July 24, 2015
HERE IS Part 6 of our ongoing series, “Tales of Chester,” my husband’s recollections of growing up in a working-class neighborhood in the city of Chester, Pennsylvania during the 50s and 60s. In this episode, Buttons, the family dachshund, faces capital charges during the annual summer vacation at the Jersey Shore. It’s somewhat disturbing, and for that, I sincerely apologize.
PHILADELPHIA MAGAZINE ONCE opined that Wildwood-by-the-Sea, New Jersey, had achieved the Marxist ideal. It was absolutely classless.
The writer obviously was not from Chester. We knew of no better place on Earth. We went there every year for the first two weeks in August. We savored the absolute purity of the humble white-washed cottages, the candy-colored apartment houses, and the futuristic motels that evoked an alien paradise far from Wildwood – the Eden Rock, the Rio, the Lu Fran. We luxuriated in the dazzling sand that burned our feet; the taste of marine depths in the air; the exotic sensation of being on an island; the enormous tomatoes, and Cokes spiked with vanilla extract.
Wildwood-by-the-Sea was a magnificent refuge. The novelty of the school year’s end had worn off by the day after school closed, and we were left to the brutal heat, the demoralizing odors of bad suppers in the languid air and the horrid realization that we had nothing to do. The sultry days passed at a glacial pace. The nights were too hot for sleeping in our flea-infested beds. The only relief came from a tiny rotating fan that scanned the bedroom, parceling out ineffective puffs of warm air, too weak to blow the mosquitoes away from our ears.
We did not need the fan in Wildwood-by-the-Sea, New Jersey. We had the sea breezes and house-high waves. Instead of the cracked railroad bridge along Sixth Street, we had a Boardwalk with roller-coasters and bumper cars. Instead of the odors of bad suppers, we had the fresh and salty smells of the sea. Instead of the loud fights of bad marriages that had invaded our rusty, hole-pocked window screens, our wonderfully exhausted bodies fell asleep to the rhythmic roars of those waves.
And what a sleep it was after a day of body-surfing and castle-building and football on the beach. What a contrast to those tedious steamy afternoons on The Corner, counting cars and watching dogs chew their hopelessly itchy backs. At home a three-block walk to the grocery store was an odious errand. In Wildwood, the three-block walk to the beach was enchanting, full of reverie and anticipation even as the sun-heated asphalt scorched our feet as we crossed the streets. Would the waves be 20 feet high? Was this the day I finally would be tan?
After a long day at the beach, sunburnt (no, I never did get that tan), hungry and thirsty, we took our frigid and bracing outdoor showers and then rewarded our thoroughly relaxed bodies with a trip to the Sea Spray for vanilla Cokes and the nickel juke box. This was as close to perfection as life ever came.
For the adults Wildwood was the highlight of the year, especially our aunt and her fiancé. They relished the collective exuberance of the young people and collected grist for the stories that would get them through the dreary Chester fall and winter. As a hedge against the invasion of troublesome thoughts, they positioned a gallon jar at the top of the refrigerator. Anyone who used the words “school,” “work,” or “home” had to put a nickel in the kitty. On our last night, the kitty was emptied, and we got to spend the loot on the Boardwalk.
Watching us pack to go on vacation was to Buttons, our dachshund mongrel, tormenting. He would sense our excitement about leaving, and that created in him a source of deep anxiety. He would not be joining us.
A neighbor had given Buttons to us as a pup when I was five years old, and for his first act he chased me around the house attempting to bite my ankles. I escaped only by climbing to the top of the living-room sofa. It was his way of introducing himself. We became fast friends, and he very quickly became an inextricable member of our family. His ferocious loyalty, intelligence, and passion were his signature characteristics. He had a particular passion for all cats: He hated them. When Buttons was about a year old, the same neighbor gave us a black cat, which we named Inky; she lasted a week. For the seven days of her residency Buttons chased her all over the house, at one point knocking over my mother’s ironing board, on which rested the iron and the toaster. On Day 7, Inky disappeared. We never saw her again. Cat bones later were found under our porch. Buttons was to be the one and only pet in the Wood household for the rest of his adventurous life.
Buttons’ eyes would enlarge as we carried the suitcases downstairs on the Saturday night before our two-week sojourn in Wildwood. On Sunday morning, he sat under the dining-room table trembling, and we had a rare view of the whites of his eyes. He would be staying with my cousins for two weeks, but he desperately wanted to be with his family.
That was out of the question.
We did not have room in the car for a dog, not even a small one such as Buttons, who reputedly was part dachshund and part beagle, although no DNA test ever was performed.
Our vacation quarters were cramped. We stayed in one of Nick’s Garden Apartments at 121 Bennett Ave. usually 12 to 14 of us – family, guests, assorted others – crammed into two bedrooms; a living room, with a davenport and a sleeper sofa, and a front porch, where at least two people could compress themselves on the wicker sofa. For this, Nick charged $65 a week. His outdoor showers had no hot, or even warm, water. He kept his three apartment buildings and bungalow, which we also rented for our human spillage, reasonably clean. If the sofa became worn-looking, Nick would put a fresh coat of paint on it. He allowed us to use his wonderfully landscaped courtyard and white-washed barbecue stove to toast marshmallows and hot dogs.
A major impediment to taking Buttons was his adversarial relationship with cars. He chased them, and he couldn’t tolerate riding in them.
He didn’t have much experience. Nor did we. We didn’t have a family car. We walked everywhere. My father walked to work, we walked to school. My father did own a 1938 Dodge, which he won in a May Fair raffle. However, he gave it to my mother’s brother who had polio as a child that crippled him for life. Every year my father reclaimed the car for the first two weeks in August, content to be car-less the other 50 weeks.
On the rare occasions that we had to take Buttons to the vet’s after a particularly vicious fight or to remove an embedded tick, my aunt’s fiancé would drive him. It was always an ordeal. We would force car-sickness pills into his mouth, clamp tight his jaws until he swallowed them and cover the back seat of the car with plastic sheeting. As soon as the car started, he would begin panting, and generous saliva would pour from his tongue. The drive to the vet was about 3 miles. Wildwood was 30 times that distance.
Few things were more exciting to me than a car ride; everything about it — the odors of the interior, the clicks of the turn signals, the sounds of the passing cars; to think on the first Sunday of August I would have 90 whole miles of riding in a car taking me to the time of my life. However, just as the thrill of the school year’s end evaporated in the heat of the Chester summer, the novelty of the car ride had run its course before we left the Chester city limits. The five kids all crammed into the back seat. Fortunately I was so small I took up little space. This was before the era of seat belts; so it was not uncommon for eight or nine kids to crowd into back seats. Our only safety feature in the Dodge was a braided cord dangling from the back of the front seats. The car had no radio, no air-conditioning. As we pulled away from the house and proceeded slowly along the bumpy cobblestones of Sixth Street, my father would playfully remove his hands from the steering wheel. He would laugh as I screamed in terror. “Stop it, Pop,” my mother would say from her side of the front seat. The drive to Flower Street, where we caught the Chester-Bridgeport Ferry, took only about 10 minutes. Crossing the river was another matter.
The first Sunday in August was one of busiest days of the year for the ferry. We waited and waited as each ferry filled with cars and pulled away from the dock. To a child, nothing is longer than a wait. On the other hand, I wasn’t necessarily looking forward to the end of the wait. I was terrified of the ferry, something I desperately kept to myself. The deck of the boat was perilously close to the water. When the boat moved, it did so slowly, and seemingly without purpose. I would stay in the hot car desperately looking for signs that we were making progress. Were the smokestacks on the Chester side receding? I wondered if the ferry had lifeboats. I wondered if we could drink the river water if we became stranded.
The scariest moments came at the end of the voyage during the docking maneuver. From the perspective of the car it appeared that we were about to smash into the wooden pilings. The ferry would brake too late to avoid contact, and the impact would jounce the boat, which would carom off another set of pilings, finally settling into the dock. I felt immense relief as the metal ramp was lowered to allow the cars to drive off.
An hour after we left the house, we had completed three miles of our trip; only 87 to go.
The ferry traversed the watery link of Route 322, which continued on the Jersey side of the Delaware. It was a two-lane highway bisecting cornfields and pastures from Bridgeport to Millville. As long as the Dodge kept moving, we were cooled by the breezes stirred by the westbound cars swishing past our open windows. The sound evoked that of tires rolling over wet blacktop, and in the distance we could see water covering the asphalt, but that was just a mirage generated by the same August sun that rapidly cooked the interior of the Dodge every time we had to slow down for a stop sign, a light, or a slow-moving tractor. The first tractor we saw was a welcome sight, a reassurance that we had entered another state and were making progress toward the ocean. Subsequent tractors did nothing more than raise the temperature in the car.
Roughly halfway across the state, about 90 minutes into our journey, the car would “break down,” conveniently near a tap room. At the time, I did not grasp the coincidence.
The last obstacle to Wildwood was the Rio Grande Bridge, the link to the barrier island. It was a heavily used drawbridge with frequent openings and invariably a line of cars waiting for clearance to cross. If the “break down” didn’t last too long, and we could get over the Rio Grande within 30 minutes, we could make the whole trip in 3½ hours. When we arrived, we would find my aunt and her fiancé and whomever they were transporting rocking in the shade of the porch, their car having arrived a solid hour before.
Poor Buttons could never have tolerated such an ordeal. As intelligent as he was, we could not communicate this reasoning to him. From his perspective he was being abandoned. So on the first Sunday of August, while we anticipated the time of our lives, poor Buttons would assume his position under the dining-room table, his black body shaking, the wide open eyelids exposing those white outlines. “Why were we abandoning him?” he all but asked us! No organism I’ve ever known could beg for food more effectively than Buttons, but this wasn’t begging, this was an appeal from the core of his being. “Why aren’t you taking me?!”
This was too much for my brothers and me to bear. One year we lobbied and lobbied and begged our parents to give in. To our immense joy, they gave in. Before we left, we went to the vet to get motion-sickness pills. My mother invested in a can of Alpo, his favorite, the most expensive brand out there. She embedded the pills in the dog food. Buttons was not fooled. He ate the entire contents of the can, and left the pills in the dish. My aunt’s fiancé, Bob Brown, who for some reason was the only one who would handle Buttons, managed to force the pills down his throat, as he had before taking him to the vet’s. Buttons accepted defeat. We lined the back seat of the Dodge with plastic, and gave Buttons a window seat.
Predictably, he was miserable, salivating and panting before we had driven two blocks. We had to bear-hug him to make sure he didn’t jump out of the car while we were on the ferry. The wait at the Rio Grande was interminable. Of all the rides to Wildwood, this was far and away our worst.
For Buttons, the end result was worth it. He bounded out of the car. We took him to the beach. When he spotted the first sea gulls he had seen in his life, he broke from the rope we had attached to his collar and ran hard after them, barking and yelping. They flew toward the water, and Buttons gave chase, leaping pointlessly and exuberantly toward the sky. He ran into the water, chasing the waves as though they were car fenders. Buttons stayed up late and barked at the moon and the shooting stars. If Nick minded, he never mentioned it. No one had asked whether Nick had a no-pet policy. If he tolerated a dozen or so Chesterites in one apartment, how could he have a problem with a dachshund-beagle?
By the end of the first week it was hard to recall why we had been so reluctant to bring him.
At the start of the second week, when time seemed to pick up speed on us ever so painfully, a new tenant showed up to occupy an apartment in the house directly across the street. Buttons suddenly lost interest in the waves, sea gulls, and all flying and rolling objects. The man had a cat, a Persian cat with luxurious rust-and-golden fur and a magnificent tail. The man clearly was mighty proud of his cat, as well he should have been. He sensed that we had taken an interest in his cat. To us, the cat’s appearance was an alarming development. The man came across the street to introduce himself and allow that he had spent $75 for the cat, or $10 more than our weekly rent at Nick’s. He thought the adults in our party would be impressed and that the children might be interested in seeing a cat worth so much money. Fortunately, he and his precious feline did not come inside our apartment, where Buttons was sequestered in a bedroom, shaking and trying to burst out of his coat to get at this mortal enemy.
Buttons never lost that passionate hate for cats that cost Inky his short life. He tried to kill as many as he could catch, and many were the cats that he did catch. He was low to the ground, and quick.
We never anticipated that we would see a cat in Wildwood. Visitors almost always left their pets home. The Persian was the first cat we could recall seeing on Bennett Avenue. He would not be seen for long.
To this day no one is certain what happened that night. It is known that on the following morning the cat was missing. Understandably, the owner was grief-stricken and angry and concluded that Buttons was the cat’s executioner.
This we learned from a Wildwood police officer who showed up at our apartment in the morning, joined by the cat owner. All of us, including a trembling Buttons — again giving us that rare glimpse of the whites of his eyes — convened in the living room, which was the size of a small bedroom. The police officer and the grieving cat owner were seated on Nick’s painted sofa.
“That dog killed my Persian cat,” the man stated.
None of us doubted this was true, particularly Buttons.
We did allow him to run free after dark, and the victim in question was, indeed, a cat. Had the man allowed the cat out at any time, so to do his business in the yard, it would have been a terminal errand. If Buttons could have talked — and we had such an exalted view of his intelligence that we believed he might be capable — he would have confessed.
The conclusion was unavoidable. The only cat on the street was savagely murdered by the only dog, a dog with a clear recidivist history. The only question was the appropriate punishment. We assumed we would be subject to a steep fine and have to pay the man $75 in restitution for the cat. No doubt this was a crushing prospect for our parents who had to scrape up every cent to pay Nick the rent money. This would mean the end of our last-night Boardwalk fund; the “school,” “work,” or “home” money would go to the cause.
To us, however, money was a miniscule concern. The man wanted Button’s life. He made it clear that he would settle for nothing less than the death penalty.
“We will prosecute, and we will see that the dog is put to death,” the policeman reassured him.
The adults listened gravely. The kids started bawling. The policeman bowed his head.
“All you need to do is prove that the dog killed your cat,” the officer then informed the late cat’s owner.
“Prove?” The man was outraged. “Wasn’t this beast the only mutt in the neighborhood?” Unquestionably.
The officer asked calmly how he could be certain the cat had died. Hadn’t he let out the cat, who was unfamiliar with the neighborhood? Could he have become lost, or run away?
The man said he was sure the cat was dead because he had found his mangled body in the yard behind where he was staying and buried it.
“Fine,” the officer said. “Bring the body to the police station and we’ll have an autopsy performed. The results should be available within a week or two.”
“An autopsy! Take my word for it, he was killed by that animal!”
“You’ll have to bring in the body,” the officer insisted, “If the investigation is to proceed. Where is the cat buried?”
“In the back yard.”
“Are you the owner of the property?” the officer asked.
“I’m renting for the week,” he replied.
“Did you get the owner’s permission to bury the animal?”
“I didn’t think of it,” the man protested.
The officer wasn’t done. “I assume, then,” he said, “You don’t have the permit.”
“The property owners need to secure a permit to bury an animal on the premises. Otherwise, he’s subject to a fine.”
“This is an outrage,” the man blurted out. And he had a point.
“Okay,” the officer went on. “Under the circumstances, we will waive any penalty providing the owner secures the necessary permit retroactively. Tell him to appear in person at the station between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. We can’t proceed until he secures the burial permit.”
“The owner is all the way in Philadelphia,” the man said. “He can’t drop what he’s doing and come down here.”
The absurdity of his situation was as evident as the conclusion that Buttons had killed his cat. He had to contact the landlord and get permission to bury a cat he already had buried so that he could dig up the body and take it to the police station for an autopsy. He sat silently.
The officer got up to leave. He pointed to the shivering Buttons. “Once we have the cat’s body, we will need blood samples from the dog, he explained to us. If the samples match what we find on the cat, the dog will be destroyed.” He put on his hat.
“Typically,” he continued, “We get lab results one or two weeks after we send them out. Providing the lab isn’t too backed up.”
The owner of the most-expensive cat we had ever encountered left our apartment without a word, presumably to contact the landlord to come to Wildwood to ask permission to bury a cat so that it could be dug up.
We waited tensely that day and the next. Whenever we saw a patrol car driving up Bennett Avneue, we assumed the worst, the way the guilty are wont to do. Buttons must have felt like the canine variant of Raskolnikov in “Crime and Punishment.” What relief we felt when the patrol cars kept going.
By the following morning, the man across the street disappeared. We hadn’t seen him load the car; he simply disappeared. He didn’t return that week, and no patrol cars creeping up Bennett Avenue stopped at our building.
For his part, Buttons remained imprisoned inside the apartment, allowed out to relieve himself only under intense supervision.
He would never see Wildwood again.
For 50 weeks a year, my Aunt Mae lived in a wonderfully tasteful and orderly apartment. It was above the Cake Box Bakery and the odors of baking cakes and buttery icing filtered through the floorboards. For two blessed weeks a year, she was able to embrace the disorder of the Wildwood apartment. Since she lived alone, she looked forward to this mayhem all during the 50 other weeks, and every year she hoped against hope that Tommy Hawk wouldn’t come. “Hawky” was the brother-in-law of the fiancé of my aunt, who was engaged for decades and finally married in her 60’s. Hawky was a truck driver at Sun Oil. He was part of the cast of adults I had known since before I could remember. You were born into the middle of their improbable lives, and it is impossible to say how those people came to be the way they were. I did sense early on that Hawky was one of the most peculiar persons I had ever encountered. He had a fat, fleshy stomach that rolled toward his legs in layers. Atop this torso was a head barely larger than an Idaho potato.
Every year, my aunt’s hopes were crushed. He would show up at our house the night before we left, bearing a 50-pound sack of potatoes. He would plop it on our dining room floor and announce, “Let’s go, Mom.”
He not only brought his wife, but he always brought a young male friend, whose relationship with Hawky was unclear. To the embarrassment of my brothers and sister and their friends, he insisted on sitting on the beach with us. He came armed with binoculars and a high-pitched whistle, which he would toot whenever a young lady walked by. He had a hopeless crush on one of my sister’s heavy-set friends. He described her to me as, “all meat, no potatoes.” I, of course, had no idea whether that was a compliment or an insult.
My aunt was at least grateful for one of his quirks. He didn’t drink. When all of the adults went off drinking, Hawky would go with his young friend to the Boardwalk, buy a new whistle and then cap off his evening with a banana split. He would make parrot-like noises back at the apartment, causing us to laugh, which would encourage him to keep making the noises until the adults returned.
It was Hawky who once held me by the feet over a balcony railing during our annual day trip to Steel Pier in Atlantic City, which we all hated because it was clearly inferior to Wildwood. I was looking from a balcony at an interesting display below of a model suburban home, complete with a glistening kitchen unlike anything at home, and I was fantasizing about living there when Hawky and his friend lifted me up by the feet and dangled me over the kitchen as if they were going to drop me in. They thought it was funny beyond all belief.
Those two weeks consisted of mostly uninterrupted bliss for me, but there were these tough moments too. One episode in particular was even more traumatic.
“We have a little boy … Tommy. Tommy is 5 years old, having brown hair, brown eyes, and is wearing a green bathing suit. … Please call for Tommy at the Schellenger Avenue Information Center.”
Yes, yet another little loser was lost.
On the Wildwood beach on an August afternoon, that droning, patronizing voice of an anonymous woman, always the same voice, always the same cadence, was as much a part of the sound-scape as the roar of the waves and the huckstering entreaties of the “Fudgie-Wudgie man.”
We heard her at least once every half-hour imploring parents to “please call” for so-and-so at the Schellenger Avenue Information Booth, a sleek, glass-front building on the Boardwalk, or, for real losers considered unworthy to enter a structure of such class, “the Burke Avenue Beach Tent.”
The Wildwood beach was an absolutely ideal setting for losing a child. The beach was massive, at least 500 yards from the Boardwalk to the water. I would learn later that such width was unusual for a beach, a freak of engineering. I did know then that it was way wider than the sands that fronted Cape May, where menacing waves attacked the concrete “Boardwalk,” and Atlantic City, where the sand was the seashore equivalent of dirt and the seagulls acted like pigeons. We took day trips to Atlantic City and Cape May very year. I hated them; why would anyone want to leave Wildwood?
In August, even on weekdays, the Wildwood beach was a maze of multi-colored blankets, umbrellas, and towels with every available space staked out by Coppertone-slathered flesh. We would colonize our area with two Army blankets and an assortment of towels, never did we bring enough dry material to accommodate the 12 to 15 of us who were staying at the apartment and were too young to go drinking in the afternoon. Finding those blankets after coming out of the water could be a “Where’s Waldo” exercise, but one that I managed to execute successfully. For all the misadventures and humiliations I ever had suffered on the beach – and the clash of crab-red and ultra-white skin was an endless source of amusement to my blanket-makes and embarrassment to me – at least I never became one of those Little Lost Losers whose abject helplessness would be shared with 100,000 bronzing bodies.
I should have known my turn would come. I always was hesitant to walk to the water, lest my crab-colored torso suffer the derision of strangers, and once I was in the waves, I was reluctant to come out. This got the best of me one day. I stayed in longer than my brothers and their friends and lost track of my whereabouts. The undertow was particularly strong that day, moving south to north. Usually I was careful to keep myself in front of the lifeguard stand at Bennett Avenue, where we stayed. This time, however, I got distracted, and when I remembered to look for the lifeguard stand, I could tell I was at least four blocks from Bennett. Three girls spotted me and must have noticed I was trying to find my way back. “Are you lost, little boy?” one of them asked.
“Little boy!?” I was 9 years old. They couldn’t have been much older than I was. “Where are you staying?” the same girl asked. I told them. “We’ll help you.” I could see that for them this was to be an adventure. Nevertheless, I was, indeed, very lost, and entrusted myself to their care.
Disoriented, I didn’t realize until it was too late that they were remanding me to the custody of the “Burke Avenue Beach Tent.”
I was deeply humiliated by this false imprisonment. Then came the most-painful part; I begged them not to do it, but I couldn’t stop them. The droning voice announced: “We have a little boy, Tony. … ” They had to use my name! It got worse. “Tony is 9 years old. … ” I must have been the oldest lost kid in the history of Wildwood. Then, the very worst. “Tony has red hair. … “ The only thing more mortifying than being a 9-year-old with red hair was being a lost 9-year-old with red hair. Did they have to tell the entire beach I had red hair? … “Please call for him at the Burke Avenue Beach Tent.”
If those people had a Taser gun, they would have shot me. A boy younger than me was running up and down inside the tent eating an ice-cream cone and having the time of his life. The man who was trying to calm me down suggested that I follow that boy’s model. So his family probably hates him, I thought. I protested louder.
The siege probably lasted a good two hours. No doubt my brothers heard the announcement and went back to the apartment – a good five blocks away total, given the size of the beach and adjoining parking lot — to secure an adult, which probably meant hiking four more blocks to the Central Inn. Eventually, my mother appeared with a posse of family members to reclaim me.
I suspect that my keepers at the Burke Avenue Beach Tent were never happier to see a mother.
The pain of leaving Wildwood was always beyond bearing. As we loaded the car for the trip home we were tormented by the memories of packing for vacation, reliving the days of anticipation, and what we wouldn’t give for two more hours on the beach and an hour on the Boardwalk.
The car never broke down on the way back.
The trip went depressingly smoothly. We drove through the bleak and undulating farmland until the hideous smokestacks along that rat-gray Delaware River came into view.
The sky always turned the color of the river. In two weeks the summer would empty into the worst nightmare of all: School would start.