Saturday, March 20, 2010

Exploring the Formerly Scruffy, Always Charming, Cape May Point

I am a tourist when I go to Cape May Point: I visit the lighthouse

and Sunset Beach.

I relax on the beach by the lighthouse which is now a state park. Birding is big there, but I seem to lack the birder's eye that can identify an unusual bird by just its tail feathers or the color of its feet.

I thought it might be fun to write a piece about Cape May Point, familiar to me but not quite. This quiet neighbor to uber-popular Cape May seems to have its own personality. I like exploring what lies beneath the surface of places.

As part of my research into what makes Cape May Point...Cape May Point, I interviewed Rich Chiemingo, a lifelong resident, at least in summers, and self-described Cape May Point hermit. He keeps busy today educating visitors of all ages about John Philip Sousa, Doo Wop music, the Cape May Point Lighthouse and the Twin Capes' involvement in World War II history

for Cape May's Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts and Humanities. ( Rich apologized that he was not exactly a font of knowledge. (What?!) He painted for me a picture of what it was like to be a kid in Cape May Point in the 1950s and 1960s as if he had just walked out of a "show, don't tell" writers' workshop. He described an idyllic existence (using all five senses!) cooking hotdogs in beach bonfires with cousins. Those same kids would wait under the fire station's siren pole waiting for the siren to blow while inhaling the smell of the pole's hot creosote. When the noise started they'd run screaming with their hands over their ears. Those tender bare feet would step on wild cactus that really hurt in the beginning of summer but by the end would toughen and not notice the cactus as much.

Television reception was terrible then, but there were Phillies games and Doo Wop music coming out of transistor radios and Rich's older cousin's black Oldsmobile convertible. His memories were at times like a mixture of mine and my older sister's: weekly trips to Cape May's boardwalk and the big annual Wildwood Boardwalk excursion.

I asked Rich what has changed since those magical childhood days and he had two big answers. First, the place has become more developed and more populated. (We agreed that the homes of today are gorgeous, though, and he added that Cape May Point's properties are consistently well-kept.) Rich used the word "scruffy" to describe those early days, but emphasized that he meant scruffy in a positive, natural, primitive and charming way. I know exactly what he means because my little section of beach paradise was like that, too, until the grandiose, modern beachfront homes started appearing in place of the tiny fishing shacks with concrete-block fences. (This scruffiness is close to what I call "Authentic Cape May" in another article.)

Rich's second answer was that he realized as a young adult that not every kid had this opportunity to run around barefoot all summer. Other kids got to go away for a week or two, but he got to spend the whole summer in this kids' paradise. Yup, it took me awhile to figure that out, too. I am no Oprah, and I dread doing interviews. I get this nagging feeling that I am being too nosey. With every interview I do, though, I come away with a new understanding of a person or a place and in this case, both! Rich's vivid memories fave me the spark to pursue this Cape May Point project.

Later that day I showed up with my camera at Sunset Beach on the edge of Cape May Point. I was surprised but delighted to find the parking lot full (in March), and the beach populated by others experiencing this little piece of authentic Cape May.


Jen said...

This is fantastic!!! What a beautiful place to live by, an amazing view, amazing water, and who doesn't love a good lighthouse. I've never seen on but this picture makes me want to take a road trip to see one!

Margaret said...

Thanks for the comment, Jen. Lighthouses are fascinating, really. For years I've been wanting to do the NJ Lighthouse Challenge where you drive around the state and see 12 lighthouses! Maybe this year. There is also a boat tour out of Cape May to look at lighthouses on the Delaware Bay--I wanna do that, too!

Tony Joachim said...

These photos are fantastic, Margaret! I see that the camera was a very good investment, indeed! I'm looking forward to finishing up with this semester's coursework so that I can explore mine some more.

Margaret said...

Thanks Tony! You should come down for a Cape May Photo Tour!! Anytime!