• Daniel Vollaro

The Long Whistle

In the 1970s, a beach in Northwestern New Jersey became a cultural contact zone

When I was a boy, everyone knew what the long whistle meant. If you spent as much time as my family did at the beach at Spruce Run Recreation Area, you would eventually hear it—the first whistle, then the second, and then a chorus of long whistles from the four lifeguard towers. The sound meant ‘get out of the water fast.’ When the long whistles blew, dozens of bathers would clamor towards the shore, I among them, feeling the water tugging on my little body as I strained towards the beach. I would instinctively search for my mother on the beach, and she was always there, sitting with the other mothers in a line of beach chairs and towels. She would have this look of terror on her face in the few seconds it would take for her to identify me in the water. Now that I am a parent, I understand that look.

The long whistle meant that a child was lost.

"The divide was always there, like pavement and telephone lines. Like the certainty that we deserved to be safe and prosperous. Like original sin."  

The long whistle was a two-part ritual. The first part was about clearing the water, which the lifeguards accomplished by jumping down from their chairs and run-walking along the beach, continuing to blow the whistle and sweeping their arms in a directional motion that was impossible to misinterpret. Chaos invariably ensued. Mothers would run towards the water's edge, searching for their children among the throng of swimmers surging onto the beach, and the two groups would collide in a babble of fearful voices:

“What is going on?”

“I don’t know, just take my hand.”

“Mommy, why are they blowing the whistles?”

“Come with me now.”

“Is there really a dead kid in the water?”

“Don’t talk like that.”

“I felt my leg brush against something in the water.”

“No you didn’t.”

Rising above these voices, louder and growing more hysterical by the second, were the cries from the handful of mothers who had not yet located their children in the first thirty seconds after the whistles began to blow. They were standing still amidst the surging crowd, calling out their children’s names.

“Bobby. Bobby.”

“Sharon, it’s mommy.”

“Chip. Where are you?”

“Karen, God where are you?”

“I can’t find my child. Someone please help me find my child.”

When the water was finally cleared and the children reunited with parents, the second stage would begin. A creepy silence would settle over the beach, and parents and lifeguards would line up along the water’s edge, link arms into a human chain, and then begin to wade together into the water. They would slowly wade out into neck-deep water and then turn around and just as slowly make their way back to the beach, still moving together in a line, arms linked. Even as a child, before I knew how little time it takes to drown, I understood what might be the ghastly outcome of this ritual. If the missing child was still in the water, the human chain would very likely bring up a lifeless body.

We were all thinking the same thing:

We might see a dead child today.

* * *

The beach at Spruce Run Recreation Area was a twenty-minute drive from my house but only about two miles distant as the crow flies, if the crow flew in a straight line from our small suburban neighborhood across the water to the opposite shore. We lived less than a quarter mile from the reservoir, and when I was very young, my family would often walk there, five minutes from our front porch on a road that literally disappeared into the water. Standing with the tips of our shoes at the water's edge, we could clearly follow the ribbon of pavement as it continued its path under the water, coated in brown-green algae but still clearly visible, gradually descending into the deep. I would sometimes hold out my arm and with one finger trace the road’s path under the water to where it was likely to emerge on the other side. The beach was always there, in that precise spot, a perfect crescent of yellow-white sand that stretches along the back of a big, deep cove, with four lifeguard towers planted at even intervals. On summer days, we could see umbrellas and beach towels, and when a breeze was blowing in our direction, we could sometimes hear a thin chorus of shouts and laughter and splashing, as if a fragile bubble had formed over the water containing within it the sounds of an entire fun-filled summer universe. This bubble would rise on the breeze for a few seconds and then just as quickly, burst and dissipate.

Once, I thought I could smell the faint but distinctive aroma of burning charcoal and cooking meat carried across the water.

Our trips to the beach were coveted experiences. My mother would drive us to the beach area, pay the entry fee, and then park our station wagon in the sprawling parking lot. We would then walk under a concrete overpass that was like a grand archway leading into another world. On the other side was a tiny village of brown buildings—the bath houses, the medical station, and the concession stands. The sidewalks connecting these structures were a pristine white, almost shiny. We would follow the main walkway to the beach, and then stand for a moment at the back edge of that ribbon of sand, nearly blinded by the sunlight reflected from the water. In this moment, we could hear a babel of voices and splashing and radios blaring and the squeals of joyous children washing back over us like waves breaking on the sand. We would stake out a spot on the beach, usually at the far back edge. A cement sidewalk ran the length of the beach like a boardwalk, and I remember its hot sandpaper feel under my bare feet. I was only able to walk on it for about ten seconds before I had to hop off into the sand to cool my toes.

I remember the absolute perfection of soft serve. We would wait in line at the concession stand to buy vanilla ice cream swirled with sculptural grace into a yellow wafer cone. The moment the cone passed into my hands, the ice cream would begin to drip down the sides and into the spaces between my fingers. I would systematically attack from the top down with my lips, sucking the cream up into my mouth and then licking along the edge of the rapidly softening cone to catch the dribbles before they reached my fingers. Sometimes, we would buy slushies instead, and I remember daring my friends to see who could finish theirs first. The impossibly neon blue and green and red colors would stain our lips for the rest of the day.

I remember the feel of that water on a hot August day, the cool paradise enveloping my body, and the smell of it—earthy and sandy and tinged with a whiff of something like algae.

I remember too when the big charter buses began to arrive from Newark and Elizabeth in August of 1972. I was standing in the parking lot watching my mother as she tried to pull a chair from the ungainly pile of beach gear that was jammed into the back of our green family station wagon. I was wearing $1 flip flops that were in always in danger of melting into the broiling pavement, with an oversized beach towel wrapped around my skinny shoulders. My mother was preoccupied and did not see it, but I watched the silver charter bus glide into the parking lot like a spacecraft from another solar system. The powerful revving of engines and the soft hiss of hydraulic brakes made me turn. There was no mistaking its origin because the word "Newark" was clearly displayed the queue above the cab.

Newark was already a firmly established place in my imagination. When I was three years old, the largest city in New Jersey was convulsed by violence that killed 24 people and wounded hundreds more. Entire neighborhoods had burned down and the city was sealed off for two days. The National Guard was called in. I have no direct memories of the riots, but I grew up hearing the stories from adults, about the friend’s aunt who was trapped in the city after the police closed the bridges over the Passaic River, or about the well-meaning church group that organized a peace march in the city but was pelted with broken pieces of bricks thrown from apartment windows, or about white men with guns forming unofficial neighborhood vigilante squads to defend their neighborhoods, just in case the unrest spilled out of Newark. For many white people living in the Northwestern part of the state, Newark was a foreign country that had only recently waged war on itself. Newark is where the black people lived, and everyone I knew was afraid to go there.

The urban “riot” was inexplicable to most white suburbanites. For us, the American dream was working, and the move to the suburbs within our parents’ generation was the self-justificatory evidence supporting this confidence. Where was this black urban anger coming from? We didn’t understand it, but we knew we were afraid, and fear generates its own mythology, its own antiheroes. By the time I was ten, I had heard the story of Anthony Imperiale, the Newark city councilman who bought an army surplus Sherman tank after the riots and patrolled his neighborhood with it. When I was 12, in 1976, the new police chief moved into my neighborhood—an Italian-American man who had served on the Newark police force during the riots. We knew nothing concrete about his experiences in Newark, but he was an instant hero to the kids in my neighborhood. We treated him with the same deference and respect we gave our grandfathers who had stormed the beaches at Normandy or flown bomber missions over Japan.

On our side of the Passaic, the riot was enshrined as a kind of morality play in which the civilized people had stood up to the barbarians. These riot stories always ended with a predictable expression of incredulity: ”Who would burn down their own community”? The moral we were supposed to take away from these stories was clear: black people were inferior, irrational, less civilized than the rest of us. It wasn’t until the L.A. riots in 1992 that I would hear anyone use the word “uprising” to describe an urban riot, and another decade would pass before I learned the other side of this story—that decades of diminished economic opportunity, redlining, and police brutality had fueled these urban uprisings in the 1960s and subsequent uprisings, right up to the present day.

The bus slowed to a stop at the curb nearby. The brakes gave up a loud hissing exhale, the door at the cab swung open, and two dozen black people filed out into the sunlight.

This was literally my first experience with the color line in America. Clinton was monochromatically white in the 1970s, both in the makeup of its citizenry and in its horizon of cultural and historical awareness. All of New Jersey’s major cities have sizable African American populations—Camden, Trenton, Elizabeth, Newark—but I learned nothing in school about the Great Migration or the Depression-era housing policies that created the social infrastructure for ghettos in every major Northern American city. In the fourth grade, we studied the Lenni Lenape Indians for half the year, and by the time we were finished, I knew more about people who hadn’t lived in New Jersey for 200 years than I did about people who lived just 20 miles away. Ellis Island was the dominant origin myth in New Jersey, and through it, we celebrated other great migrations—usually from poor countries in Europe to the United States, and then, from a smaller house or apartment in the city to a bigger one in the suburbs, from Brooklyn to Brooklawn, from the urban neighborhood in decline to the suburban town with new sidewalks and good schools. Jewishness was about as exotic a pedigree as could be found in our town.

My mother ceased her tugging on the chair, and we stood together watching the crowd from the bus file past us in a parade of bright colors—green hats and yellow blouses and white umbrellas; strange textures of dark skin; impossible hair that was either piled into beautiful sculptures, teased into braids, or grown out into big afros. Some of these visitors stared furtively over at us. We stared back. No one waved or nodded or said hello. I was only just beginning learn the social dynamics of race—it was like a new language I had heard spoken but could not yet speak or understand—but words were not necessary to adequately assess this moment. I could feel the divide, as if it lived in every molecule in the five feet of air between us.

* * *

When my family first began using the beach in the late 1960s, the faces were mostly white, but by the middle of the 1970s, there were many more black and brown faces in the crowd. There were racial, ethnic, and cultural enclaves in the beach area now, circles of beach chairs and coolers, little islands demarcating clusters of identity. I remember once walking by myself through the grassy picnic area in the summer of 1973, nine years old and still cloaked in the anonymity of childhood. I walked among these gaggles of picnickers who had staked claims to the handful of standing charcoal grills and picnic tables. Some had brought their own hibachis and Coleman gas stoves and portable charcoal grills standing on rickety tripods, one errant shove away from spilling hot coals into the grass, or worse. There was a smoker, a man-sized red chimney-shaped device with white chicken-flavored smoke pouring from the top. The air was filled with the smell of cooking meat, chicken, and beef, and the sweet aroma of barbecue sauce sizzling in flames. These were not the familiar hot-dog-and-hamburger smells from cookouts in my neighborhood. These were new aromas, redolent with curry and chills and hot sauce.

I moved through the crowd, mostly invisible in that way a child can sometimes move unseen among adults, weaving in between isles of ethnicity—the Mexican families and the Blacks, the Indians and the Chinese. I was headed towards the top of the long sloping hill, where I could see boys my age playing soccer. I had never seen soccer played up close. Baseball, football, and wrestling were the big sports in my town.

If this was a different kind of story, I would tell you that I made it to the top of that hill and stood watching the soccer match for awhile until I was finally invited to join the game, but this is not that kind of story. If it was, I would say that we made friends with black people, and Puerto Ricans, and Mexicans, and with the old woman wearing the sari who stood in front of me in line for ice cream. The truth is, I turned around and walked back to the beach before I reached top of the hill.

The divide was always there, like pavement and telephone lines. Like the certainty that we deserved to be safe and prosperous. Like original sin.

* * *

Only once, in the summer of 1974, did I see this barrier come down.

I was in the water with my sister when I heard the first long whistle. Then the next. Then two more. The lifeguards were shouting at everyone to get out of the water, and we ran up onto the beach, dozens of children, towards our mothers who had stood up or run down to the beach to find us.

Then, the beach grew silent as the lifeguards organized the human chain. My stomach was churning. I wanted to turn away, but like everyone else, I stood riveted to my spot on the sidewalk. I watched a group of parents join the human chain at the water’s edge, a line of adult volunteers who stood with arms linked, waiting for the signal to proceed. There were whites and blacks, Hispanics and Pakistanis. We all watched them wade slowly into the water along the entire length of the beach. A mortuary stillness enveloped the park as hundreds of people watched the chain move deeper and deeper into the water, bodies slowly submerging. I couldn’t breath. When they reached neck deep water, they turned around and walked slowly back towards the shore.

The beach area was completely silent now.

When the human chain was standing in thigh-deep water, we could hear a shout coming from the back of the crowd. Then another. We were all straining to see what had happened.

The crowd parted, and a little Pakistani boy about five years old was standing next to one of the lifeguards, looking bewildered. The boy had wandered off and had just been found. His mother ran out of the crowd and knelt down in front of him, reaching out her arms. The entire beach erupted into spontaneous applause.

I could feel it moving through the crowd, a passing wave of relief and joy and solidarity, as if we had momentarily won a battle together. We were, in that moment, a single people with a single language—from El Paso and Guadalajara, Macon and the Newark projects, Lahore and Mumbai, San Salvador and San Juan. There was nothing that was beyond us, no task too great. We would quickly return to our enclaves of beach chairs, each with its own language and dialect and food, but for just a minute on that beach, we were as one.