December 10, 08.50: another cold day, with temperatures in the mid-40's.
Jim wheeled around the corner in his pickup truck to collect me for a journey down the Garden State Parkway to visit Old Barney, otherwise known as Barnegat Lighthouse State Park. As the crow flies, it was close from Jim's hometown of Toms River. A short trip down Island Beach and we'd be there, but the problem was the light sat on the tip of Long Beach, an island separated from Island Beach by Barnegat Inlet, which feeds Barnegat Bay. The only way to get there was to go down the parkway past towns such as Forked River, then drive back up Long Beach through the town of Ship Bottom. Those two narrow strips of land help protect the Jersey Shore from the full wrath of the Atlantic Ocean.
We arrived well before noon, while the sun was still climbing. We checked our camera equipment and walked past the information kiosk at the head of the path. A short walk brought us to Old Barney itself. To our surprise and delight, the lighthouse was open. We climbed the 217 steps, painted bright yellow for that jaunty rust-proof look, to the watch gallery under the housing where the fresnel lens once resided. The lighthouse had a storied history. Many sites tell the tales of this beloved landmark.
We took loads of photographs from atop the lighthouse, as well as within the interior, before descending to walk the south jetty. When we reached the end of the concrete walkway, we climbed over the rails and continued along the jetty, stepping or hopping from one huge boulder to the next, placed to prevent total erosion of the fragile beach ecosystem, and ultimately the light itself.
Our mission for the day was mostly photographic, as Jim and I were both into lighthouses. We captured images of the light, the surrounding jetty and beach. When we'd run our course, we went back to the truck. It was early afternoon by then, and we were hungry!
We didn't bother searching for any place to eat on the island; most everything had been boarded up and was closed for the winter. Instead we drove up Route 9. I had a bad moment when Jim pulled into the parking lot of a skanky roadside diner in what he referred to as a no dentist; no shoe-store town, but I persuaded him to keep driving. It wasn't Deliverance, but I wasn't taking any chances.
Before long we arrived in a more urban area, where Jim took me to a place called Boston Market, best described as fast home-cooked style food. We both chose the meatloaf, and it wasn't bad; not spectacular, but much better than McDonald's.
Afterward, we took a short trip through Toms River proper, where I looked at scenes I'd seen in Jim's photographs. We stopped at Huddy Park, where we came upon about 30 Canadian geese lined up by the river like sentries. They hardly moved as we took photos, but one goose decided we were getting too close; he spread his wings and flew off the wall down to the river a few feet below. That gave me an idea. I told Jim to try getting a shot of a bird in flight. I walked toward the row of geese; one by one they leapt off the edge of the park before landing in the river and paddling away, indignant we'd disturbed their watch.
Near the park was the Maritime Museum, but it was closed. We took a few shots of the boats on display outside. Next to the museum was a small, old cemetery, where Jim showed me graves of several soldiers of the American Revolutionary War. I recognised some of the stones from photographs he'd shared with me online.
When we arrived at Jim's home, I felt at home the instant I stepped inside. The house wasn't huge, but it was cozy, warm and inviting. Not long afterward, his wife Sandi returned home with their son B'rynn in tow. She threw her arms around me and gave me a big hug. Jim and Sandi treated me like a member of their family; I was honoured. Jim didn't even get mad when I kissed Sandi on the lips. Okay, that last sentence was B.S.; I wrote it to bug Jim. I did, however, grab Jim's ass when he turned his back on me, and he went up about three feet in the air. That was my revenge for him grabbing my ass at the Metropark station the day before (it's a running joke between us, don't ask).
We plopped onto sofa and talked until their daughter Mandi got back from school. It took about an half an hour for her to glom onto me; she never left my side for the rest of the night. I felt like someone's favourite uncle. B'rynn was shy with me at first, but it didn't take him long to warm up. He was content to watch cartoons on the tube while the adults talked. Later, we reviewed our photos from our excursion to Manhattan and the trip to Old Barney, while we waited for Sandi's brother Ronnie to arrive so we could go out to dinner.
After Ronnie showed up, everyone piled into the car, and they took me to the town of Seaside Heights, to a neat little restaurant/bar called the Sawmill Café: a piece of their personal history. They were excited to show me the place and explain the good times they'd had over many years of visits. The place was empty; Seaside is a summer town.
When they ordered a pizza for the six of us, I wondered if it was going to be enough, until I saw it. The thing was huge; it had to be 24 inches in diameter. It was different than pizza I was used to: flat, with lots of cheese and sauce over the pepperoni. Everyone sprinkled powdered garlic on their slices, then folded the slices down the vertical, explaining it kept the juices from dripping onto their clothes. I'd never seen pizza eaten that way, and two thoughts entered my mind: I wasn't about to let them eat garlic without me, else I'd smell it all night long; and who was I to argue conventional wisdom when it came to eating pizza? I sprinkled and folded mine as well, and it was delicious!
Weighted down by the pizza and beer, we strolled the darkened and deserted boardwalk. All the shops and midway booths were closed. It was cold and quiet. The Atlantic foamed up on the beach head. It was easy to see how packed the Jersey Shore could become during the summer, with its wide beach, boardwalk carny games, beach food and more. But we had the boardwalk to ourselves; we walked a fair distance before turning back, as B'rynn was about to bust a kidney and was reluctant to take a leak off to the side somewhere. It wasn't a long walk, but I loved every minute of it.
Before long we were back at Jim's place, where we sat and talked while the kids got ready for bed. Once they were asleep, we relaxed until Ronnie's girlfriend arrived. When Jennilee got there, we laughed away the evening until we were asleep on our feet. Jim took me to the hotel; I packed for the next morning.
December 11, 09.00. The day was warmer; a welcome change.
Jim picked me up after I checked out of the hotel, and took me back to his place, as my flight wasn't until early afternoon. Sandi was in the kitchen rushing back and forth as she worked her magic, spoiling me rotten with an incredible home-cooked breakfast the likes I hadn't seen for two years. She'd baked cinnamon buns from scratch that morning. I hadn't expected thefuss, but I enjoyed the food. I told them I was tempted to move in and meant it.
After breakfast, Jim took me on a walking tour of his neighbourhood. He showed me the wetlands where he took many waterfowl images. We spent about an hour walking the area and shooting more photos. By the time we got back to his place, Sandi had prepared bag lunches for us. Unbelievable; I love this woman! She went way beyond mere hospitality. The whole time I was there they just gave, gave, gave. I gave gifts as well, including two of my T-shirts, but I came away higher on the receiving end.
It was time to leave, but I vowed I'd return. We hopped into Jim's truck for another trip on the Garden State Parkway, this time in the opposite direction. We ran the gauntlet of toll booths along the way, arriving at the terminal of Newark International Airport well before my flight was to depart. We'd allowed extra travel time to be sure we wouldn't run into any slowdowns or security delays, but I ended up having to wait longer than I'd planned. We were somewhat chagrined when we realised we could have spent more time at his place, but we filed the experience for my next visit.
I hauled my bags out of his truck and gave Jim a hug. I half expected him to grab my ass, but he behaved himself. I'd had a fabulous time during my visit, and I told him so. He climbed back into his truck, and we had a last quick chat before I turned to enter the airport. As he drove off, I looked back on my time with Jim and his family with great fondness. I looked forward to my next trip to New Jersey, when I'd have more time spend with good friends.
They may live halfway around the world, but I wish they lived next door.
March 19, 2002
Next Tale: The Squidgy Pickle Incident