Shore Front Folly: Sunday Driving on a Saturday Afternoon in 1950 Rockaway 

 Shore Front Folly: Sunday Driving on a Saturday Afternoon in 1950 Rockaway 

By Jean Caligiuri McKenna

It’s been written that in the springtime, a young man’s fancy turns to love. For young gals such as my chums and me in late March/early April 1951, our fancies, too, were beckoning with the early springtide. What to do on those weekends when you’re a blossoming teenager in high school, eager to follow your yearnings and venture out into exciting things you’ve never done before? You go along with your girlfriends for a little auto jaunt with no driving experience, of course!

It was a plain overcast Rockaway Saturday afternoon around Easter. I was 16 and enjoying the growing freedom of my Junior year in Far Rockaway High School. The usual pastime leisures of my juvenescent years were behind me, as Sunday comics, malt shops, and games of street tag were giving way to romance magazines, diners, and a restlessness to expand my horizons. My pals, Kaye Hughes and Rose Rios also felt the same way. Wholly opposite in stature, Kaye was rugged, tomboyish and bold, while Rose was slender, feminine and demure. Nevertheless, they both shared a plucky enthusiasm and innate desire for new adventures, as did I.

On this day, Kaye emerged from her house on Beach 86th Street next to the Long Island Railroad El, dangling a set of car keys and said, “C’mon Cal, (short for Caligiuri), let’s go for a spin.” Kaye’s Aunt Kitty had recently purchased a 1946 Ford and, unbeknownst to her aunt, Kaye “borrowed” the car keys and convinced me and Rose that it would be fun if the three of us went for a joyride! The car had a stick shift, naturally no power steering, and surprisingly, Kaye knew how to operate the car. Excitedly, we jumped in the black sedan, confident with Kaye at the wheel…no license, just nerve! Being the off-summer season, we took the car out towards the “new road” (Shore Front Pkwy), without having the worry of competing with the down-for-day pedestrian and auto gridlock that smothers the peninsula during the summer. At this brisk time of the year, a drive along the scenic roadway, built only a few years before in 1939, would boast the picturesque sights of a quiet Rockaway boardwalk on one side, and a shuttered Rockaway’s Playland, flanked by blocks of big porch turn of the century houses on the other. The eastward and westward lanes along roadway were separated by a continuous island of budding grass beautified with newly blooming colorful flowers and protected by shin-high black wrought iron fencing.

As we embarked on this excursion, there was a dual feeling of giddiness and trepidation, knowing that what we were doing was exciting but also slightly delinquent. Instead of reveling in the crisp air of the wide-open boulevard, we intently leaned forward on the hard cushioned seats, keeping the radio off and the windows rolled up, trying not to draw any attention. We cruised along, marveling at Kaye’s wheel prowess, dipping down the side streets and back up to the new road with cool efficiency. Despite our conscience gnawing at us, we felt like big shots, savoring the thrill of the moment! But before long, any exhilaration of newfound freedom screeched to a halt when Kaye pulled over and said to me, “Ok, Cal, you drive now.” This certainly wasn’t in the original plan! On top of having no license and the fear of getting caught, I nervously added, “But I don’t know how to drive!” Kaye assured me, with confidence, “Don’t worry, I’ll tell you what to do.” I must have gulped with a mixed rush of panicked adrenaline. Looking in the rear-view mirror, I could see Rose’s frozen expression said the same. It would be her turn after mine!

Kaye gave me a few basic instructions, and to my amazement, my eyes quickly fixed to the road, and in a blink, we were rolling along nicely. I was determined to learn! The beach blocks began easing by smoothly and swiftly under Kaye’s calm direction, and soon my maiden driving voyage began to feel like a piece of cake. As I was driving back up towards Beach 90th Street, I felt a slight pang that maybe I shouldn’t push my luck too far. Perhaps it was the authoritative aura of the police station and my alma matter P.S. 44 looming in the distance that made me decide to make an abrupt U-turn. Whipping the auto around and with little concept of distance, I kept turning the wheel while Kaye kept yelling, “Straighten the wheel, straighten the wheel!” In what must have looked like a jalopy high jinks scene from a Keystone Cops comedy, I must have panicked and stepped on the gas without straightening the wheel as the car jumped the island and clunkily vroomed across like a lawn mower, crushing the flowers and the iron fence, while leaving skid marks of dirt all over Shore Front Parkway. Stopping the car within view of St. Rose of Lima church probably added to my freaking out as Kaye took over the wheel and we quickly motored from the scene like a “bat out of hell,” nervously laughing with breathless disbelief that nobody got hurt and thankful nobody saw us. We rushed back to Kaye’s house, parked the Ford in a huff and quickly abandoned our driving ambitions, opting to bask in the hidden safety of the big house’s living room, with no one the wiser. To my knowledge, Aunt Kitty never knew about our escapade. Someone else, however did!

As Kaye, Rose and I attended Mass in St. Rose the next day, Father Flynn, recently arrived from Ireland, concluded the Mass with his customary Parish community notices. Though relatively youthful himself, he would occasionally use this time to admonish some of the liberal behaviors of modern American youth in the parish, namely the dress attire of the Junior Catholic Daughters of America (us) at their recent induction, “swathed in their tight white ‘saxy’ sweaters, saddle shoes and navy skirts.” As this particular Mass neared its conclusion, Father Flynn’s tone changed to one of sudden ire. In full throttle brogue, with red face matching his hair, he disdainfully mentioned to the congregation how “some inconsiderate driver went over the island and crushed the flowers and iron fence, dragging flowers and a mess of dirt all over the road.” He lambasted the incident and the unknowns involved. Shocked and mortified, with stifled laughter on our pressed lips, we sat stoically darting our wide eyes back and forth to each other, awkwardly listening to his comical description of our mishap, at the same time relieved that no one knew that we were the violators. Our poker faces held long enough until we found a safe spot outside after Mass to spend the next few minutes blurting out our embarrassed laughter under the welcoming Sunday morning sun, greatly relieved that it was no longer Saturday afternoon!

The Good Lord must have been on our side, letting us off the hook, but with a lesson. “There is a time and place for folly, just as long as our folly doesn’t mingle with foolery.” Lesson learned; we didn’t do it again.

To this day when Rose and I reminisce this experience, we literally go back to that moment in time on a Saturday afternoon in the springtide of our youth and become those carefree teenagers again, laughing hysterically at our juvenile verve and dare, still a Rockaway secret to this day!

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