I do not often stroll down memory lane. I am not one to live in the past, preferring to look forward to the future. However, I find myself thinking about my childhood these past few days. I attribute this bout of nostalgia to a pending birthday and to the start of the summer season.
I was fortunate to have grown up in a small town in northern New Jersey in the 1970s. Sparta was an idyllic place, nestled in Sussex County and far removed from Newark (the first place non-Jerseyans are likely to encounter upon arriving at the airport). The crown jewel of Sparta (and shared with a neighboring township) is Lake Mohawk, a huge lake bordered by gorgeous homes and a quaint boardwalk. Summers were magical in Sparta, the 70s were a simpler time, and I could not have asked for a better place to while away my own summer days.
There were days spent roaming our neighborhood and exploring the surrounding woods. There were days we rode our banana-seated bicycles, streamers whipping from the handlebars, baseball cards thwack, thwack, thwacking against the spokes, down treacherous, twisting Glen Road to the pizza parlor for a slice and a soda. It was a scary journey, but the reward of a giant slice of cheese pizza dripping with grease made the game of human Frogger well worth the perils.
There were day trips to Tomahawk Lake. One or more of the neighborhood moms would load a pack of us into the back of a station wagon or a Buick the size of a small aircraft, coolers packed with sandwiches and juice. Donna Summer or Steppenwolf would be blasting from the 8-track player, the windows were rolled down for “air conditioning”, and any cares we may have had went right out those windows. A day at the lake meant picnic tables, diving off of the docks, and if we were lucky, some pocket money to use on tickets for the paddle boats or the waterside. The snack bar promised a treat of a snow cone or a cup of hot, crispy french fries.
There were special days when we would get invited to the Cruiser Club with a friend whose family had a membership. This meant a glorious day of swimming in a pool that seemed endless in its enormity. There were diving boards at various heights, as well as platforms at even higher heights to test your daring. Again, there was a snack bar that promised soft-serve ice cream and those hot, crispy french fries. What is it about french fries in a cup that makes them so good on a hot summer day?
There were block parties on Ginger Lane or down by Fox Trail Lake, with games and tables laden with each neighbor’s donated dish. The dads stood around grilling burgers and dogs and complaining about crabgrass and the Yankees. The moms sat around picnic tables sipping wine and cocktails, chatting, and swatting at the errant child. Nobody counted carbs, or calories, or points back then. Our plates were brimming over with potato salad, macaroni salad, and pasta salad. We ate and ate some more, then we played while our parents drank and laughter filled the air. Someone would bring out the sparklers, and the kids would run around in frenetic circles, dazzling silver sparks lighting up the night.
There were hikes in the Sparta Glen. We had fireworks over Lake Mohawk for the 4th of July. We watched ballgames at Ungerman Field, and we played on the playground in front of the library. Lake Mohawk and its beaches offered more swimming, boating, and water sport delights. There were picnics and backyard barbecues with tomatoes and corn on the cob. (If you have never had Jersey tomatoes or corn on the cob you are missing out. It is called the Garden State for a reason.) We had long weekends “down the shore” with beach days and boardwalk evenings, carnival games with cheap stuffed animals, funnel cakes and sticky cotton candied hands.
I am glad I grew up in the 70s. I am thankful that our phones only went as far as the cords would stretch, and that video games were reserved for the most rotten of rainy days that forced us to stay inside. Our car trips did not include DVD players or iPads. We relied on our imaginations to pass the time. We were free to roam the neighborhoods we lived in, and our parents were safe in the knowledge that there were other parents looking out for us, watching over us, and scolding us when necessary. There was no sense of time beyond getting up when it was light and going to bed when it was dark.
Today, on the eve of yet another birthday, I sit back, close my eyes, and smile. I inhale deeply and smell the sand and the salty french fries, the pine trees and the pizza. I listen and hear the sound of kids’ laughter and the thwack thwack thwack of a card stuck in the spokes of a bicycle wheel. Today I am that child of the 70s, the summer sun is shining upon my face, and the living is easy.
(Special thanks to Bobbi Landrock and Liz Montgomery for allowing me the use of their photos. These photos are the property of the individuals and may not be used without express written consent from the owners.)