferris wheels, gaming booths and tasty fast-food treats. Rather, the park’s humble offerings included the simple basics of sun and surf, accompanied by the Lighthouse Point Carousel, which was built in 1916, a solitary frozen custard stand, and the souvenir snapshot opportunities offered by the Five Mile Point Lighthouse, constructed in 1847, and views of Long Island Sound.
Other than the mildly annoying instances of sunburn and jellyfish stings, our seaside idylls were largely uneventful. There was, however, one episode which still lingers in my memory as a lasting reminder of the perils of overzealous thriftiness when combined with youthful indiscretion. On one such trip I elected to wear my bathing suit under my street clothes to avoid having to rent a bath house. Full of pride at my cleverness and smug with the knowledge I had pocketed a whopping savings of fifty cents, I had already peeled off both shirt and pants before realizing I now had nowhere to stow them. Applying my limited powers of adolescent reasoning to the situation at hand, and using the lifeguard’s stand as a landmark, I quickly buried my belongings in the sand. My mother and sister frowned disapprovingly but remained silent. We set our sights on the beckoning waves, with thoughts only of the enjoyable afternoon ahead.
As the sun at long last slid toward the horizon, my mother announced that it was time to call it a day. Returning to the spot on the beach where I thought I had hidden my treasure, I became confused. The lifeguard’s stand had been moved, leaving no trace of its former location. After an extended search without success and darkness quickly approaching, I was forced to surrender both my clothes and my dignity. Time has not dimmed my recollection of the feeling of embarrassment that engulfed me as I boarded the trolley that day and met the indignant stares of the other mothers, the giggles of little girls and the sneering looks of fellow young boys. That singularly memorable trolley ride seemed to last forever. It’s only gratitude I feel now as I think back about that early trauma, knowing how truly fortunate it is that life, in such small, innocuous ways, teaches us some of its most useful lessons.