All through the ’70s and ’80s, on the first Saturday or Sunday (I forget which) of August, I did the same thing every year: Before my family would get in the car in the morning with all of our beach stuff, I’d walk down to the driveway’s apron and look north, a block and a half to the ball field, to see the flags posted. It was the official signal that volunteers were setting up our small town’s annual picnic. All kids love rituals—I defy you to show me one that doesn’t—but this kid is nutty about them. Another picnic!
(A note: Have you ever heard someone use the expression ‘small town,’ and then you find out it has 7500 people? Yeah, a recent census clocked in Interlaken, NJ at 820 residents. Small. Town.)
My best friend at the time lived a few streets away, and he called this event Interlaken Day. We just called it the picnic. It was neighbors, people who tiptoed over icy streets to my family’s annual Eggnog Party on New Year’s Day, who plowed out our driveway without asking when it snowed. We waved and called each other over from porches all summer. And it was extended family, many of whom who lived in town with us. The picnic was kind of like a reunion between people you never really said goodbye to in the first place.
During the day there were games and races, but not being especially sporty types, we kids never missed them. We’d walk over after the beach, around dinnertime. My parents would head under the trees, where all of the grownups would be parked in lawn chairs. Many of my relatives weren’t big beach people, so they made of day of it: three aunts (sisters), uncles, and lots of older cousins—the first- and second-removed type. They’d ask us how the beach was, and if we’d eaten yet. Italians, you understand.
One of my removed-type cousins was a plumber who had a glossy black toupee and a jolly demeanor—an admirable combination. He manned the beer stand and introduced the band, which was made up of local people. When he got old enough, my third cousin John ran the corn table and then the hot dog table; the latter were courtesy of lifelong residents, the Haydus, who lived a block away and had a hot dog company.
When we were little there were pony rides led by my babysitter, another resident. No Moonwalks or anything like that. They weren’t invented yet; and besides, people would have figured if you were at a ball field outfitted with ponies, a jungle gym, basketball and tennis courts, and a bunch of grass to run around on, anything extra was silly. Which it is.
One year we brought my dog to the picnic, a perpetually hungry Lhasa Apso, and while my parents were chatting with neighbors he ate a carton of sauerkraut that someone had spilled beer into. When we went home that night he drank a full bowl of water in one go.
I live right next to my hometown. Last Friday I saw signs posted around advertising that the the picnic was to take place the following day. We used to get notices in the mail on pale blue paper in the beginning of the summer. Maybe they still do that, too.
In the morning I went out to see if the flags were up. They were.
In the late afternoon I took to my bike and rode by. I saw people sitting under the trees, and food booths with little awnings, which was new. Still no Moonwalk, mercifully. Instead of a band they piped in music: it was Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.
I remembered a year I rode my bike to the picnic. It must have been 1986 because that was when the Monkees went on their 25th anniversary tour, MTV had a marathon of their ’60s TV show to promote the tour, and I became a rabid fan. I remember coasting through the streets humming, ‘The Girl That I Knew Somewhere’ (which is a fantastic song, and because you’re just dying to know, it was featured in the episode that guest-starred Julie Newmar.) I remembered the late-afternoon sun through the trees, riding with no hands, and a hot dog in the forecast.
Most of my family is long passed. The rest have moved away. I didn’t have anyone to visit under the trees when I went by yesterday. But the picnic was pretty much the same.
I think the biggest surprise you get when you become an adult is not that you have to work and pay taxes and take on responsibilities. You knew that was coming.
It’s how suddenly things change. Sometimes the changes are subtle, and other times they clobber you upside the head and blindside you. You climb a mountain and say to yourself, Okay, good, I’ve worked hard, I’ve got my footing, I’m getting the hang of this mountain, I can do this, and then you find out it’s not really a mountain, it’s actually really a river, and now you have to learn to swim, and you didn’t bring enough sunblock.
But people still sit under the trees at a picnic in a tiny town at the Jersey Shore. As I write this I’m walking in my memory, crunching over the first fallen acorns, telling my relatives the beach today was good; and starving, as all 12-year-olds, and Lhasa Apsos, are.
And they still set the flags first thing in the morning. They’ve been doing that for half a century or more. It’s not my family and my neighbors now. But it’s cool enough.
La la la la life goes on.