Italian Heritage in New Jersey: John Basilone

In an earlier post, I noted that Italian immigrants and Americans of Italian descent made up approximately 10% of the entire fighting force during World War II; more than any other ethnicity. Despite Italian immigrants kept under surveillance and some put in containment camps, they volunteered by the thousands to fight against their Motherland.

One such great child of Italian immigrants was John Basilone from Raritan, New Jersey. One of 10 children, Basilone was born in Buffalo, New York in 1916. He grew up in Raritan. At age 15 he dropped out of school to work locally for a short time before joining the military.

Staff Sergeant John Basilone
Source: Wikipedia

He first enlisted in the Army in July 1934 and completed his three-year enlistment with service in the Philippines. Basilone was initially assigned to the 16th Infantry at Fort Jay, New York, before being discharged for a day, reenlisting, and being assigned to the 31st Infantry.

After his discharge from the Army, he again worked locally for a short period of time; this time as a truck driver. He wanted to return to Manilla and serve once again, so he reenlisted; this time as a Marine.

He went to recruit training at Parris Island, followed by training at Marine Corps Base Quantico and New River. The Marines sent him to Guantánamo Bay for his next assignment and then to Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands as a member of “D” Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division.

In 1943, he returned to the United States to help with the War Bond effort. He was highlighted in Life and Movietone News. His hometown of Raritan had a parade in his honor. He helped raise money for the War effort.

While he appreciated all the accolades, he really wanted to be back fighting for his country. He requested a return to active duty multiple times. He was offered a commission, which he turned down, and was later offered an assignment as an instructor, but refused this as well. When he requested again to return to the war, the request was approved. He left for Camp Pendleton, California, for training on December 27. On July 3, 1944, he reenlisted in the Marine Corps.

After his request to return to the fleet was approved, Basilone was assigned to “C” Company, 1st Battalion, 27th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division. On February 19, 1945, the first day of the invasion of Iwo Jima, he was serving as a machine gun section leader on Red Beach II. With his unit pinned down, Basilone made his way around the side of the Japanese positions until he was directly on top of the blockhouse. He then attacked with grenades and demolitions, single-handedly destroying the entire strong point and its defending garrison. He continued to fight alongside service members until the very end. It is believed he was killed by a burst of small arms fire.

His actions helped Marines penetrate the Japanese defense and get off the landing beach during the critical early stages of the invasion. Basilone was posthumously awarded the Marine Corps’ second-highest decoration for valor, the Navy Cross, for extraordinary heroism during the battle of Iwo Jima.

He was the only enlisted Marine to receive both the Navy Cross and the Medal of Honor in World War II. Two United States Navy destroyers bear his name.

He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, in Arlington, Virginia. He left behind his wife, Lena Mae Riggi, who was a sergeant in the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve during World War II. They met while he was stationed at Camp Pendleton.

Basilone made America proud, especially at a time when the country needed heroes. He stood up to be counted in the new homeland of his family. He made not just his country proud, but New Jersey proud, as well as those of us who count ourselves among the 1.5 million New Jerseyans of Italian descent proud. We owe him a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid.

Italian Heritage in New Jersey: Frankie Valli

“Newark, Belleville; Frankie Valli walks on water. As he should. Frankie Valli has been around so long he’s attached to everything and everybody. And they are very proud.” ~Steve Schirripa, Talking Sopranos podcast.

Belleville has been home to plenty of talent over the decades. Connie Francis, Joe Pesci, and of course Francesco Stephen Castelluccio, known to the world as Frankie Valli.

Francesco Stephen Castelluccio, aka Frankie Valli
Credit: discogs.com

As Schirripa says, he’s attached to everything and everybody. We all have a Frankie Valli story. For me, I have two. Castelluccio grew up in Stephen Crane Village on the border of Belleville and Newark. My Uncle worked as a maintenance man at Stephen Crane Village. He took the bus from our house in Belleville early every morning and came home every afternoon. As kids we were allowed to walk down to the end of the block and wait for him; but no further than the manhole cover!

His first single “My Mother’s Eyes” was a favorite song my Uncle Chubby would sing with his own band, Chubby O’Dell and the Blue Mountain Boys. To this day whenever I hear that song, I think of my Uncle Chubby and smile.

The music of The Four Season was part of the soundtrack of the youth of not just North Jersey, but America. Songs like “Can’t Take my Eyes off of You” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry” are engrained in our memories. Castelluccio’s original inspiration was another Jersey boy, Francis Albert Sinatra.

The 45 of My Mother’s Eyes
Credit: Roots Vinyl Guide

A new generation was introduced to Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons in 2005 when Jersey Boys opened on Broadway and was an instant hit. Bob Gaudio, an original Four Seasons member, sought to make a musical from the discography of the band. He hired book writers Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman, and director Des McAnuff. Brickman suggested creating a show about the band’s history, instead of repurposing their songs. Sharing the group’s “rags to riches” story. Everyone fell in love with their music all over again.

Castelluccio still tours and recently recorded a new album, A Touch of Jazz, which is his iconic voice singing his favorite tunes from the Great American Songbook.

So Castelluccio started singing in the early 50s and all these decades later, he is still growing strong. God willing, he still has a lot of music left in him.

Italian Heritage in New Jersey: Joseph Rotunda

Many of us have passed by Rotunda Pool in Newark on our way to St. Lucy’s Church or coming out of Branch Brook Park and have not given it a second thought. It is, however, an important location in the community and New Jersey Italian heritage.

The Rotunda Pool plaque
Source: Newark Historical Society

Rotunda Pool is named after Private Joseph Ralph Rotunda Jr., the first soldier from Newark’s Italian-American community to die in World War II. The dedication of this pool stands a testament to his sacrifice, as well as the sacrifices of the countless Italian immigrants and Americans of Italian decent that fought on behalf of their new homeland. The official renaming from Clifton Pool to Rotunda Pool took place in 1966.

By the early twentieth-century, approximately 21,000 Italian immigrants made Newark the fifth largest Italian-American community in the country.

Private Rotunda was killed by a land mine while serving with Cannon Company, 168th Infantry, in Tunisia, Northern Africa, as part of the first invasion forces. He had only been overseas for three months. A letter to the family from Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, dated June 9, 1943, informed the family that their son was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart.

On June 16, 1943, the Newark Evening News reported on an announcement from the War Department which listed the death of Private Joseph R. Rotunda, Jr. as one of four soldiers from New Jersey to lose their lives in combat. In total 229 U.S. soldiers were reported killed in action in North Africa and 630 more wounded, 11 of whom were from New Jersey.

In February 1944, after seeking permission from Joseph Rotunda, Sr., officials from the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) designated the Pvt. Joseph R. Rotunda Jr. Post (No. 848) in honor of the “first soldier from the First Ward to be killed in action in this war.” This post became the ninth V.F.W. unit in Newark.

So next time you ride past Rotunda pool, maybe take a moment and bow your head or tip your cap to the memory of Private Rotunda.

Italian Heritage in New Jersey: Connie Francis

When I thought about who I should highlight first this year during Italian Heritage Month, I wanted to go with a local hero. Yes, she is a favorite daughter of New Jersey, but she is also a favorite daughter of my hometown, Belleville.

Connie Francis, 1961; Credit: ABC Television, under Creative Commons License

Concetta Rosa Maria Franconero, known professionally as Connie Francis, was born into an Italian-American family in the Ironbound neighborhood of Newark. She attended Arts High in Newark for two years before attending Belleville High School, where she graduated as salutatorian from BHS Class of 1955. The high school auditorium is now named in her honor. Additionally, “Connie Francis Way” can be found at the corner of Greylock Parkway and Forest Street in Belleville, near the house in which she grew up.

Students sitting in that auditorium today may not know the importance of Concetta Franconero to our “Beautiful Village,” but those of us of a certain age certainly do. Early in her career, Arthur Godfrey made two recommendations to her. First that she drop the use of her accordion in her act. Second, that she change her name from Concetta Franconero changed her name to Connie Francis “for the sake of easier pronunciation.” So she officially became Connie Francis to the world.

Her life has been full of triumph and tragedy. She’s had many top songs we all know and love. I am particularly fond of Where the Boys Are and her rendition of Mama. She also acted in several movies during her young career. In the late 1960s, Francis went to Vietnam to sing for the troops. Through the years, she has performed charity work for organizations such as UNICEF, the USO and CARE.

Deep sadness struck her life several times, unfortunately. The first time was in Westbury, New York, following a performance at the Westbury Music Fair. Francis was the victim of a brutal rape and robbery after an intruder broke into her hotel room and held her at knifepoint. She nearly suffocated under the weight of a heavy mattress the culprit had thrown upon her. Her attacker was never caught.

In 1977, Francis underwent nasal surgery and completely lost her voice. She went through three more operations to regain her singing voice, but it took four more years to regain that lovely voice of hers.

In 1981, further tragedy struck Francis when her brother, George Franconero, Jr., with whom she was very close, was murdered by Mafia hitmen. Franconero, who had twice given law enforcement officials information concerning alleged organized-crime activities, was fatally shot outside his home in North Caldwell.

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan appointed her as head of his task force on violent crime. She has also been the spokeswoman for Mental Health America’s trauma campaign. She worked hard to turn her personal tragedy into a story of triumph and inspiration for others.

In 1984, Francis published her autobiography, Who’s Sorry Now?, which became a New York Times bestseller.

Francis continued to perform and record and prove what Belleville and Jersey tough means. That’s why I felt she deserved to be the first person I honored during this year’s Italian Heritage Month.

Book Review: brat: an 80s Story

When anyone meets me for the first time, two things are obvious. I am a born-and-bred Jersey Girl and I am a Gen-Xer. I still love the music and movies of the 80s. Nowadays when I drive, there are very few radio stations I listen to; most of which are satellite and focus on music of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. My favorite movies included a small group of actors that came to be known as the Brat Pack. Everyone had their favorite. For me, it was Andrew McCarthy.

I saw a lot of myself in the characters he portrayed. In St. Elmo’s Fire, he played a wannabe writer who gets his first byline. I grew up wanting to do two things as an adult: be a writer and a photographer. While I never became a full-time accomplished writer, I do have a few bylines to my name and have a few blogs where I get to scrawl and scribble, even if no one really reads them.

So why am I telling you all this? Stick with me.

Whether it was because I was a teenager or not, the 80s were an awesome time in history (and yes, I used “awesome” on purpose). And the Brat Pack movies had a lot to do with it.

There were times watching McCarthy it almost felt like he wasn’t acting. As if those roles really fit his style. I now know in some instances that was true. Enter his book brat: an 80s story.

brat: an 80s Story by Andrew McCarthy

This fellow New Jerseyan shares his rise – and fall – and rise again in the fickle world of entertainment in his recently published book. Of course as soon as I heard about its release, I needed to read it. Trust me when I tell you, it did not disappoint. I read it over the course of two evenings. The last time I read something so quick was a book from another important figure from my youth; fellow Jersey Girl, Judy Blume, and the book was Summer Sisters.

I quickly switched back to 16 again, watching those movies, listening to that music, and doing things, well, let’s just say I am thankful social media wasn’t around.

As I read, and he mentions places in Jersey in the first few chapters, I found myself wondering if the arcade on 22 he went to was at Bowcraft (a home-grown amusement park), how everyone in Jersey MUST be good at skee-ball and if his brother ever played golf at Hendrick’s Field, the public course in Belleville behind my house. He talked about hanging out in Washington Square Park, which made me remember my first job in the City and walking over to the park and eating my lunch there while I watched the street performers. He talked about going with a friend to the second-hand clothing shops, which made me think of my regular visits to the Unique Boutique.  Like him, I went to the Raccoon Lodge. The biggest difference, however, is that he was 17. I wasn’t allowed into the City on my own until after I graduated from college. But I remember feeling just as wide-eyed as he describes his experiences of familiar places to me.

He spoke of the awkwardness of his high school years. While he was always self-conscious about looking too feminine, I was often self-conscious about looking too masculine. By the time I hit high school, my mother started to give up on getting me to “dress like a girl,” and I fell into the habit of oversized sweatshirts and jeans. I stuck to my denim jacket (complete with a music note of safety pins on the back), an Army Class A jacket I picked up at a second-hand store in Bloomfield, and my father’s camel-hair coat. Add to that my voice was kind of deep for a girl my age, which was quite obvious when I would shout over the marching band as drum major. Sophomore year I felt compelled to chop my long hair off, which completed that perfectly boyish look, even if that really wasn’t the goal. When a teacher from the high school first met my brother, he said to a colleague once he thought I was out of earshot “I’m trying to figure out if he’s more feminine or she’s more masculine.” And so it was and so it has been for most of my adult life. Many years later at a full-time job, I learned some of my colleagues referred to me as “Man Benschoten” instead of my proper last name. I never seemed to be able to outrun that “boy thing.”  Sometimes it still bothers me, sometimes I shrug and don’t care in full Gen-X fashion.

Like him, I enjoyed my time alone. For him, he smoked pot. For me, it was riding my bike over to the high school, climbing to the top of the stadium, sitting in the corner and reading. Smoking pot never even crossed my mind. As far as I knew, none of my friends did and my mother could have worked for the CIA. She found out everything. It wasn’t worth the risk.

“Like the first light of dawn, there is a transitory magic in it, a singular quality, something so fresh it seems it must be occurring for the first time.”

Like McCarthy, I found solace in the arts program. For him it was (obviously) drama and it started him down a successful path that led him to NYU. Me? Well, I never got out of the chorus/background dancers, with the exception of one actual line in the production of “It’s Christmas Charlie Brown” (“watch it lady, you almost made me drop my packages!”). I was in concert band, jazz band, chorus, orchestra, drama club, and marching band. I wasn’t “officially” on stage and light crew, but I helped out backstage with the plays before I summoned up the courage to actually try out. For me, that’s as far as my artistic journey went. I didn’t have “it.”

1986 Mercury Cougar
Me in my Cougar, 1988.
Yes, I thought I was that cool.

His announcement to major in acting when he went to college went over about as well as my announcement to major in journalism. I was pushed at every opportunity to become an attorney. When I came home with my declaration form for the Communication Department, well, I’ll just say it didn’t go over well and leave it at that. Like McCarthy, I stuck to my guns and kept with it. And I discovered I did have an aptitude for certain parts of the process. For me, it was print production and typography, along with writing.

We both had our own departmental champions. For him it was Terry Hayden. For me, it was Dr. Don McKenna and Professor Pete Rosenblum. That dynamic duo were my supporters at every turn. They told me about this thing called “prepress.” Where I get to be involved in the actual process of preparing work to go to press. I was in love. Like McCarthy, I was eager to learn all I could. Also, like McCarthy, some teachers were less than thrilled with my feeble classroom attempts. We both struggled with speech class. My prim and proper professor attempted to remove the Jersey from my accent and teach me a proper mid-Atlantic speech pattern (think Katharine Hepburn). Shocker – it didn’t work. I passed, but I think only because I just kept showing up to class. I didn’t care. I dove head first into learning all I could about prepress and writing.

Throughout the book, he has the ability to weave stories of experiences of his past and how those experiences affected his career as he continued to learn and hone his craft. I took special attention to how he handled anxiety while shooting his first feature movie, Class, and how as a director he quietly says “aaaand… action” instead of yelling “ACTION!” like we all see in the movies.

He told his mother he was a pessimist. I call myself a realist. I think they are two sides of the same coin.
Just about the same time he was becoming interested in the technical aspects of filmmaking, I was becoming more and more interested in the technical aspects of photography and press work. As a girl, however, opportunities at the time were limited. At one job, I did become friendly with a stripper (not THAT kind) and would let me watch him work during my lunch and would occasionally let me make bluelines. Every so often I was told I was told I had aptitude. And just like McCarthy was told “you became a pro on this one, Andy,” I would fly high.

One page 130, he finally gets to my favorite of all the Brat Pack movies; St. Elmo’s Fire and devotes a solid twenty-something pages to it. His character, Kevin, felt like it had followed me around my entire life. Cynical, sarcastic, in the background of the group, the oversized clothes, the camel-hair coat. His behind-the-scenes account of the “Respect bongo” scene, my favorite of the entire movie, was just wonderful.

He talks about his use – and abuse – of alcohol. The year he went into rehab was the year I graduated from college. He faced his demon head on and won. Instead of thinking of it as the end of his career, he continued to push forward. He found his way to… writing.

I also give him a lot of credit for how he handled the end of his father’s life. Gracious is hardly enough to describe how he faced the situation.

Overall, I really enjoyed his writing style and his ability to construct some beautifully written sentences. Over time he came to accept his role as a member of the Brat Pack. He now understands that for many of us fellow Gen-Xers, those movies hold a special place for us. For that, I am thankful.

I hope it is a little easier bein’ you now, Mr. McCarthy.

End of an Era: Rosebud’s

Being allowed to walk home from school by yourself if a big step when you are a kid. For me it was around fourth grade. After crossing Passaic Ave. from School 7, I would regularly stop at what was known as Rosebud’s Sweet Shop for penny candy and Swedish Fish (the big ones, separated by wax paper). Then I would suck on that wonderful red licorice as I crossed Joralemon Street, walked behind Michael’s Roscommon, down May Street, and eventually, home to Irving Street.

This week, I learned Rosebud’s (now Rosebud’s Luncheonette) will close permanently.

Rosebud’s Luncheonette (credit: Rosebud’s)

My heart sank as I heard the news. It joins other businesses that are gone, such as Plaza Chemist, where I had my first job, Channel Lumber, and the Towne Deli at the Corner of Franklin and Joralemon. All were within walking distance from my home. All were on the “approved” list I could go to and walk around as I continuously tried to push my boundaries as we all do growing up.

When I was in high school, I passed up the Swedish Fish for a Taylor ham, egg, and cheese (TEC, SPK), on a Saturday morning before heading to the high school for marching band practice, a football game, or a band competition. Sometimes if I hadn’t already picked up a copy of the week’s Belleville Times or Belleville Post, I would get the paper there as well.

In the good weather, you could always catch a few of the men sitting outside as they drank their coffee and smoked. It was an official neighborhood hangout.

Until now.

When the boardwalk at Seaside went ablaze year ago, I remember then Gov. Christie saying “the Jersey Shore of my youth is gone.” Every time I hear about another place from the town I love closing, I feel another piece of my youth leaving. And I weep for its loss.

Thank you Rosebud’s for serving your community for generations. You will be missed by many.

Italian Heritage in New Jersey: Bucky Pizzarelli

COVID-19 has certainly left us devoid from us this year. We’ve lost family, friends, and others we admire. One of those wonderful New Jerseyans of Italian heritage we lost to the virus is John Paul “Bucky” Pizzarelli.

Born in Paterson in 1926 to the owners of a local grocery store, Pizzarelli picked up the guitar for the first time at the age of nine. At 17, he embarked on his professional career when he joined the Vaughn Monroe dance band in 1944. Over his amazing career, he played with an incredible list of iconic musicians that included Benny Goodman, Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra, Aretha Franklin, and Paul McCartney. He was also a long-time member of the “Tonight Show Band.” When Johnny Carson decided to move the show to California, he opted to stay in New Jersey, unwilling to uproot his young and growing family.

John Paul “Bucky” Pizzarelli.
Source: johnpizzarelli.com

After his time with the Tonight Show Band, he began to play regularly at clubs in Manhattan with long-time friend and collaborator, George Barnes. Additionally, he began performing and recording with top jazz musicians. In 1980, he also began collaborating with one special individual – his son John. The father-son duo would perform and record together many times, often joined by Bucky’s other son, Martin, a bassist, and vocalist Jessica Molaskey, John’s wife. John once described them as “the von Trapp family on martinis.”

He never had plans on ever retiring. In a 2015 profile in New Jersey Monthly, Pizzarelli, then 89, said, “Retire?! Why am I gonna retire? I’m gonna sit home and watch Judge Judy all day? No thanks!”

He was a force of nature until the very end and made incredible contributions to jazz music. He passed at home in April of this year due to complications from COVID-19 with his wife of 66 years, Ruth, by his side in Bergen County. Sadly, she passed one week after suffering his loss. May she be continue to be serenated by him in Heaven.

Italian Heritage in New Jersey: James Gandolfini

When many people think of Americans of Italian descent, they often think we are all in the mob, or “connected.” Many movies such as The Godfather add to the stereotype. Add to that shows like Jersey Shore, Housewives of New Jersey, and The Sopranos, and well…

While many depictions in New Jersey and mob movies show a lot of things that are not true, many more good things are true. Many of us talk about wonderful memories growing up with Sunday dinners, multi-generational families, and pride in our heritage.

Enter James Gandolfini

Gandolfini played “Tony Soprano” in the famed HBO series. He was a deplorable character, yet, he was able to show a human side of this man. Tony had many of the issues we all struggle with; anxiety, temptation; a frustration with his family – his “blood family” that is. James Gandolfini played the character perfectly. He able to play a guy from Jersey because he was a guy from New Jersey.

That “New Jersey” I often speak of is an intangible characteristic those of us from this state easily understand. Born in Westwood, Gandolfini was raised in Park Ridge, New Jersey, the son of an American-born mother and an Italian-born father. He grew up with a strong pride in his heritage and visited Italy often. He was in Rome when he passed away from a heart attack in 2013 at the young age of 51. In 2014, Gandolfini was posthumously inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame.

While he was proud of his heritage, he worked hard to show his love for America. Gandolfini never forgot the sacrifice his father made, earning a Purple Heart in WWII, and sought to make sure that all veterans received the care and respect they deserve. In 2007, Gandolfini produced Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq, a documentary in which he interviewed injured Iraq War veterans. In 2010 he produced Wartorn: 1861–2010, which examined the impact of PTSD on soldiers and families throughout wars in U.S. history from 1861 to 2010. He also worked with the USO making meeting service members and was a spokesperson for Wounded Warrior Project.

So no, not all Americans of Italian descent are in the mob, but we all love our Italian heritage. Gandolfini showed that pride in his role of Tony Soprano, and more importantly, in his daily life.

Italian Heritage in New Jersey: Msgr. Joseph Granato

If there is anyone who should be the first individual I highlight for Italian Heritage Month, it must be Msgr. Joseph Granato. Msgr. Granato borders on rock star status at St. Lucy’s Church in Newark, home to the National Shrine of St. Gerard. He served St. Lucy’s for 54 years. It was the only parish he ever served. He was the third pastor of St. Lucy’s Church.

St. Lucy’s Church, Newark

Joseph Granato was born in Brooklyn, New York on April 9, 1929. His parents were Anthony Granato and Theresa DePiano Granato. The family moved to Newark during his infancy. His brother was Rev. Anthony F. Granato, Pastor of St. Anthony’s Church, East Newark.

On June 4, 1955, his day of ordination; he found his place of religious assignment was to be St. Lucy’s Parish.

Then Father Granato, was appointed Administrator in 1971 and shortly thereafter in 1977 was assigned by Archbishop Peter Gerety as Pastor of the Church he so dearly loved. On July 16, 1979, he was awarded the honor of being named Monsignor by His Holiness, John Paul II. He remained as Pastor of St. Lucy’s and served the community faithfully during his 54 years in the priesthood.

On October 29, 1999 Monsignor Granato was awarded the first Msgr. Joseph Granato Italian Culture Medal at Seton Hall University. The medal celebrates distinguished achievement in the promotion and preservation of Italian culture in the state of New Jersey.

St. Lucy’s Church is a place of wonderous art and offers a space for quiet prayerful meditation. Each October, St. Lucy’s celebrates the Feast of St. Gerard. The days of the Feast are filled with masses, celebrations, food, and a procession through the streets of Newark.

Sadly, this year almost all the events are cancelled, due to the inability to attain the proper permits from the city of Newark due to the pandemic.

This is an incredibly important time for the church, as most of their fundraising takes place during the few days of the Feast. If you are able, I urge you to donate what you can so St. Lucy’s can continue to do its good works in the community and carry forward its 100-plus-year history, which includes the tremendous contributions of Monsignor Granato.

Class Action Park

“Shake it off…”

That was the phrase I heard regularly growing up. Whenever I came home with a scraped knee, a bruise on my arm, or even if I was upset about something, I regularly heard that phrase.

What is now often referred to “free range parenting,” was just called “playing outside” when I was a kid. You would go ride your bike, walk to a friend’s house, play with the neighborhood kids. You went out after homework was finished and you came home when the street lights came on.

No cell phones. No worries. And kids didn’t know terms like “liability.”

If you didn’t grow up in the 70s and 80s, it is hard to explain. You were expected to play outside with little to no supervision. Atari had just come out and very few families had one. We would ride bikes and play kick ball. Some kids in Belleville would spend their summer at the Rec House (the town recreation center) and participate in sports. In the winter we would go to Branch Brook Park and go sledding. I remember going full speed down the hill going right into the hubcap of a parked car nearby. I was told to just stand up and “shake it off.”

There were very few worries from parents about kidnappings, possible abuse, or going missing.

I will say my parents were pretty strict and kept me fairly sheltered. When I would go for rides on my bike, it was mainly to head up to the high school track. Not to run, but to go all the way up to the top corner of the stands and read. I was hardly an exciting kid.

Maybe that’s why I wasn’t prepared for Action Park.

I had seen commercials for the fabled park in Sussex County and begged my mother to take me. She repeatedly refused. Eventually another friend and I nagged our mothers enough, and they gave in.

Action Park is a regular topic in Weird New Jersey. Once I even wrote a letter to the magazine about my one – and only one – day at Action Park. I was very excited when I saw it published. This is the edited version of my letter:

I definitely remember Action Park as a kid. My mom and her friend took me, my brother and her friend’s kids to Action Park only once. After much nagging, my mother finally agreed to take me on the Alpine Slide. My first clue that this was a bad idea should’ve been the blood-covered teenager being carried half-way down the mountain after her car flipped over. Of course, I was too young to think, “this might be a bad idea.” Well, I was scared out of my wits and almost ripped the so-called “brake” right off, I was pulling on it so hard (to no avail). I don’t remember going on anything else because I think I probably blocked it out of my memory. –Andrea Lyn Van Benschoten

Tonight I watched the documentary of the now defunct park, Class Action Park. I had heard the stories growing up, but some of the “behind the scenes” stories were funny, sad, and shocking all at once.

Action Park couldn’t exist anywhere else or at any other time. Those of us from Jersey are proud to have our battle scars. You need to be from Jersey to understand what it is to be Jersey proud. And to grow up during the 80s meant you were sort of on your own. Many teenagers headed to Action Park and enjoyed the same freedom.

Action Park – where YOU control the action!

That was the mantra of Action Park. The truth was, there was no control. Kids ran the park. There was excessive drinking and many deaths. Depending on the reports, at least six individuals died during the heyday of the park. In 1986, the New Jersey Herald reported 110 injuries were logged for the summer 1985 season, including 45 head injuries and 10 fractures. That figure grew to 330 for summer 1986. Injuries were so common, the park actually purchased an additional ambulance for the town of Vernon.

Eventually, unsupervised time turned into chaos and death.

Most of my teenage years included skiing at Vernon Valley; the winter version of Action Park. They used the same lift in both the winter and summer, and you could see the snow-covered track of the Alpine Slide. The ride that scared me half to death many years before. It is worth mentioning ski equipment was stolen if left unlocked; the snow machine was often pointed directly where the lift was, so you were covered in snow and ice by the time you made it to the top of the mountain; the lights would regularly shut off while you were skiing down; the mountain was often ice covered. I actually saw someone take a mogul and fly into a pole once.

I also broke my hand skiing once and sprained my wrist another time. I “shook it off” until I arrived home and my mother took me to the doctor the next day to put a cast on. No muss, no fuss. Guess I had a little Jersey toughness in me after all.