Daily photographs by HANS VON RITTERN, with humorous, artistic and social commentary on life in the big city.

Photo of the day: ROCKAWAY BEACH, NEW YORK MEMORIES

ROCKAWAY BEACH MEMORIES:

I grew up on Rockaway Beach. My first time seeing the ocean was from this stretch of sand. My first sense memories of sand between your toes and then in your shoes comes from Rockaway. The smells were wonderful: the salt air, the wooden boardwalk had a certain indefinable smell, the sun tan lotion (usually Coppertone) wafting through the air and the hot dogs grilling at the beach stand.

For the first ten years of my life, 1955 to 1965, we were too poor to vacation ‘out of town’. Rockaway was the working man’s Riviera. The longest stretch of urban beach in the United States on a peninsula stretching out into the Atlantic. You took the bus or the  subway to get to the beach. We lived in Rego Park, Queens. We boarded the Q11 bus on Woodhaven Blvd. and then transferred to the ‘beach bus’ further down the blvd. It was a long arduous trek that took patience and stamina, but the rewards were well worth the two hour ride. If the buses were too crowded with teeny boppers and their transistor radios, you transferred to the scenic ’A’ train which took you over the bay with it’s little inlets and fisherman’s houses on stilts. It was a scenic journey in those old rattling subway cars with rattan seats, that now seems so much more romantic than it did at that time. I would give anything to relive that journey in one of those old subway cars again, they were different times. People had patience then, it wasn’t the era of hurry and rush, you accepted the fact that you would travel two hours by public transportation to get there.

The goal was 116th street. A wonderful honky tonk of old 2-story shops from the 1930’s hawking beach wear, surf boards, Italian ices, pizza and straw hats. Depending on how long it took to get there you quickly decided how much further up the beach you would walk to find a quieter spot away from the teenagers. (That meant of course, a longer walk back too). Right at the corner of 116th was an old wooden hotel that looked exactly like the Del Coronado hotel in the Marilyn Monroe film “Some Like It Hot”. The main floor was open with a huge open air old fashioned bar where you ordered your hot dogs and beer. Right across on the beach was the main life guard station which usually had the bikini girls right nearby. Planted strategically was the umbrella rental man. I remember the umbrellas distinctly, they were yellow and green horizontal striped. It was all on the honor system, you paid him, hauled the heavy wooden umbrella to your spot and were expected to return the umbrella yourself.

As it got hotter and your supplies ran low you would walk back to the old wooden hotel for more refreshments. It was sort of a badge of honor to have splinters in your feet to show you were tough enough to walk the splintery boardwalk back and forth without your flip-flops. Old biplanes would fly over head heralding the latest soft drink, radio station or local stores. Then there was the ice cream man. No – not in a truck, but a boy who carried a metal box with dry ice laden with Good Humor bars and orange drinks. “Ice cream and orange drinks heah!” We were in heaven. Portions of the beach to the left had stone jetties which created tidal pools, a place of fascination for a little boy. To the right were old wooden jetties with fisherman trying for their days catch. If you walked far enough to the right you would wind up at Riis Park. By 1965 it was the era of ‘Beach Blanket Bingo’, the Beach Boys, and surfer girls – tanning was a must. A good way to get an even tan was to take long walks. Those walks were wonderful, hunting for seashells, sea glass, and other little treasures of the sea. If you wanted to take a walk, you would ask your beach towel neighbor, “mind watching my stuff?” and off you went, sometimes for hours and your things would still be there upon your return. Incomprehensible in today’s times!

You timed your return home by whether or not you were going to stop at Playland, an old wooden amusement park that you would see in the old time black and white movies today. A rickety wooden rollercoaster called ‘The Atom Smasher‘, tunnel of love, games of chance, the smell of cotton candy was heady and the Nathan’s hot dogs were the best! It was a tough choice – sunset on the beach and a not so crowded long ride home, or, screaming thrills and a more crowded bus stop near Playland. Either way, you were lulled by the rocking of the old bus on your way home. Shoes filled with sand, sea shells clinking in your tin pail, sunburned arms and your beach towel smelling of sea air. Treasured memories.

My great-grandfather and grandfather were sea captains from Hamburg, Germany, they traveled the seven seas, the ocean is in our blood. So in the fall and in the winter, when the buses were empty and the beaches were quiet and desolate, we went to the beach for winter picnics and long introspective walks on the beach as the wind whirled the sea air through you hair. Searching for seashells was the best – no competition, that is when this picture was taken. The sound of the wind was like music, the ocean waves and the cries of the seagulls were so soothing. The old wooden boardwalk seemed ghostly without the sunbathers but it was as if it was our own private beach, just us and a few locals.  The silhouettes of the old wooden cottages looked like and Edward Hopper painting. Their colors blue, white and green with a little yellow here and there. The beach and boardwalk without the throngs seemed to go on forever and ever. Around 3pm we would head back to 116th  street where we would sip some hot cocoa and wait for the few buses to take us back.

In my teen years 116th street and the beach was the cool place to hang out with your friends and bring the latest 45’s to dance to on the beach as they played on your portable record player. We would have tanning contests to see who would come back the darkest from summer vacation, I won 3 out of 4 years in high school. In my junior year Susan Kopp won – she had used iodine and lemon juice mixed with her Coppertone (considered a death sentence today).

In my college years we traveled to the Caribbean for our vacations and the Rockaways became a thing of the  past. Now sadly it truly is with the destruction of hurricane Sandy. You never realize how much you  miss something until it is gone. What I wouldn’t give to have that one last hot dog or orangeade on the boardwalk “hot dogs and orange drinks, heah!”

Rockaway Beach is a part of me, it always will be.

4 responses

  1. Mickey Rosato

    I share many of your memories of Rockaway. We lived in East New York. My father would pack us up into the family car and we’d go to the beach. We always dug a huge hole and buried him up to his neck. I used to sit on his shoulders and he would walk out into the waves up to his neck. I was never scared. My mother used to make baked chicken for us to eat. When I got older I’d take the bus on New Lots Ave. to Rockaway. I used to cut school in junior high and spend the day walking the boardwalk. My mother would have killed me if she knew. In my early 20’s I took the bus from Flatbush Ave. to Riis Park. I didn’t know it was a gay beach until the day I waded into the water and realised all the guys standing around me were naked! I never knew who Jacob Riis was until I went to Ellis Island and discovered his book, “How the Other Half Lives” (I’m not sure of the exact title). The face painted on the sign at Rockaway Playland always scared me to death. To this day, I’m still deathly afraid of clowns. I always fed the seagulls and thought they had ketchup on their beaks from eating French fries until only a few years ago when I became interested in bird identification and noticed that the seagulls in the bird guide had splashes of red coloration on their beaks!

    November 3, 2012 at 2:38 pm

  2. Thank you for sharing that! Wonderful, wonderful. Riis Park was always a bit dicey. The Riis book title is correct, he photographed the slums of lower Manhattan to shame the uptowners into spending the money to improve living conditions there. The book still exists! You can but it on Ellis Island and on Amazon.com !
    Mickey – so funny – I have the exact same reaction to that clown! I too was afraid of clowns, so much so, when mom took me to the circus in Madison Square Garden – I freaked out. And omg = you’re the other kid too who gulls had ketchup on their beaks!! I love this!

    November 3, 2012 at 4:11 pm

  3. Eric Drucker

    winderful reminisces. I agree with every memory especially the part about splinters. It would have been a simple matter to wear shoes but time and time again my mother was digging a splinter out of one or the other foot with either a needle or a single sided razorblade. This would be followed up, at home, with the liberal application of Murciricom. Those were the days on the Rockaway beach at 56th street!!!
    1951-1957 Arverne Apartments

    October 27, 2014 at 6:29 pm

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