By Barbara Howe Santoro
Special to the Voice
Ed. Note: Barbara Howe Santoro is a recent exile to the wilds of Florida. She sent these musings as a way of paying tribute to her hometown.
All the while I was growing up in West Haven, down at the Shore, Long Island Sound, there was a major amusement park. Going there was an ordinary part of life for all of us, our families, our friends, visiting relative from all over, went to the “Rock”. It is difficult to explain to my children and their children, accustomed as you are to driving to an amusement park, like Kennywood in Pittsburgh for example, and paying to park the car, paying to enter the fun area, and paying high prices for rides and food.
For us to get to the Rock, we kids of 10 to 15, we got up a group of 3 or 4, boarded the trolley car in Allingtown, and for a nickel, rode to the end of the Savin Rock line, and found ourselves smack in the middle of the park. Here the trolleys ‘turned around’ for the trip back the other way. They ran frequently so all we had to do was gather and wait for the return trip. We knew exactly how much time was needed to get home at the time we were told to.
One time, my girlfriends and I spent ALL our allotted money, and had to walk all the way – probably 5 -more or less, who knew from miles – we learned the hard way to save our trolley fare, no matter how tempting the rides, or the frozen custard or the trinket or the candied popcorn.
The Rock, it should be noted, was a safe place to go. Our parents, who rarely allowed us much mobile freedom, did let us go there in a group, without fear of our getting lost, getting stolen, or assaulted, or other modern-day childhood horrors. I was required to keep a nickel for a phone call as a last resort, and ask for Dad to come cart me home. This option meant a lecture that lasted from Savin Rock to Taft Avenue and one I was not in a hurry to repeat.
I refer to the years 1940s to 1950 as the “innocent years”. We as kids were innocent of any dangers except the Nazis and the Japs but there were none of those at The Rock! And we were trusted by our parents and were always mindful of our instructions and our curfews. “Be home” at a certain time meant just that, or No Savin Rock, or Forest Theatre the next time we asked to go.
Early teenage years, The Rock was a magical place to go – to see and be seen. We chose our dresses carefully, no slacks, jeans or shorts in that era. We were not allowed to go there with boys but if we “happened to meet up” the innocent sweetness of that was very special. The Rock offered a couple of rides in the dark, where an occasional kiss was stolen, and only the shy looks on our faces gave us away when we reached the end of the ride and the sunlight. If some boys caught the brass ring or the gold ring on the Flying Horses (carousel to you), that was a source of pride and worth several minutes of bragging rights during the next girl-to-girl confidences. A boy who really liked you wasn’t embarrassed to be seen walking around the Rock with you, wasn’t much bothered by the teasing of his pals.
We had loads of rides to choose from, most costing a nickel or maybe a dime; refreshment stands selling hot dogs, soda, fries every few stores, games of chance where for a nickel the more adventurous of us put our coin on a spin of a wheel, or we tried to win a stuffed toy by knocking down coke bottles – pinball machines made a musical racket in the Merry Go Round building, we had our pictures taken there wearing goofy expressions, we played Skee Ball for more ‘valuable’ trinkets, which my mother promptly declared as ‘dust collectors’.
We ate frozen custard that was marvelously smooth and creamy; ice milk had yet to be invented. We had real, frozen milk custard. The popcorn bricks were flavored with chocolate, strawberry, other yummy flavors and guaranteed to make your fingers stick together. Oh such fun!
The Rock had several marvelous restaurants; people (meaning adults) came from all over to sample and enjoy the “shore dinners”. There were a number of very nice hotels there, too, like the restaurants they catered to adults in style, for visitors from all around stayed in West Haven during summer months. One such restaurant, Wilcox’s On the Pier had a great view of The Long Island Sound, its own private beach area, and it rented cabanas to those with money, who wanted a break from the sun while on the beach. Boys were hired to rake and clean the beach area and ran errands for the cabana occupants. A kid could make a dollar or two a day – big bucks! I always loved those canvas cabanas, which looked like miniature houses, as an example of how the rich people lived. All this was way, way out of our league, for sure. It was look and admire, but not for us.
The Rock had two raceways, one for midget autos and one for stock cars and racing cars. There were two giant roller coasters; one was built out over the water, scary stuff. This one was damaged by the massive 1938 hurricane that swept Connecticut, and had to be torn down. That one always scared me anyway even after they rebuilt it and I could never be encouraged to ride it = I always saw myself ending up in deep sea water. N0 Way in Hell I rode that thing, ever. It was eventually declared unsafe (see, I told you!) and torn down. Other one on dry land, I rode but to this day do not like them at all.
And always, there was the beach itself. The Rock was situated on the shore line as we now know it, and you could go to the beach and water areas at any time. After swimming, we got dressed in a bath house for 10 cents, stowed our wet suits and towel, and once dressed – remember, nothing but dresses or skirts and blouses – then we could spend time on the boardwalk.
No matter the temperature, it is hard to imagine now there were no ladies in shorts or tank tops, or barefoot, or with sandals, or bathing suits, or cut-offs, but that is just the way it was. Anything less than ‘casual dress’ was pretty scandalous, even in the enlightened war years of 1941 to 1946. As a matter of fact, slacks on women weren’t acceptable until they began being allowed in factories during the war, skirts were too dangerous, and I remember Grandma Howe with a number of slack sets, blouses matching the pants, which she wore to work making airplane parts. Both of us wore shorts in the summer but only at home or at the lake cottage, never ever in public.
The Rock began to show a sign of its age after the war was over and returning servicemen and women came home to try to pick up their lives. The tawdry fun of an amusement park seemed insignificant to the people who were coming back to find a life of normalcy. For those of us who grew up during WW2, with its shortages, its blackouts, its rationing, the war bond rallies, the re-make and re-do of our clothes and shoes, the absence of neighborhood boys who went to war and never came back, the shortage of gasoline and the patching of tires on cars – we watched our beloved Rock become dirty and dingy, and eventually filled with “outsiders” and then our safety there was no longer assured.
It is all gone now – only memories remain. Time cannot destroy them. The Savin Rock Museum now open next to the actual Rock, has rooms full of memories and it is my hope that someday all of you can visit there. After reading this, it might give you some insight into my early years. I also hope that this rendition of my personal memories helps you enjoy the exhibits even more.
I am fortunate to have lived during that time, in spite of any hardships, any sacrifices, living closely with my family and my friends, everybody in the same boat, nobody we knew had any more than anyone else. War was a great leveler, as it turns out. I actually have to go some to find a really unpleasant time of my life to complain about, we were kids and treated like kids, expectations varied from family to family, but we had them, and we all did what we had to do. Want to complain? Go to church and tell the priest……or else buck up. Feel scared? call the neighborhood cop or go to the fire house, everybody will help you. Something hurts? Go to Fater’s and either Elvin or Meyer will recommend some home grown thing to try, if it doesn’t come in a bottle already. Bored?, go to Forest Theater and for 15 cents sit thru 2 full movies, selected shorts, previews, war news and a Bond drive. Want a laugh? Go to dish night and wait for somebody’s dish to crash in the darkened theater.
We sat in the pitch dark house during air raid nights, and listened to the radio shows, The Shadow, Fibber McGee and Molly, Lights Out, Burns and Allen, I am even not remembering them all. Scaring my kid brother when he was all caught up in the story……that was good. I was sent to the A&P with the ration booklet and strict orders on what to buy. Or to Zonder’s to choose the latest oil cloth, or whatever junk was there. The French Bakery had a whipped cream cake with real cream that I can still taste. Or go to the Greeks and have a bite or a cup of coffee with real cream and socialize with everybody. The Firehouse had Minstrels annually and my Dad got involved in them. The 6 o’clock horn meant get your butt home NOW, and don’t try to say you didn’t hear it. Gabe’s shoe repair was always busy because new shoes were hard to come by. Mom sewed on the treadle sewing machine, and patched and repaired. She bought me clothes that were too big, took them in and then let them out later. You guys can fill in what I forgot, because there was always something for us in that little slice of West Haven.
Best of all though, are the friends and the buddies, the allies and the loyalists that we had then and still have today. I don’t have to remind you that some have come into our lives, our circle, and left for reasons too numerous to mention. But some things keep on keeping on, like us. Life itself is just one association after another, if you think of it, and some were good, some not so very, some taught us things, some caused us grief, some we can still laugh about today. The kids today and that includes our middle aged (oh God) children, will never know what it is like and the grandkids think we are on the same dictionary page as the dinosaurs. ‘Can you believe what your grandmother just said?’ I love shocking people; it gives me a good laugh. Barbie said what?????? Motherrrrrrrr……