When we were kids back in the 1950’s, Ocean City, Maryland was not the hub it is today. Everyone went to Atlantic City, New Jersey, which is what our family did every year for a three-day weekend vacation. Later in the summer, my parents would return for a weekend by themselves. I’m sure it was to get away from their four children for a little while. I can’t remember who stayed with us. Perhaps it was our grandma. But that’s not what this story is about.
On our trip in 1955, my older sister, Marcia, was about 12 and just beginning the terrible teens. I was nine, Chucky seven and Ricky was three. While having breakfast in the hotel restaurant on the last on day of vacation, Chucky asked if we could go to the amusement park. “Ralph,” Mom said to my dad, “that’s a good idea. Take the older children and I’ll stay here with Ricky and pack everything up for the trip home.”
We’d spent most of our vacation time at the beach and at the Steel Pier, and we really wanted to go on rides. When we arrived at the amusement park, we immediately went on the Tilt-A-Whirl and Ferris Wheel, two favorites of mine and Chucky’s. We played some games like Toss the Bean Bags and shooting rifles at moving targets. But we didn’t win anything. Daddy bought us peanuts and cotton candy, probably as a consolation prize.
It was almost time to leave, and we were right by the Mountain Speedway roller coaster. Chucky and I really wanted it to be our last event before we went home. Daddy checked his pockets and was short 20 cents for tickets for the three of us. (I’m guessing the rides were really cheap compared to today!) Chucky noticed Marcia’s dimes in her penny loafers. It was a “style” that was all the rage then. Maybe my sister thought dimes were classier than pennies. Who knows?
“Marcia, give us those dimes so we can go on the Mountain Speedway!” Chucky said.
“No way. It took me a long time to find these shiny dimes. I’m not giving them up for a stupid ride!”
“Man, that is so mean. You’re the worst sister ever! Daddy, make her do it!” Chucky demanded.
“Nope, they’re her dimes, and she doesn’t have to give them up if she doesn’t want to.” He turned to my sister. “But Marcia, maybe we can go to the bank when we get home and see about replacing them.”
“Suppose we can’t? Suppose they don’t have any shiny dimes? Who wants to go on another stupid ride anyway?” And that was the end of that. (Note: I don’t know why Chucky and I didn’t just go on the ride without her. Perhaps there were rules about the size of a child needing to be with a parent or someone older. Chucky and I were both really small for our ages.)
When we returned to the hotel, Chucky told Mom all about it, but she was finishing the packing while trying to keep Ricky happy with a toy. “Chucky, I can’t talk about this now. We have to check out by two o’clock. Your stuff is on the bed. Pick it up and let’s go to the car. You too, girls. Let’s get a move on.”
Chucky and I were pretty grumpy as we left the hotel. He rushed to the car to beat Marcia to it so he could have a window seat which he rarely got. Being the smallest, he was usually relegated to the middle. I didn’t care about that, but I didn’t want to talk to her. I sat in the middle, and Chucky and I played cards and did not include her. (I think Ricky was up front on Mom’s lap. There were no seat belts then.) We thought we were spiting her, but I doubt that she cared. I can’t be sure, but it’s possible Chucky never quite forgave her for that.
The following year, on our first full day on the beach, we children were playing in the water with Daddy. He had Ricky in an inner tube (the black ones that used to go inside of tires, hence the name “inner tube”). We were all were jumping waves. Chucky and I were trying to body surf as the waves came our way. Marcia didn’t join us in that because she might get her hair wet. She’d definitely become a full-fledged, annoying teenager!
Soon we were hungry. We walked the boardwalk and got hot dogs, French fries and soda. Well, everyone else got sodas. I hated that nasty fizzy stuff, so I got a Yoo-hoo. We returned to our blanket. Ricky was tired and a bit cranky. Mom sang him a kiddy song, and soon he was asleep. Because we weren’t allowed to go in the water right after eating, we played in the sand. Chucky, Daddy and I built a castle. Marcia was checking out the boys. But she did join us in burying Daddy in the sand. Chucky put one of the boogie boards at his head and declared him officially a corpse. I wish I had photos of that.
Finally, enough time had gone by, and we could go in the water. Only Chucky and I wanted to, so we each grabbed a boogie board and hit the waves. We were laughing and kicking out into the ocean to get the good waves when I noticed we were all alone out there. I looked back toward the beach and was horrified.
“Chucky! Look how far out we are! We have to get back.”
“Okay, let’s do it.”
But it wasn’t easy. The current was pulling us out. I was really frightened, but I didn’t want to tell Chucky. Because I was older, I would be held responsible if anything happened. In spite of our youth, we were relatively strong swimmers. (Mom didn’t know how to swim, so Daddy made sure to teach all of us). We held onto those boogie boards for dear life and kicked and kicked and kicked until we were finally close to the shore.
We walked out of the water onto the sand and just stood there and breathed. When I looked around, I did not see my family. I had (and still have all these years later) the worst sense of direction. Chucky remembered that we were in front of the hotel where we stayed, so we started walking in that direction. It took a long time. We must have been at least a mile away.
Chucky saw them first. “There they are!” he said, pointing to a group a few blankets up the beach.
“Just act nonchalant,” I said. “Maybe no one will notice how long we were gone.”
“Yeah right. Like Mom wouldn’t notice.”
But we did act nonchalant, sauntering up to the blanket and sitting down.
“Did you have a good swim?” Mom asked.
I’m thinking this is a trap, but Chucky said, “Yeah, water’s great.” And that was it. They didn’t even miss us! But, trust me, I was so glad.
The next summer, we were back at the ocean. Daddy wanted to take us on an outboard motorboat ride. Mom wouldn’t let Ricky go because he was just five years old, but she was fine with the rest of us going. I think she just wanted my dad to take us for a few hours so she could relax while Ricky napped or played.
Daddy brought his movie camera, rented a motorboat from the dock, and the four of us were off for our adventure. And adventure it was! I’m guessing that someone gave him some sort of instructions, but I’m sure he felt confident that we’d be fine. He was in the Merchant Marines during WWII, one of the most dangerous jobs in war time.
It was a beautiful day. Daddy was at the tiller, pointing things out to us. A lovely breeze was blowing, the sun was glorious, the air was warm but not muggy. Everything was perfect.
Until it wasn’t.
I remember we were in rough water, and Daddy was having a terrible time controlling the boat. I have to assume that the Coast Guard keeps an eye out, because they saw we were in trouble and came to get us. But not before the boat was overturned, and we were all in the water hanging onto the upside-down boat. I remember my child-self thinking, Sure is lucky Daddy taught us all how to swim when we were little! I don’t remember if we were wearing life jackets, but perhaps we were and that’s why we all survived.
Our rescuers helped us all onto their boat, used a hook on the end of a rope to tow in our collapsed boat, and took us back to the dock. Through some miracle, Daddy was somehow able to salvage his movie camera and took pictures of the motorboat being towed in and all of us on the rescue boat.
Mom was on the dock when we got in. She just shook her head and said, “Really, Ralph?” I’ll bet there was a lot more said when we were asleep.
But for me, it was a grand adventure. I honestly don’t even remember being afraid. Somehow I knew my Daddy would take care of everything. And I didn’t think my mom should holler at him. After all, no one was hurt and what a story to tell.
Read more by Linda Miller.