Bench marks

Dedicated benches turn a stroll along Ocean City's boardwalk into a poignant trip down memory lane

July 07, 2008|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,Sun reporter

OCEAN CITY - Location, location, location.

Location: 25th Street and the boardwalk. In the late 1960s, Taylor's parents, Barbara and Sidney Taylor, sat on a wooden bench and watched their seven children play in front of what is now the Crystal Beach Hotel. By the 1980s, they watched their grandchildren play there. At sundown throughout those years, Taylor's father might sit on the family bench with his Bud Light, while his mother might have her martini.

"Yes, illegal drinking in public," Taylor says, chuckling. "But they knew not to bother my mother."

Barbara Taylor passed away in 2002 at the age of 69. Her husband carved her initials into that bench. Two years later, Taylor lost his father, who was 70.

He wasn't going to lose that bench.

He approached town officials in 2004 about buying the bench in memory of his parents. A deal was struck, and the rest, as they say in Ocean City, is the town's Boardwalk Bench Dedication program. Since 2005, 226 boardwalk benches and plaques have been purchased along Ocean City's planks from the inlet to 27th Street. For $1,370, people buy benches in memory of a family member or friend - or, perhaps more precise, they purchase benches in memory of memories.Although the benches are no longer wood (they are composed of recycled hard plastic), they are still made of strong sentimental stuff. About two people a week buy a bench, says Bruce Gibbs, the town's public works superintendent.

"I don't think we have ever turned anybody down," he says.

The prime bench spots at 25th Street and facing the inlet have been spoken for, Gibbs says, but the town could make room for another 800 dedicated benches elsewhere. It's been a successful business venture; people pay a chunk of change and, in return, they get a memorial and the town gets to expand its bench fleet. There's no word limit on the plaques, either.

"If we have to," Gibbs says, "we just print smaller."

On any given day, people watch the people-watching benches, which are the trademark and vital furniture of the fabled, two-mile boardwalk.

"In Memory of Barbara Mast and her Beloved Pet, Mister. So that others may find peace as they did gazing at the Sea."

"Fly Someplace Warm, Grandad. I'll Meet You on Heaven's Boardwalk. Your Girl, Amie."

"In Memory of Kurt Johnson. Ocean City Skee-Ball Champ."

And in memory of Harry and Norma Rheel, "Thanks for Discovering Ocean City. Your Kids and Grandkids," another plaque reads.

The standard 8-foot bench could be considered the ultimate beach chair. The boardwalk has 640 benches compared to, say, 9,000 benches in Central Park. Ocean City's benches are positioned to face either the water or boardwalk and sometimes are placed back to back. At the inlet, the benches are politely grouped like church pews.

Location: 27th Street at the end of the boardwal k. He was known as "Reds," the older man with the red hair and freckles who, for 16 years, stood at 27th Street and welcomed cars to Cruisin', the town's annual parade of 3,000 hot rods. Reds waved good morning to hot-rod enthusiasts, who often rewarded him with a cup of coffee or even candy.

"Dad was an icon," says his daughter, Sherri Hennen of Annapolis. "He was always the one standing on the corner greeting people."

She and her husband, Jack, go to Ocean City each year to produce the Cruisin' event, which is held the weekend before Memorial Day. But this year, Reds wasn't with them. Hennen's father, Howard Arrington, passed away last year at 79. (Arrington worked as a White House plumber under seven presidents, which is another story.) Early this year, the Hennens honored his memory with a bench. They were not at a loss for words. "In Loving Memory of Howard "Reds" Arrington. Cruisin O.C. Boardwalk Buddy," says the plaque.

Location: Between Seventh and Eighth stree ts. Ocean City folks sure do mark their territories, and Seventh Street belongs to Sandy Hurley's family.

"Everyone has a special place on the boardwalk, and that was our family's favorite spot," says Hurley, assistant curator of the Ocean City Life-Saving Station Museum.

The family has a history of dedicated benches. Hurley's father, Arthur Thomas Davis, was a prominent man about town - Ocean City native son, banker, volunteer firefighter, Lions Club member, you name it. In 2005, Davis honored his parents by buying a bench near where his mother, Violet, ran a parking lot for years. Last year, Davis passed away, so Hurley and her family this year purchased a bench in his honor. Both benches are between Seventh and Eights streets. "He Loved and Served his Hometown Well," the plaque reads.

Her bench isn't alone. "I just walked out there and saw someone sitting there. 'How nice,' I thought. He was enjoying our bench," Hurley says.

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