Tonight's the first night of the Memorial Day weekend, and when I was a kid growing up in northern New Jersey, this night was always the unofficial start of summer. The rental units began their summer season tonight all up and down the Jersey Shore, and so as soon as we could get away during the day Friday we were off down the New Jersey Turnpike and then the Garden State Parkway to our favorite shore haunt, the lovely burg of Belmar.
Summers in Belmar were classic fun. The beaches were packed with our high school and college cronies, and all the girls from the Catholic girls' academies were there, but minus those stuffy uniforms. There was a Dairy Queen at 18th and Ocean for the high schoolers, and for those who had reached (or could fake) the age of 18, which was the drinking age in those days, right across from the Dairy Queen was DJ's Bar. Formally known as Mr. D'Jais, this tiny establishment served five (small) draft beers for a dollar and rocked the neighborhood with various bands, especially a cover band called Holme. They played on Saturday and Sunday afternoons as well as on weekend nights, and during the day shift, when the band took a break, you could run across Ocean Ave. and jump right into the green Atlantic to cool off.
Money was tight for us weekend revelers, and all sorts of budgetary scams were concocted to conserve valuable funds for DJ's or the Dairy Queen. Admission to the beach required a badge, which one had to purchase from the municipal booth and show to the attendant at the gate to the beach. We soon learned that if one guy made it through the gate with a badge and a football, he could clip his badge to the ball's threads and toss it to his buddy over the four-foot fence. It looked like an innocent game of catch, but it wasn't.
Accommodations were another issue. Only a few guys had the money for a legitimate place to stay, and for the rest of us, you sponged off a friend if you could, and scrounged around for a place to sleep if there was no room at anyone else's inn. Sleeping on the beach was illegal, and attempts to crash under the boardwalk also proved futile, as the local officers were pretty good at shining their flashlights through the spaces between the boards to find you.
One option was to stay up all night, watch the sun rise on the beach, and then sleep on the beach all day. You could eat at Pat's Diner ("For Food That's Finer") in the wee small hours, and walk around the Belmar streets until it started to get light out. The Belmar streets were beautiful Jersey Shore avenues -- Bruce Springsteen's Band is named after a Belmar street -- and a middle-of-the-night stroll around town could be pleasant enough. The town is only about a mile square, so you could wind your way along just about all of its streets in a few hours. However, a few vicious sunburns (which I pray won't come back to haunt me later in life) resulted from the daytime beach crashes, and they put an end to that particular experiment.
One summer, a group of guys got a brilliant idea: Why not drive to a rest stop on the Garden State Parkway, sleep in the car or on the picnic grounds, and if the cops came, claim that you were driving home and just got sleepy? With this our plan, about a dozen us would camp out in sleeping bags in the trees behind the Monmouth Rest Stop at Mile 100 on the Parkway on Friday and Saturday nights. There was a Howard Johnson-type restaurant there, open 24 hours, along with lit, heated, reasonably clean rest rooms that came in mighty handy for draining all the Bud that had been consumed over the course of the evening. You could even brush your teeth in there. Meanwhile your buddies were hunkering down in the woods with an FM radio playing stuff like Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush."
By mid-summer the state troopers had caught on to our ploy, and their wakeup visits started coming earlier and earlier. They had a good sense of humor about it, though. I remember one officer shouting through his bullhorn: "Wake up! What the hell do ya think this is, Woodstock?"
The next year, enough of us had jobs and spending cash that the options multiplied. There were couches, floor space, porch space, even extra beds available in some of the apartments that the kids rented. We ran for a while with a guy whose uncle operated a creaky old hotel right on Ocean Avenue, and I think I may have even paid for a few nights' stays there.
When I graduated from college, and moved out west, my Belmar days came to a close. But I'll never forget those all-night walking tours, breakfast at Pat's, "lunch" at DJ's, and the brief sleep that came under the stars at Mile 100.