It's no secret that Coney Island is bound up with my childhood. In the dark days before Disneyworld, Coney Island was our fantasy world. Even Mom needed some relief from having us underfoot all summer, and when she couldn't take it any more, off we went. Going to the beach wasn't simply a matter of jumping in the car and arriving seaside in 30 minutes. This was an all-day outing that took planning, logistics and courage. We rode the subway carrying our beach blankets, towels, pails and shovels, and of course the brown bags dripping oil from the peppers and eggs or Italian tuna sandwiches. There was also a gallon thermos jug full of grape Kool-Aid that could be filled to the brim for about four cents.
We took the A train to Franklin Avenue. People would snap our pictures as we got off the subway because they didn't see many white people in that neighborhood. We walked up the steps to the elevated Coney Island train that actually had woven straw seats. You can only imagine my mother, and usually one of my aunts, trying to keep tabs on this caravan of kids and baggage. The ride was above ground and we all ran for window seats so we would have a good view of the exotic landscape that was just a twenty-minute drive from home, but seemed to us like another world. We shifted uncomfortably in our straw seats as the bathing suits we wore under our clothes chaffed in the non-air-conditioned cars. At last the tang of salt air told us we were there.
We ran down the train steps, with the slower adults trying to keep up and screaming at us to stay together. The pull of the ocean and the sounds of crashing waves drew us up the narrow streets that led to the glorious boardwalk. We then slogged through the cool sand under the boardwalk, giggling past the young couples groping each other to the sounds of their new fangled transistor radios. Finally, we hit the sun-splashed beach and broke into a run as the sand turned hot under our feet. Mom would splurge for the fifty cent umbrella rental fee so that the younger kids in the troupe could have a shady place to take their mid-day nap. They slathered us up with Coppertone and turned us loose, hoping not to see us for a few hours.
After a day of diving into the waves, burying each other in the wet sand near the water, and chasing after the Good Humor man who sold ice cream on the beach, we should have been exhausted, but we knew the day was not yet over. After our bathing suits dried, we got dressed and headed across the boardwalk to the Steeplechase Park amusement area. We usually stopped first at one of the custard stands for the best pistachio or banana soft ice cream I've ever had. We were then free to tour the rides in the park. An admission entitled you to so many rides, and they would punch your round ticket for each ride you went on. The Panama Slide, the Airplane Swings, The Wild Mouse and of course the Steeplechase horses that circled the park on a track. It was a ten-year old's heaven on earth.
We recently visited the Coney Island Aquarium. Unfortunately, it was "Screaming Kids Get in Free" day and we didn't hang around for long. We took a stroll on the boardwalk down to Nathan's for lunch. I was most pleasantly surprised to see the beach and the amusement area thriving. After years of hard times, they have cleaned things up and it looked very much like it did when I was a boy. The Cyclone and the Wonder Wheel are still there, and if you squint really hard, it's 1952 again...your vision and hearing are perfect, nothing hurts, and you can leap tall buildings in a single bound. But back to reality; now where is that sun block, and I can't find my eye drops again.