Changing Perspective (Upon Viewing My Hometown From 36,000 Feet)
The clouds were thick beneath the plane for most our flight home from Boston yet that didn’t stop me from gluing my face to the window for the entire trip. It’s one of the methods I employ to combat my fear of flying. So long as I can see the ground, or at least what’s beneath us, my nerves are somewhat placid.
The white puffs were low in the sky and most of my window was filled was an ebullient blue when, about forty minutes into our trip, the clouds began to wisp beneath us. We were over the Atlantic Ocean, not too far from the shore, and soon I could make out little subdivisions that dotted the green coast of New Jersey. The densely populated areas were clustered tight together with vast, thick forest or farmland separating each from their nearest neighbor.
Beaches began to jut out from the mainland and I noticed a thin white line of shorebreak, constant at the edge of the sand. Inlets and rivers forced their way into the dark earth and state preserves like Island Beach State Park came sharply into focus as, suddenly, the seaside development would disappear. About halfway down the coast I saw the barrier island with which I am most familiar.
Long Beach Island is exactly what it’s name would imply. It’s eighteen contiguous miles of beach, a half mile wide at its thickest, one-fifth of a mile at its narrowest. Home to about roughly twenty thousand year-round residents and known colloquially as “The Island,” LBI is a favorite for regional summertime vacationers whom the locals deride as “Bennys” or “Shoobies.”
It’s a quiet place, a beach for families, and the local municipalities have gone to great lengths to keep it from devolving into a vomit-caked Jersey Shore party mecca like neighboring Seaside Heights or, further down the shore, Wildwood.
The Island is separated from the mainland by a wide brackish bay and directly opposite of the southern end of LBI, on the far shores of the bay, is my hometown.
Little Egg Harbor, New Jersey is a small coastal town that contains within its borders the borough of Tuckerton, whose claim as the third official port of entry in the United States is a point of pride for the locals. It’s decidedly blue-collar with most of its denizens making their living off of some connection to the water. Fishermen, boat and outboard repair shops, sailmakers and, most notably, clammers populate our little corner of the world, making apropos one of the area’s most popular nicknames of Clamtown, USA.
It was a nice place to be a kid. The woods that surround our town are abundant, their trails providing miles and years of untarnished boyhood exploration, dreaming, creating and imagining. We could ride our bikes from one side of town to the other with nary a concern and within five minutes of most places you could be on the Bay. Within twenty or thirty, you could be at the beach, dipping your toes in the cool Atlantic.
As is the case with many quiet, rural, blue-collar areas, however, our town is hardly storybook. Opioids have long been a problem and I can recall friends and classmates overdosing as early as the seventh grade. We’ve put more kids in the ground than I’d prefer to count. But that’s an entirely different story for an entirely different time.
I still get pangs of nostalgia when I pass by my little town. I take note of its name on the map. I watch NASCAR races every Sunday, religiously tracking the 78 car of Martin Truex, Jr. who grew up just one town over in Mayetta, an unincorporated town so small many locals don’t even know it exists. I have a tattoo that proudly denotes exactly which town I’m from. I drive several hours out of my way, usually with my wife in tow, to get a fresh pie from Frank at Naples Pizzeria. We try to traipse home for every Fourth Of July celebration at Tip Seaman Park and I usually can find time to make at least one Pinelands High School football game per season. We make sure to get a few dozen clams from Parson’s, to hit one of the three WaWa’s in town (WaWa’s which outnumbered stoplights when I was a kid) with frequency, to walk by the bay and pass by my old stomping grounds at the end of Nugentown Road, near Poor Man’s Parkway.
My wife patiently listens as I recount the same stories to her over and over again.
“This is where a deer ran right into Lucas and me while we were walking home from a party at Danny’s house.
“This is where I first smoked weed.
“This is the street where the SERIOUS football games went down.
“That’s the track I ran hurdles on.
“This is where I used to take my sister’s Mustang when no one was home and practice donuts and burnouts.
“This was the pit we used to party in.
“This is where Matty fell asleep at the wheel and drove into that tree over there.
“This is where would play pond hockey in the winter.
We drive past Pinelands Regional High School and we walk out to the bog behind the school. I take her past the Frog Pond Road School and she always laughs that my early education was at a place called “Frog Pond.”
“You’re such a redneck,” she’ll say. I laugh and assure her that, yes, perhaps in the scope of her suburban Charlotte upbringing I am a bit country. I love NASCAR and can dig for clams using only my bare feet. I’ve spent more nights in the woods than I can count and I’ve never considered driving anything but a truck or a Jeep.
But in the scope of my hometown, I am hardly country. I remind her that every year well over half of our student body was absent on the first day of hunting season and that our senior yearbook had a “Most Flannel” category. I tell her that every few years Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” is the official graduation song and I remind her that we don’t have rednecks where I come from. We don’t have hillbillys or cowboys or hicks or hayseeds or rubes.
We have Pineys.
Pineys are folk of the Pine Barrens and some Pineys have been here for centuries. I left for the City the day after my high school graduation. Pineys don’t leave for the City. Pineys stay in the pines.
I’ve had to force myself to stay away, otherwise I knew I’d live right there for the rest of my life. Maybe not in Little Egg Harbor or Tuckerton but I’ve always known that if I didn’t leave the Jersey Shore then that I might stay somewhere along that little strip of coast forever. To me that place is heaven on Earth.
But I had to leave to explore whatever parts of the world I could. I’ve since lived in Philadelphia, Rome, New York City and Chapel Hill. I’ve driven through each of the lower forty-eight states and I’ve spent the night in forty of them. I’ve traipsed around Europe and the Caribbean. I’ve been all over Canada and someday soon I’ll be in South America and Iceland.
But every day I carry some of Little Egg Harbor with me. Every day I recognize some element of me that is inherently Tuckerton. Every day I am reminded that I am just a much bigger version of the little boy exploring his way around the Jersey Shore.
The plane banked hard to the right, preparing to make its cut inland toward Raleigh-Durham International airport, and the green landscape beyond Little Egg Harbor and Tuckerton and Long Beach Island filled my entire window.
I thought of everything that was happening beyond my scope at that moment. To our right lie an entire civilization and it was never more clear to me how little our corner of the world was as it sat there, precariously perched on the edge of the continent. Beyond my gaze lie the grand stretches of the United States. Land, people, culture, stories, beautiful history, ugly history, heartbreak, death, life, legends, heroes, villains.
Beyond The Island, beyond Tuckerton, beyond Little Egg Harbor, beyond a lifetime of memories of the first girl I kissed, the fights and the makeups, the times in the woods, the opioids, finding the shallow grave, the prom, football practices, mudding in the pits and the burnouts in the streets, the WaWas, the pickup basketball, the first time I fucked a woman, the Memorial Day Parade, learning how to drink beers and smoke cigarettes and pool parties and school dances, boyhood and young manhood, bike rides and long summer Jersey Shore days that slowly wound their way into infinite summer nights and makeout parties, the day I left for college only to find out halfway to Philadelphia that Mike was dead, learning how to cast a fishing line and games of midnight tag and learning how to drive stick and all of the bonfires and the house parties, and how beyond that all was everything.
Every single thing that had ever happened to me had happened to millions of other people beyond our corner on the Jersey Shore. Beyond all of those things was something. For thousands of miles on the other side of our little town there was something. There were a million billion trillion things. There was everything.
The plane leveled off and I looked out the opposite window. To our left lie nothing. Only vast ocean for thousands of miles.
As most kids do, I was certain that my town was the center of the universe and for me, in a way, it still is. But viewed from above, with the entire world in scope, it’s easy to see that we were never at the center. It’s easy to see that no one is at the center. Or perhaps we are all at our own center. But viewed from above, with the entire world in scope, one thing is certain. We truly lived at the edge of a world.
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