Sunday, July 20, 2008

24. New Jersey - It's all about Family

After leaving Washington D.C., we dodged Baltimore traffic and tunnels by following the beltway around the city. Then we encountered our first dreaded toll roads. We were charged $15 to cross the Susquehanna River in Maryland and it cost another $7 to cross the northern tip of Delaware to get to New Jersey. All bridges crossing the Delaware River are toll bridges, but only for westbound traffic, so we got a break that time. We were relieved to finally arrive in the “Garden State” of New Jersey. We got off the turnpike as soon as we crossed the Delaware River and sailed through farmlands and small towns on a secondary highway. It was a very pleasant drive.

Things were going well until we got about 10 miles from our RV park. We apparently missed the mandatory briefing on Jersey’s highway naming and numbering system. We got confused by roads and highways with multiple names and numbers and our main road didn’t go where the map said it should. In desperation, we called the RV park and they tried to talk us to the park. That didn’t work and we ended up on a narrow dead end road. We had to unhitch the car in order to turn around. Fortunately, a resident came out to see what we were doing in his front yard and gave us good directions to our destination. We set up camp in a nice spot overlooking Chestnut Lake (photo) and its population of messy Canada geese.

Signing and numbering are a little different in each state, so we have to be cautious. Most people advise us to toss away the maps and get a GPS. Granted, a GPS would probably get us out of some confusing situations and we'll probably "upgrade" some day. But, in the meantime, we like to plot our course on maps and our archaic method of navigation gets us there most of the time.

Our RV park was about 15 miles from the famous Atlantic City boardwalk. Atlantic and Pacific Avenues are lined with hotels and casinos. Public beach access points are few and far between.
We parked in the Trump Plaza parking structure ($10 all day) and walked through the casino and onto the boardwalk. The historic convention center (photo above) where the Miss America pageant was held for many years wasn’t open to the public, but it’s still an imposing structure, as are the Trump Taj Mahal, Bally's and other casino structures.

The boardwalk is a great place to take a walk. It’s interesting, colorful and lined with businesses of all kinds. You can gamble, buy a souvenir, get a quick massage or tattoo, eat a Philly cheese steak or water ice, visit your favorite hero in the wax museum or take a stroll on the beach. We did a lot of walking and managed to limit our gambling losses to $5.

Donald Trump’s Taj Mahal is across from the old Steel Pier, which is crowded with carnival rides and games. A newer upscale pier down the boardwalk offers plenty of small shops and restaurants where the tourists can dump any left over money they might have after escaping the casinos. We peeked into the expensive boutiques as we searched for a cheap buffet. We couldn’t find one, but we found a reasonably priced cafeteria with a great variety of excellent gourmet sandwiches, salads, pasta, etc. We made two trips to Atlantic City. That was enough for us.

Bonnie’s dad was born and raised in New Jersey. In 1942, while stationed at Ft. Lewis, Washington, he met and married Bonnie’s mom. He was later killed in Europe during World War II. Bonnie was only 13 months old at the time and didn’t get to know her dad or his family very well. Most of them still reside in New Jersey but Bonnie hadn’t seen most of them in 40+ years. Naturally, she was excited about reconnecting with her dad’s side of the family. She made some early contacts and the family’s response was amazing. They were all very friendly and treated us like royalty. We were overwhelmed by their hospitality.

We spent the Fourth of July with a family group at the Pitman home of Bonnie’s cousin Darlene and her husband Gar. Their son Ryan was there as well as Aunt Alma, cousins Cynthia and Bob, and Frank and Linda and their children and grandchildren.

We all walked to the town’s 4th of July parade a block away. It was a two-hour parade with marching bands, church groups, scouts, volunteer fire fighters, other groups representing the community and lots of fire trucks. Ron especially liked Pitman's own Hobo Band.

After the parade, everyone walked back to Darlene and Gar's house and spent the afternoon talking about old times over a large assortment of great food, including Gar's barbecued chicken and ribs.
It was a perfect day and lots of fun. They even managed to get the group together for a family photo, including the kids and a puppy. It was a Norman Rockwell kind of small town Fourth of July . . . perfect. We spent the next day at the home of cousin John and his wife Gail in Burlington. They invited us to their holiday party on July 5th. Bonnie was able to reconnect with a couple more cousins – Eileen and Alan and David and his wife Joyce.

There must have been 60 or 70 people and tubs full of Chesapeake blue crab, clams and muscles, as well as delicious barbecue. It was excellent!

Uncle Jimmy (90) and Aunt Alma (93) are the senior members of the New Jersey family. It was a special pleasure to spend some time with Jimmy in Burlington (photo) and with Alma in Pitman. Both are doing well and their memories are very sharp. They spent a lot of time with Bonnie’s dad and had lots of stories and historical information to share about him and the family.

We drove down to Long Beach Island on the Jersey shore to see Aunt Alma’s former home in Surf City. We also spent a little time on the beach. Beaches aren't free here. Most required a "beach button" which could cost up to $7 per day to use the beach. The fee goes toward beach clean-up, maintenance, life guards and other costs.
Burlington is one of the oldest towns in New Jersey and very picturesque. Jim, Eileen and Alan showed us around the town and we got to see several former family homes and churches. Cousin Frank took us to visit the graves of Bonnie’s grandparents and other family members.
We had a short-term visitor of our own while in Jersey. Daughter Becky flew out from Seattle and stayed with us in the RV for five days. She got to meet most of the relatives and spent a day with her cousin Nancy who drove down from Pennsylvania to see her. She also joined Jim, Uncle Jimmy and us (photo) for lunch at a nice restaurant along the Delaware River in Burlington. She had a good time and seemed to survive her RV experience.

There were several other family get-togethers, including excellent dinners with Eileen and Alan at the Tuckahoe Inn, with Jim and Mary at the Oyster Creek Inn, and several stops at the home of Darlene and Gar in Pitman. All were very pleasant with lots of reminiscing about memories of long ago. Bonnie feels very fortunate to have reconnected with so many family members and we appreciate their generous hospitality. Now that we know them better, we’ll try a little harder to keep in touch. And that’s why New Jersey was “all about family.”