(The present? Not so much.)
Remember those back-to-school assignments you were tasked with many summers ago? Of course you do. The generic essay on “How I Spent My Vacation,” or the more challenging book reports assigned by the teacher or chosen at your own peril. In either case, both were submitted at the beginning of a new school year, on ruled paper from a fresh faux-marble covered notebook containing words of wisdom scribed with a soon-to-be lost Estabrook pen.
If the teacher really wanted to be a stickler, she (let’s face it, most were in the early 1950s) would make you stand in front of the class, read the masterpiece (emphasis on elocution), and endure the snickers and not-so-suppressed sighs of your peers.
But that was then and this is now. Today’s students, either day school or public, are assigned much more demanding summer exercises than we were, exercises designed to enhance critical thinking, delve deeper into a STEM curriculum, put a social action experiment into practical application, intern at no pay, travel to Israel, or volunteer for the latest trouble spot in need of willing hands. Summer is not to be wasted. Summer is serious.
I am writing this adult version of a school report from the sandy haunts of Long Beach Island during the waning days of haze and humidity. LBI is an overdeveloped spit of land off the Jersey coast where Delmarva and Philly accents run up against the coarser consonants of northern New Jersey visitors. It serves as common geographical ground for Eagles fans and Giants diehards (more annoying than usual this year because of the Birds’ Super Bowl win), the sub sandwich versus the hoagy, pickups competing with SUVs, hunting and fishing discussed as passionately as arts and theater, and a deep blue sky more than offset by the beet-red political atmosphere.
What a far cry from the sparsely populated resort my parents introduced me and my sister to in the mid-1950s. Our family stood as outliers. We ventured farther south from Newark than the established Jewish resorts of Deal and Bradley Beach on the newly opened Garden State Parkway. To a land where the bagel was a novelty and the name Shapiro (a big developer) was pronounced Sha-PYRE-o. Dad and mom usually rented a neat little cape cod paneled in knotty pine from a carpenter and his family who moved in with the wife’s parents for the summer. The rent for eight weeks was about $900. Those capes are virtually gone now, victims of storms or teardowns, replaced by huge rebuilds erected without much sense of style or proportion. So are the bayberry bushes, the scrub pines, and the hardy vegetation that draped the island. So are many of the local characters who rarely ventured forth into the larger world across the causeway.
But the memories of those summers will never dim, and I don’t want them to. Back then l developed my own gardening business, during which I inadvertently buzzed some of Mr. Torgerson’s prized gladiolas with the power mower. His Scandinavian-laced tongue-lashing is still ringing in my ears. I also worked as Nick DiNardo’s helper on his vegetable and produce truck as he charmed his way through a Philadelphia Mainline clientele, then watched spellbound at lunchtime as he cracked a raw egg and gulped it down before gathering some produce and fruit and bartering it for our meal at a restaurant. But Nick usually would give back his earnings on the same afternoon at the Atlantic City racetrack. I also cycled nearly the entire length of the island in less than a day, about 30 miles, on my trusty Raleigh racer, after I had taken it apart and reassembled it with a few washers to spare. But best of all were the older guys who let me play basketball with them because of my height and hang out with them because of my emerging coolness (not to mention my hero worship of their every action).
These and other rites of passage occurred on LBI across several summers, including 1955, when I was preparing for my bar mitzvah in September during Sukkot. Tribe members were few and far between down here as I studied lessons from Rabbi Pilchik and Cantor Summers and labored over the obligatory thank-you-all speech. There was no local Jewish center to lend support or provide a safe haven; that would be built some years later, and eventually rebuilt again. But there was the Baldwin Hotel, the last-standing of the massive, turreted seaside resorts constructed on the island during the 19th century for Philadelphia’s sweltering swells. Now in shabby decline, it had been used to billet servicemen during World War II and Shabbat services were held every Saturday in one of its meeting rooms. As my bar mitzvah neared I felt duty-bound to attend. Fedoras outnumbered kippot as some very old men, or so it seemed at the time, pounced when I entered and told me I made the minyan. They didn’t even card me, though I was two months shy of officially attaining religious manhood.
Fast forward to the present. My wife and I pay 10 times what my parents paid for our three-week rental in paradise. (I refuse to buy down here. One Jersey property tax is enough.) Our duplex, four houses from the beach, survived Superstorm Sandy only to have a pipe rupture afterward, forcing the owner to gut and redesign the 1950s-era structure. The job, which took two years to complete because of competing Sandy rebuilding, still lacks enough insulation to muffle the footfalls of the 5-year-old twins in the family below us. The weather has been uneven, the traffic is thicker, and prices for everything from meals to suntan lotion march onward and upward.
Do I protest too much? Absolutely! But that’s because this particular summer seems so different from all other Julys and Augusts, the summer of my discontent if you will. I think it’s because I finally felt the cumulative effect and full brunt of almost two years of Trumpomposity, month after month of witnessing the most powerful and consequential office in the world being debased, disgraced, and desensitized; of up becoming down, black becoming white, facts becoming fungible, and truth becoming an elusive quality in a parallel universe where there are “many good people” on both sides of a bad issue.
Even summer reading, an exercise designed to distract and detach me briefly from a world that is too much with us, didn’t have its usual mollifying effect, despite devouring brilliant short-story anthologies by the manic and ebullient Kurt Vonnegut and the darker, brooding Raymond Carver, he of ambiguous, enigmatic endings. Add in two compact but sturdy biographies of merchant princes and philanthropists Louis Bamberger and Julius Rosenwald (of Sears Roebuck renown) and you have the sum and substance of my diversion.
However, I must confess to feeling slightly encouraged by events of the past few weeks. My spirits lifted somewhat when I was able to at least envision the dominoes finally beginning to topple. But is it a true tipping point? I’ve ransacked my memory over how revelations unfolded during Watergate those many decades ago, when I was an editor with the Star-Ledger of Newark. Manafort, Cohen, Pecker, Stormy Daniels, Flynn, et al certainly seem to sink to the slime of Dean, Ehrlichman, Haldeman, Colson, and company. While there were no cell phones, internet, or 24/7 news cycles back then, the characters were just as sleazy and probably more cunning than the present dramatis personae. And now there is a host of young, earnest reporters at “fake news” publications like the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal (excluding its editorial pages),and at select websites and cable stations, digging and reporting wherever it may take them.
Labor Day was a significantly more important inflection point than usual this year. I’m already geared up for the midterm elections, hoping for as much of a reset as possible in the House and the Senate. This is where the fate of the Trumpocracy may be decided, since the current crop of feckless Republican incumbents simply isn’t up to the challenge of objective examination. The recent primary upsets by liberal Democratic insurgents portends well for a change election, as does President Obama rejoining the fray with a lacerating critique of his successor’s often obscene behavior.
While I am not a legal or constitutional scholar, my newsman’s instincts tell me — by way of invoking Churchill — that this may not be the beginning of the end, but it is certainly the end of the beginning. The next few months loom as critical, dramatic, and possibly history-making, especially as special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s team bores deeper into the tangled web of Trump’s Russia dealings.
Tragically, John McCain won’t be with us when the time comes to pass judgment on the man who once derided him as a loser for being captured and spending more than five years in captivity. The hero passes with nobility as a nation mourns him in a bipartisan outpouring while the mendacious draft dodger grows ever more strident in his outbursts and tweets.
During the High Holy Days, I also try to put special focus on Israel, and this year my thoughts are bound up in the not-so-subtle negative effects of the new nation-state law. Prime Minister Netanyahu, facing a host of legal troubles of his own, has virtually moved in lockstep with Trump as he’s nudged the nation rightward. The chasm between diaspora Jews and those in the homeland only grows. Perhaps by next July, the political climate in both Washington and Jerusalem will have significantly improved and clarified. Hopefully, there will be an urgency for corrective change on both fronts.
And that, dear classmates, is how I spent my summer. May autumn hold out hope for renewal, or at least a return to normal norms. Don’t make America grim again.