Adolescence swooped in on me like a seagull one night last summer on the Wildwood boardwalk, pecking at my heart and leaving me standing there, alone, with nothing to do.
My family’s routine had been nearly the same since my children were all in strollers. We ate pizza. We played some arcade games next door. We went on rides, first the little boats and trucks when they were toddlers, then the Ferris wheel where they gripped my hand, then the upside-down roller coasters together when they were tweens.
The night ended, always, with ice cream.
I’ve always clung to those traditions, perhaps tighter than I should have. About a decade ago, I interviewed Morey’s Piers co-owner Jack Morey, hoping to persuade him to save my favorite ride, the Golden Nugget, a unique and kitschy indoor/outdoor roller coaster whose time had come. The Nugget was built in 1960 and I’d ridden it at least 100 times in my lifetime. No matter how hard I tried to shake it, the silly sentimentality of it all, I never feel as if I’d “arrived” at the Shore until I was on the Nugget’s roof as a boy, weaving in and out of its Old West mining-town tableau at dusk.
On a frigid day in January, I dragged my older son down there with me to say goodbye to the ride with a dozen other people before it was dismantled. Crazy, I know. I was given a section of the coaster’s chain as a souvenir. I still miss it. My son is 18 now and he’s been doing his own thing at the Shore for quite a few years. Our only rides together now are when I up the ante on bigger vacations, on rides with significant g-forces.
But on this night last year, after our usual pizza, my daughter, then 13, broke the news with her brother, 11, by her side.
“Dad, why don’t you just meet us back here at like 9:30?” she asked me at a busy boardwalk intersection.
She didn’t quite come out and say “Don’t come with us," but my brain had trouble catching up.
“But you don’t want to go on rides?” I asked.
“Dad, it’s fine,” my daughter said, speaking for both of them.
Maybe she meant “This is part of growing up. We’re good kids and you can trust us.” That’s all true. They were meeting friends. They both had cell phones and unlimited ride tickets. I thought their mom would have said yes too.
So I gave in, handing them each $20, and I walked off to a new bar a few blocks down on the boardwalk to nurse a beer. A Phillies game was on every single television. I don’t even like baseball.
“Don’t split up. Don’t talk to any adults. Text me if you need me,” I told them before they ran off to the pier without me.
When my colleague Tommy Rowan first mentioned he was writing about children going on their first boardwalk rides as part of our annual Shore series, this moment immediately flashed into my mind. I’m adept at time-traveling into my past, seeing my kids ringing those same bells on the boats, the way the children in Tommy’s story did.
And it hurt a little.
All the old cliches about being a parent, the where-did-the-time-go, cherish-every-moment Facebook posts are true. I’m sorry. The years move far faster than you can imagine, and sometimes, if you’re not mindful, you can spend too much time reminiscing about the past or planning the future. You have to be there, now. You have to notice the magic in each moment, even as those moments mature and don’t giggle as much. All these memories I long for, are born in the present.
On that night last year, I sat at the bar for two hours, mulling over this new era of being a dad, still swimming in the deep end of my sentimentality. After that one beer, I made my way back to the pier and walked around, alone, occasionally seeing them in line for rides, talking to other kids. I marveled at them from afar, watching them become themselves. When my daughter said “It’s fine,” she was also saying “Dad, you’ll be fine," and she’s right.
It was around 9:45 when the teens disbanded and my daughter and son found me on a bench by the Dante’s Dungeon dark ride, a Wildwood throwback we’ve ridden countless times. I hope Jack Morey never takes that one down either. Hint hint.
I assumed we’d all drive back to the condo, to retreat into our phones as we so often do, and enter some new era of parent and child where I don’t need as many ride tickets. Some things, thankfully, can always stay the same, though.
“Dad,” my daughter said, “can we get ice cream before we leave?”