The Newark Riots occurred between July 12 and July 17, 1967. There were 159 race riots across the country, during the “Long Hot Summer of 1967”. The riots in Newark were instigated by the arrest and beating of a black taxi driver, but the tension had been building up since WWII, as returning white soldiers fled the city for the suburbs under the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944. The African Americans who in turn took up residence in the Central Ward faced discrimination and poverty. Then, the state cleared out much of the Central Ward to make room for UMDNJ, leaving thousands displaced.
I was seven at the time, and unaware of the reasons for the riots. I didn’t even really understand what a ‘riot’ was. I only understood that men were fighting, breaking into stores, and stealing, that Newark was a dangerous place to be; and that we did not live far from the tumult.
My parents always went away for two weeks in August, and left us with our teenage siblings, and our housekeeper Sally Jones, who came from 8:00 am – 3:00 pm on weekdays. Sally lived in Newark with her husband and children, but spent decades helping my mother raise her very large brood. In my typical unobservant fashion, I didn’t make the connection between the chaos in Newark, and my dear housekeeper living there. I was, as many seven year-olds are, only concerned about me (and by extension, my Mom, because I needed her).
As I have mentioned previously, my summers consisted of leaving the house in the morning, and heading to the pool for the day. But in the summer of 1967, Mom and Dad were worried. They didn’t feel comfortable leaving their kids alone in the house at night, with pandemonium close by. They decided to bring us with them to Cape May, NJ. They rented a house on Broadway for two weeks in August. That was the beginning of nine years of beach bliss.
I was seven that year, and as I still am, a real worrier. So my parents’ decision sat right with me in a number of ways, and the first was: we were going to run away from the turmoil. I was more than okay with that; I was relieved. That way, I didn’t have to worry about myself. Just my older siblings who stayed behind in South Orange, my friends, and when I finally thought about it, everyone who lived in Newark, including my beloved Sally.
I also approved of running away to the beach. We had been to Aunt Frances’ beach house in Beach Haven, and Aunt Betty’s house in Point Pleasant Beach. But, I had never slept over, so far as I could remember. I didn’t even know that in New Jersey, going to stay at the beach was called, “going down the shore”; but I learned that quickly.
The drive to Cape May took forever. It could have been in another country, so far as my young brain could tell. That first year, we drove down in our brand new 1967 Blue Imperial. It was big and fancy and beautiful, and I was proud that it was our family car. However, when you crammed five kids and some coolers in the backseat for a 3 hour drive, it turned into a hot, cramped, loud, sticky mess with many fights, verbal and otherwise, along the way.
In 1972, the car was replaced with the Stationwagon, complete with a suicide seat in the back, where I preferred to ride (for those who are not familiar with the dangerous vehicles of the ‘ancient to you’ past, a suicide seat was the seat in the back of the car that faced the oncoming traffic; hence it’s moniker). However, I didn’t always get that choice. There were two reasons for this: 1. Everyone wanted to sit in the suicide seat. 2. I liked to sing my made-up songs out loud, for my family to listen to in awe. They liked to scream at me to “shut up!” When I was in the back window seat, I would stick my head out of the window like a dog and sing loudly for myself to listen in awe. I could not understand why was I the only one who knew what an amazing writer and singer I was. Everyone except me was happier with this latter arrangement.
But in 1967, as we headed out for our first shore adventure at 6:00 am on August 1st, in the brand new Imperial packed with kids and food and drink, my Mom drove as fast as a Mom on packed Parkway could drive, and didn’t stop until she reached Oyster Creek rest stop.
When we reached the rest stop, we got out and stretched our legs, ate Mommy’s coffee cake, and drank coffee milk. This was the only place we ever stopped on the way, and it became a tradition. It wasn’t until Joe McGinniss wrote the book “Blind Faith” about Robert Marshall orchestrating the murder of his wife, Maria in September 1984 in Oyster Creek that I ever thought of the little spot with anything but heartfelt nostalgia.
Once our breakfast was done, we headed back on the road. This second leg of the trip was much shorter, and more stimulating. We were getting close to our destination. As we continued south, the sights grew more beautiful and the air was infused with a cleaniness that even we, from the small suburb of South Orange, did not experience often. I was seven, but I felt it. I saw it. I smelled it. It was…pine barrens, salt, fresh air, fresh wind. Nature. Lovely.
We reach mile 10 on the Garden State Parkway, and someone started singing “One Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall”, just as so many families did in the final stretch of their vacation treks. We all joined in. It was fun, and we counted all one hundred bottles by the time we reached the bridge that signaled the end of the Parkway, Exit 0, and the beginning of Cape May Township, NJ.
We crossed over the bridge and continued past the signs that said “Beach” with an arrow pointing left. We were heading to our rented home for the next two weeks. When we were arrived, it was…there is no other way to say this from a child’s view: It was exciting! We jumped out of the car, glad that our journey was finally over.
Once Daddy opened the door to our Broadway house, we all ran upstairs to claim rooms. As usual, Karen and I were in a room together. But it was okay! This was so much fun, getting to go on vacation, and not just to the South Orange Pool. We all unpacked the things we would need that day, then Mommy said, “Get in your suits, and let’s head to the beach.”
We walked three blocks down Broadway, and we were there. The Beach; the Atlantic Ocean. They called to me, and told me that I was a part of them. They had been waiting for me. And if you could see my Mom in her element in the sand and water, then you would know that seashore love is real; and hereditary.
When we returned to our rental later that afternoon, my mother went to the Acme grocery store to buy food for the night and morning. She would go big food shopping the next day in Rio Grande, where the supermarkets were. We finished unpacking and made our beds. The smell of steak rose up the steps. But when we came down, this was not steak, but minute steaks on hoagies, ala Philadelphia. Mommy obviously had made these before, but not for us. They were amazing. Another staple of our beach lives was found.
The next day, we were allowed to go out to venture, because it was Cape May in 1967, and we were even allowed to wander in South Orange next to Newark during the riots. People worried about their kids, but I didn’t know any parents who overprotected them. We all led pretty independent lives. Upon exploring, we discovered the haunted house two doors down. In retrospect, it was a badly neglected home, that many years later was purchased and completely renovated. But to us, that was a home to be feared, for surely ghosts or witches lived there. We ran past it every time we had to walk down Broadway.
The ironic thing is that two years later, we rented the house on Columbia for the month of August, for five years straight. This was the duplex where Mr. Townsend died, and they never found his will. My mother was convinced his ghost roamed the home, and following suit, so were we. I didn’t sleep the entire month of August for those five years.
But in 1967, no one but Karen and I, and maybe my Irish twin Kevin, believed there was a ghost in the ramshackle home. It didn’t even have a name.
That first seaside adventure was shorter than the ones to come, and many of the memories are cloudier than the more recent ones. But it holds a special place in my heart, because it is the time that I fell in love…with the ocean, with Cape May, with vacation!