Growing up, we only needed to travel a few miles to feel like vacation. Every summer for a decade, my family packed my mom’s station wagon full of bedsheets, towels, and beach chairs and prepared for horrific traffic crossing onto Long Beach Island. Saturday was the start and end date for all the summer rental houses, and the line change across the Bay Bridge was nothing but a headache.
Long Beach Island is a narrow barrier island off the coast of southern New Jersey. Exit 63 on the Parkway, for anyone asking. LBI is not tropical. It’s not luxurious. But when you’re 9 years old, and the cousins going with you are 10, 11, 12, 13, and 15, do you really need anything other than a towel and a roll of quarters for the arcade?
It’s an optimistically-named area with more little chubby kids on boogie boards than legitimate surfers, but I always applauded the superior branding effort. It’s hard to remember how many people we crammed into that unremarkable two-story rental house that year, but it was at least five families—all with kids, all with “he started it” vendettas and rivalries and tattletale accusations.
From what I remember, the week of sunshine and freeze tag culminated in tragedy when one of the kids innocently threw a pebble into the sky, only for it to land on the back windshield of his dad’s car, shattering it to a million pieces. I can’t remember if it was that or a noise violation that brought a cop named Tom Collins to the house. But suffice it to say, that family did not return to the island.
For the next five summers, we thinned the herd to just three families—the McCullions, Gonnellos, and Conochans—and stayed in a smaller but better place in Ship Bottom. The house itself was nothing special. Like most of the homes on the island, it sat on stilts to elevate beyond the expected off-season flooding and had dull, cheap, scratchy carpeting that tried not to show stains but was defenseless against the onslaught of sandy feet. Each of the house’s two stories had an outdoor balcony, where we hung our towels to dry or picked crabs after spending the day trying to catch them on tin can motor boats in Barnegat Bay.
What made the Ship Bottom house so incredible was that just across Long Beach Boulevard—the main street running from top to bottom of the island—was this amazing kid fantasyland called Hartland Golf.
Now, we weren’t idiots. Of course we spent our days at the beach. That was the whole point of vacation. Besides, my cousins and I were a bunch of feral rat kids. You didn’t have to convince us to go outside; we preferred it as our natural habitat. We’d get to the beach practically at sunrise, then spend the whole day digging holes and jumping in them. We’d play all morning, walk home for lunch, and then come back to swim in the ocean until our lips turned purple. We had no fear of sharks or jellyfish or riptides or hypothermia. We were more scared of being called sissies.
Things on LBI become delightfully ritualistic like that. After a full day on the beach, we’d head back to the house to clean up and eat. It was on LBI that I first learned the magic of an outdoor shower. Wringing out my wet hair in a no-frills, wooden outdoor stall with terrible water pressure and parading up two flights of stairs in a towel, only half-clean—now that’s some real beach kid freedom.
Dinner was uncreative, but that was kind of the point. The moms were on vacation and didn’t really care what you wanted: They wanted to relax. So, one of us would grab a small notepad and a pen then go around and interview every person—“Hamburger, cheeseburger, hot dog, cheese dog, chicken patty?”—then report back to the grillmaster with a running tally. My sister and my cousin Lauren, far more helpful than the rest of us little monsters, would then make a salad and Italian dressing from powder in a packet.
If you’re worried about the nutrition plan, please stop. We kids burned roughly 31,000 calories a day shivering in the Atlantic and playing paddle ball. Besides, it was the early 1990s, when the now-debunked Food Pyramid recommended consuming a full sleeve of frozen patties from Sam’s Club.
After dinner, we’d eat 37 of those incredible but probably toxic freezie ice pops that are just blue sugarwater in a plastic sleeve, and head across the street for some mini golf. What a time to be alive.
Together, all six of us kids would stampede over to Hartland Golf, fight over who got stuck with a pink ball, and assign someone with good handwriting to keep score. Then, we’d head to the first hole, praying that a slow and wholesome family wasn’t in front of us so we could engage in mild acts of misbehavior without consequence.
I couldn’t tell you who, of the cousins, was good at mini golf. What I can tell you is that we quickly learned a rule, still practiced to this day: Jeff always goes first.
Six years separate Jeff and me—he was the oldest, and I was the youngest—but that didn’t stop us from being a sort of bookended alliance of kids. Jeff always watched out for me—he took me fishing and crabbing and wouldn’t let anyone pick on me. In exchange, I counted his consecutive farts, laughed at all his jokes, and walked with him to a phone booth we nicknamed “The Sweatbox,” so he could call his girlfriend back on the mainland. It was a very fair trade-off.
After Jeff came my cousin Lauren and my sister Jillian, who were only a year apart in age. At home, Jillian and I fought pretty much constantly, so having the cousins around as a buffer prevented our bickering from escalating to a full-throated anarchical yellfest while on vacation. Jillian gravitated toward Lauren because neither of them was particularly interested in playing manhunt or screaming loudly or talking about boogers. As a unit, Jillian and Lauren stood for a more dignified, civilized lifestyle. They were more like normal teenage girls in that way.
Danny, Brian, and I rounded out the cousins. We were still young enough to play pretend games like “doggies,” and—thanks in part to the freezie pops—never ran out of energy. We were annoying, especially Brian and me, but we liked it that way. As the youngest siblings in our respective families, that was our freaking job.
Our parents would be back at the house, drinking beer and playing board games and singing Billy Joel until their lungs burst. They didn’t need to check on us because they trusted us—not to be angels, but rather to be the perfect level of mischievous. Again, it was the 90s, before cell phones and helicopter parenting—they had no reason to document our every adorable move to prove they had a great vacation to their boring friends on social media. They just lived in the moment and enjoyed the music.
And so did we. Because Hartland Golf didn’t just phone it in with 18 differently-shaped astroturf carpets. They could have just settled for little pockets of water, painted blue for effect, and tiny sand traps. Instead, Hartland Golf had the sickest obstacles, like a painted heart-shaped pile of concrete, which inadvertently looked like butt cheeks. If you putted your ball up and over the crack, it’d guide your ball into the cup on the other side.
Hartland also had some sweet mechanical obstacles, too. Like the hole where you had to time your stroke to make sure the windmill didn’t abruptly stop your progress or send your ball deep sideways. Or superfun ones where if you sent your ball perfectly up a spaceship ramp, it’d get shot like a Rube Goldberg cannon into an intergalactic funnel system, resulting in a hole-in-one.
They could have just preyed on the countless tourists looking for something to do at night to pass the time before the next beach day. They could have offered an overpriced and mediocre mini golfing experience meant to maximize profit instead of joy. They could have just had cheap ice cream and dingy astroturf, but they didn’t.
Instead, Hartland Golf kept droves of pre-teen idiots entertained and out of their parents’ hair for a few hours. That week of mini golf nights became a formidable and indelible part of my childhood. Because they really freaking went for it.
Much has changed since those innocent beach weeks of the 1990s. My mom and Aunt Barbara both passed away, and we don’t see Uncle Joe anymore. We’ve all got our own things going on, and two of the kids don’t even speak to each other. It sounds depressing, I know, but that’s what happens with time. It moves on, and we don’t stay the same.
To think so fondly about my childhood and these memories that come back to me so easily. To linger in the past, where the memories are uncomplicated. If you’re waiting for a “but” counterpoint as the moral of the story, I’m sorry to disappoint you. Because it’s not coming. I just wanted to tell you how much I miss those days on Long Beach Island.