My Summers at Orchard Beach
hen I was young, I was lucky. I lived in the Bronx. I didn’t know it then, but theBronx had the most parks of all the five boroughs. I was fortunate enough to live across the street from one of them, Crotona Park. I played a lot in Crotona Park; I had a playground directly across the street. My family and I walked over to Indian Lake quite often. Crotona Park also had handball courts, tennis courts, and baseball fields. By the time I was five, I had explored most of the park. My father sat on the benches on Fulton Avenue, and I would play behind him in the park. Right behind the fence there were these big flat rocks. I used to pretend they were the counter in a store and I was the manager.
Every summer weekend, my parents took me and my sister to “The Bronx Rivera,” Orchard Beach in Pelham Bay Park. My sister and I were brand new immigrants from Italy. I was two years old when we came to New York with our parents in 1956. We lived in an apartment building on Fulton Avenue, one block from the Crotona Park Pool. I had a wonderful view of the pool from my aunt’s apartment, but I never went there. Instead, we took the long and adventurous trip to Orchard Beach at least once a week. Through the eyes of a kid living in the south Bronx, the bus ride was like leaving one world and entering another. And it was another world.
The trips to the beach started early. My mom was the first one up in the morning. She would pack up all that we would need for the long day ahead. She usually cooked the night before, and I am not talking hot dogs and hamburgers here. She would bring pasta, meatballs, bread, fruit, coffee, salad, and Kool Aid. There was enough food for two meals, one in the afternoon, and one in the evening. She would pack blankets and toys, and a foldable stool that my father liked to sit on under a tree. We would bring playing cards and beach balls, and one of those inflatable tubes you wore around your waist when you went into the water. I always wanted an inner tube - they were bigger and cooler. All this stuff was packed into shopping bags and then put into a shopping cart. We must have looked like Gypsies roaming the streets of The Bronx in the early morning hours.
From our building we walked around the corner to Claremont Parkway, and waited for the bus on Third Avenue. That bus would take us to Fordham Road. The Third Avenue bus was never crowded, but the next one was. Sometimes we would drag the shopping cart up the steps and take the Third Avenue El.. I always liked taking the train because of the rattan seats and the ceiling fans. When we reached Fordham Road, there was a flower shop on Third Avenue. There would always be this big Saint Bernard lying on the sidewalk in front of the shop. I used to see him from the station.
We waited for the number twelve bus to Orchard Beach in the parking lot near Sears. There was also a bus on the same route that went to City Island. It was always disappointing when the bus that arrived turned out to be the one for City Island. When the bus arrived for Orchard Beach, it was packed with people. I always managed to find a seat to kneel on so that I could look out the window. I had to have a window seat, because half the fun of going to Orchard Beach was getting there. As soon as the bus passed under the Third Avenue El, the adventure began. With my face pressed up against the window, I would give the Saint Bernard one last look, and we were on our way. Soon the bus passed by The Bronx Zoo. There was no underpass at Southern Boulevard at that time. I always looked real hard into the zoo, hoping to catch a glimpse of some animals. I usually did see one or two. Even if it was only a pigeon, if it was near the zoo, I was sure it was some exotic breed, and not your run of the mill Bronx pigeon.
I can honestly say I don’t remember passing under the El on White Plains Road. I was focused on the trees along Pelham Parkway, where there was always a chance of seeing someone riding a horse. The riding stables were further down, and the bridle path ended at Willaimsbridge Road. Once we passed the stables, we were in what I thought was the country. If the bus wasn’t too full, it sometimes took a detour to Pelham Bay station and picked up a busload of beach goers.
Once the bus turned right off the Pelham Bay Bridge, we were almost at the beach. I could smell the salt air. If it happened to be low tide...well...I looked around the bus to see which one of the passengers could have made that awful smell.
In the late fifties, the road between the bridge and the traffic circle before City Island Bridge was lined with flowerbeds. Lawns were cut short to the tree line. Pelham Bay Park was kept immaculate. This stretch of road was the showpiece of the park, like the entrance to an exclusive golf course or a private country club.
Hunters Island was truly an island back then. Turtle Cove extended across the road to the other side. I recall that the bus passed over a small bridge with white railings on either side. Along this road, I often saw people riding horses too. It was not uncommon to see people walking with fishing poles. Soon the bus made the sharp turn around the City Island traffic circle, and we were headed for the bus terminal at Orchard Beach.
As the bus turned off the road and into the bus terminal, the people on the bus and I would sway to one side. The bus driver was usually going too fast. The road curved to the left, and it was heavily wooded on both sides. You could not see much from the window. The fence and the trees were very close to the bus. It was darker here because of all the trees. The bus came to a quick stop right in front of the entrance gate. I would hear the sound of the air brakes, and the rustling of all the passengers gathering their belongings. My mother would take my hand and help me off the seat. By then my knees were red from kneeling all the way to the beach.
The area next to the entrance was very shady. The first thing you saw when you entered the beach was a loading ramp where they loaded the waste form the garbage cans onto trucks. I remember seeing the green and red remains of watermelons. The woods were thick around the entrance. I felt like I was walking on the Yellow Brick Road in the Emerald Forest in the Land of Oz. Just a little way up the path, the picnic tables started to appear. About this time, I started to get very excited, for soon I would see the sight that is embedded in my memory forever. The path went up hill, and on either side were trenches lined with coblestones. This is where the rainwater drained off. The picnic ground was criss-crossed with these trenches. Soon we started to come out of the woods. To the right you could see more and more picnic tables. Most of them were empty because it was still early. To the left were perfectly manicured lawns, bushes, and flowerbeds. You were not allowed to picnic in this area. From here, you could see the rest of the bus terminal.
As I walked up the hill holding my mother’s hand, the sky grew brighter and brighter. Finally, we were at the top of the hill. The view from here always took my breath away. I would imagine how lucky it would be to own a house right on this spot. In front of me and down the hill were the boardwalk and the beach. I would look out to the water and see big rocks sticking up out of the water; they were called The Chimney Sweeps. To the right were Hart Island and a smaller island with a tall antenna on it. Far off on the horizon was a long stretch of land. The sky and water were always a deep blue, kind of like the seats in Yankee Stadium. Off in the distance, in the water to the left, was something that appeared to be a bi-plane. Many years later, I found out that it was an island with a concrete building on it. It used to be the location of the original CBS radio transmission tower. What I had thought was a bi-plane were the ruins of the tower. Nevertheless, the water and the sky were magnificently beautiful. It’s a wonder I can remember anything else. If I had been a rich kid, and my family had a car, I never would have seen this view. When I die, please bury me here.
In those days, my parents had lots of friends, mostly people from our town in Italy. They all had kids and they also packed as much food as we did. Usually, it was arranged for someone to come early and reserve some picnic tables. It was usually someone who had a car, or who had no children to bring with them. Almost always, there was some kind of argument over the number of tables they would claim. Every busload brought more and more members of our group, and soon there were enough belongings to place on the tables, and end any dispute. Some happy compromise was always reached.
Most of the people in the immediate area were also Italian and soon my group and their group would be discussing the old country. Orchard Beach was like the United Nations in those days. There were people from every ethnic group you could find in the Bronx. It was the melting pot of melting pots. Every nationality staked out its own little area in the picnic ground, not because they wanted to stay apart, but because each group had its own traditions and language. We always managed to set up our camp near a group of whom I believe were Jewish people. In the late afternoon, they would bring out musical instruments. They would play music, sing, and dance. All the kids would gather around and watch. It was quite entertaining.
The first order of business while unpacking the shopping cart was to bring out the espresso coffee. Then, finally, the mothers would take all the kids down to the water for the first swim of the day. The men usually stayed behind and played cards. My father usually made the trip to the water in the afternoon. If it was low tide, the walk to the water seemed never-ending. The water was deeper too. My mother refused to let go of my hand. The beach had these round lane markers in the water. They looked like strings of beads when you looked down the beach. I spent a lot of time trying to catch the little bay fish near the shoreline. One time, I was in deeper water, sitting on my mother’s lap. A big wave came and knocked her off balance and I fell in. The water could not have been more than two feet deep, but my mother panicked and pushed me down into the water. I got a mouthful of the Long Island Sound.
The people that stayed on the sand were younger and they seemed to be native New Yorkers. The people up on in the picnic area were mostly newcomers to the Bronx.
Orchard Beach had strict rules back then, and they were enforced. You had lawns and you had picnic grounds; the two never mixed. You were not allowed to put a towel down to sunbathe on the lawns. You could not sit on the railing on the boardwalk. The beach was a beautiful, well-kept park. It was clean and the people respected it. You also had park attendants walking around with big green sacks and a long stick with a point on the end. They would pick up trash as soon as it was dropped. There were concession stands that sold hot dogs, french-fries and soda. There was a first-aid station. On several occasions, someone would get in trouble in the water. The lifeguards and rescue crews would race down to the water’s edge. This was always a frightening sight. It taught you to respect the water. There was a place were you could rent umbrellas and chairs. You would see many orange umbrellas on the beach. From time to time, you would hear a voice on the public address system say, “Will the parents of so and so please come to the lost child area on the boardwalk at section eight. Your child is here.” The lost child area was a scary place. It was like a jail. You had all these crying little children in these “cages”. My mother never failed to mention, “Stay close or you’ll end up here”. There were rain shelters up the stairs on either side of the main plaza in the center of the boardwalk.
On one occasion the skies darkened, and the wind kicked up. We could hear thunder in the distance. We barely had enough time to throw all our stuff into the shopping cart, and head for the shelter. This was one of the most dramatic thunderstorms I can remember. Lightning was striking the beach right in front of us, and the thundered echoed through the shelter, making it even louder. That afternoon, on our way home, I saw my very first rainbow. It was one of the only times I can remember that our trip to the beach was shortened by rain.
Besides all the concession stands on the boardwalk that sold hot-dogs, soda, and beer, there were also many vendors who came around the picnic area. They sold soda, ice cream and beer from packs strapped to their backs. If my sister and I were good all day, we would get ice cream. My biggest treat was getting a piece of “hot ice”. If I asked the vendor nicely enough he would give me a small piece. I put it into a cup full of water and watched the smoke bellow out of the cup. One old man sold beach toys and one day he had a toy bird that was tied to a stick with a long string. He would swing the stick around and the brightly colored bird would fly through the air and chirp. I just had to have one. I begged my mother until she bought me one.
As soon as I got my bird on a string, I started swinging it around, just as the old man did, only my bird stopped singing as soon as the old man walked down the path. I was sure I had broken it. I was so disappointed, and my mother was a little angry with me for breaking it so quickly. I felt so bad that I had wasted my mother’s money. The truth of the matter was the old man had cheated us. One day my mother and I were shopping on Fordham Road, and there up on the hill near Valentine Avenue was the old man. He had the same bird on a string, swinging it around, and sure enough, it was chirping up a storm. Sadly, I walked by. I wasn’t about to ask my mother for another one. As I passed the old man, I noticed that he had something in his mouth. It was a tiny whistle. The whistle was what was making the bird sing! As soon as I saw this, I felt so cheated and angry. I told my mother what I had seen, and she saw it too. She went over and gave that old man a piece of her mind. With her broken English, it wasn’t a pretty sight. The old man wanted to give me another bird just to shut her up, but she would not let me take it. I didn’t want one any more. I learned a valuable lesson that day.
After our first swim in the morning, it was back to the picnic ground for lunch. By now, I was hungry. After lunch, there was plenty of time to play with all the other kids. I knew that it would be a very long time before we went back to the water. After eating so much, you didn’t want to get a cramp and die. That would spoil the day.
In the afternoon, my mother and I would walk over to the side of the Orchard Beach that faced the City Island Bridge. I called this place “the Rocks.” There the grass was taller than I, and we would follow the paths to the water’s edge. Among the rocks I would find starfish, muscles, and crabs. I really liked exploring the tide pools. There was so much to see and do there. I would climb on the rocks, looking over to City Island. I had never been there. There were so many boats around the island. There must have been a seaplane airport over in the direction of City Island because many times I saw planes flying overhead very low over the water. I enjoyed going to “the Rocks” even more than actually going down to the beach. Afternoons were long and lazy. After we returned, we stayed mostly on the blankets spread out next to our picnic table.
If I was not too lazy in the afternoon, there was another activity that actually made me some money. My mother and I would take the empty shopping cart and go around the picnic area collecting empty bottles. The big quart bottles were worth five cents, and smaller ones were worth three. We would go around to all the other tables and ask for their empty bottles. We would also look in the trash cans for empties. Once the cart was full, we had to walk all the way over to a window in the main plaza and cash in the bottles. I would make about three or four dollars. The recycling trip was also combined with a trip to the bathroom.
Once we got back to our picnic table it was time to just sit around and eat some more and enjoy the cooler temperature of the afternoon. The day was starting to come to an end. Many people started to leave. The picnic area started to get empty. This was the perfect opportunity to play catch. It was also a perfect opportunity for the birds to come and pick at whatever crumbs were left behind. I liked watching the birds gather in large flocks and look around for scraps to eat. This was the quiet time, a time to sit and listen to the adults talk and tell jokes. When I was younger, I would fall asleep in the cool breeze of the late afternoon. Soon it was time to pack up our belongings and head for the bus terminal. This was always a very unpleasant experience.
By this time, I was tired and cranky. First, we had to wait on a long line to buy tokens for the bus. Then we had to pay and pass through a turnstile. We had to wait on a very long line for our bus. The terminal had a long twisting maze that we had to walk through. It led you to the right area to wait for your bus. I was usually tired and sunburned, and so miserable. The day had come to an end. I didn’t care if I had a window seat or not. I just wanted to go home.
Our trips to Orchard Beach ended in 1961. My father died that spring. We never returned to the beach as a family.
Many years later, in the 1970’s when I was a teenager, I went to Orchard Beach with my friends. We stayed on the sand. We looked for girls instead of starfish, not a terrible alternative. I found it hard to look up to the picnic grounds were we used to stay. The memories ran too deep. I was lucky though, I had all those wonderful memories to cherish.
One spring afternoon, I gathered my strength and headed up the path to where my family used to gather. The park was empty. I walked around the picnic ground to the many places where we used to picnic. I walked over to “the Rocks.” Over the years, the sand had shifted around the jetty to this side of the beach. Instead of tall rocks and tide pools, there was only sand. Finally, I walked over to the crest of the hill along the path from the bus terminal. I turned around. That same familiar view was still there. The water and the sky were as blue as I remembered. Off in the distance, the imaginary bi-plane was still sitting in the water. It never took off.