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This post is part of my 2022 Word Project. You can read what that’s about here.

Thursday, June 22, 2023

Summer. There are so many summer things sloshing around in the inner tube of my brain and melting out my ears in rivulets of rainbow sprinkles.

I woke up this morning feeling free. It was ten degrees cooler than yesterday but it felt warmer. Summer-er.

I honored it by sleeping until 9. Leave me alone, it’s my summer vacation. I don’t have any homework today.

Do you know what word is synonymous with summer? Boardwalks. This is a very Jersey Shore kind of thing, but considering I spent 50-ish years of my life on or near the shore, there is no way to untangle them in my memories.

A perfect summer always came with a boardwalk.

With games that you fed quarters into and sometimes got paper tickets from in return. With ferris wheels and carousels, with giant lollipops in colorful swirls, with the ocean breeze and a new seashell in my collection.

I played a lot of boardwalk games in my lifetime, mostly at the expense of my father who stocked up on rolls of quarters then filled his pockets with them then handed them out like candy at Halloween whenever we ran out. That man had a bottomless pocket of quarters.

My favorite all time game was Skee-Ball, because you had a chance of winning if you were good enough. Even if you were not very good, it spit a few tickets out at you in sympathy, so it was never a total loss. I raked up a lot of tickets on that game, and emptied a lot of pockets of change.

Then there was the quarter-eating game, the one where you put the quarter into a slot and it rolled down a tiny ramp onto a moving platform below where it fell into a pile of other quarters.

The idea was to land your quarter in such a way as to push the other quarters over the edge of the platform and then you’d win whatever fell over the edge.

Except I don’t think you actually won the quarters, you just swapped them out for coins or tickets that you could redeem for stuff.

Some rocket scientist figured out how to manipulate physics so that no matter how you dropped a quarter it would merely push the others closer to the edge without ever spilling over. You could stack these quarters up like mattresses in The Princess and the Pea and they would hang over the edge by a razor slice in defiance of all things real and unreal.

You were so convinced, every time, that the next quarter had to tip that mountainous stack, but you were inevitably very, very wrong. Not merely “oooh so close” wrong, but wrong to the point that you could drop a quarter onto the top of a four inch high pile hanging over the edge of a cliff and not a single quarter below would so much as wobble.

I think there is still a pile of quarters in some of those games dating back to 1978.

Boardwalk games always resulted in prizes, though, no matter how many quarters it took.

You dump fifty bucks, you get a plastic ring, everyone’s happy.

Sometimes we collected coins and tickets for years, knowing we’d be back, waiting until we had enough for a big prize.

I got a Cherished Teddy once, but that was only because everyone pooled their tickets for me across several years.

I liked the games where you had to fill up a balloon with a water gun. I was pretty good with that one, but the prizes were never that interesting and usually you had to win multiple times before you could “trade up” to anything worthwhile.

The spinning wheels were the least interesting because all you did was hand over money to watch someone else turn a wheel then wait and watch it go in circles for an inordinate amount of time. The result was random luck, never a favorite of mine.

I did, however, win my most memorable boardwalk prize on a wheel in Asbury Park, a big blue elephant, when my father played number 8.

Things you remember.

Favorite game not quite on a boardwalk but near enough to one that it counts: the one where you had a pretend shotgun to shoot at targets placed around an Old West set.

That one was at Playland, where we’d make our yearly summer family pilgrimage.

If you hit a target, something cool would happen. You could make the cuckoo clock chime, or make the flower spin, or the bear roar, but the granddaddy of prizes was getting the guy to play the piano.

You didn’t technically win anything, but really you won something every time you hit a target, a little burst of joy that was its own reward.

I did another scientific survey for this blog and asked my brothers:

What is your favorite boardwalk game?

One brother said Skee-Ball immediately.

Another said… what’s a boardwalk game?

Then he said frisbee golf which I had to google and then challenge him on his choice since this didn’t look like a boardwalk game to me. Turns out it’s a “beach” game so we had to debate games for a while until he concluded that Skee-Ball was probably the most fun.

Science is hard.

Another brother came back definitively with the claw game.

Another said, “the one you shot the targets and it made things move.” But that was only after saying he didn’t really have a favorite and wasn’t much into games anyway which is crazy talk because how else are you supposed to get little paper tickets that you can trade in for pink bracelets? Sheesh.

My final brother also didn’t have a favorite, but did say that Skee-Ball is synonymous with boardwalk “and no one would disagree.”

Certainly not me!

Since I had less success with that survey than with yesterday’s, I tried another.

What is your favorite boardwalk food?

I got one vote for salt water taffy, four votes for soft serve ice cream, three votes for funnel cake, another each for cotton candy, roasted peanuts, caramel corn, and giant pretzels with dipping sauce.

You may notice that I asked five people and got twelve answers, which should say something about how we all feel about food.

My fave? Funnel cake. Yes, I love the ice cream and cotton candy, too, but funnel cake is one of those things you only ever get at a carnival or boardwalk and never on a Wednesday in winter, so it was always the essence of summer’s best for me.

When we went to Asbury Park, my grandfather always bought me the most giant rainbow swirl lollipop. I loved those so much. Not to eat. But to walk around holding and looking at. I would lick them a bit, but mostly I would hold them and admire them.

Worst thing to have on a boardwalk? Balloons.

I can’t tell you how many balloons we lost when they came untied from our wrists or slipped through our fingers. Seeing your balloon fly up and up, knowing there were no “take backs”, that you were just a split second too slow to catch it and a hair’s length too short to reach it was the very definition of childhood tragedy.

I’m sure we got sunburned but I don’t remember. I’m sure there were splinters from walking barefoot on the boardwalk and blisters from walking on the hot sand, but I don’t remember.

I remember the sunshine and the bubble machines.

And I remember one time when my grandfather took my brother Kevin and I to an amusement park on the boardwalk and we were the only kids on the Ferris wheel. Instead of open cars, it had enclosed cages. The operator shut the door and locked it from the outside and you went safely around and around, watching the ocean and the seagulls and the tiny people below.

My grandfather… let’s say generously persuaded the operator to keep the ride going longer for us, since nobody else was waiting.

The operator was very persuaded. I think he left and went to lunch as my brother and I went around and around in circles for about six months.

I’m not saying that ride was responsible for my claustrophobia. I’m just saying I was ready to get off that Ferris wheel by the time the guy showed up again.

Still, I love a good Ferris wheel ride. As long as it’s in open cars and nobody has a balloon.

Photo: the Asbury Park boardwalk, circa winter 2017. It’s a far cry from the boardwalk of my childhood with its explosion of games and hot dogs and cotton candy, but the city has gone through a major revitalization and summers are looking a bit more spry these days. It is still beautiful.