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Jersey Shore, I'll miss you

By David Vigilante, Special to CNN
updated 8:34 AM EDT, Fri November 2, 2012
Me and my brother Mike in Wildwood, 1969 Me and my brother Mike in Wildwood, 1969
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Memories of Jersey Shore
Memories of Jersey Shore
Memories of Jersey Shore
Memories of Jersey Shore
Memories of Jersey Shore
Memories of Jersey Shore
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Vigilante: Jersey Shore, wrecked by Sandy, may never be the same
  • Vigilante: The place harbors so many happy memories for me growing up
  • He says unlike the MTV caricature, it has been a vacation spot for many
  • Vigilante: The shore is more than a beach; it's a connection that binds generations

Editor's note: David Vigilante is senior vice president of legal at CNN.

(CNN) -- "It's like all our memories are gone."

That's what my brother said when he called to talk about the devastation Superstorm Sandy wreaked on the Jersey Shore, the summer playground of our youth.

With those words I realized that as concerned and sad as I was about the effect of the storm, I was also mourning for a place that harbored so many happy memories for me growing up that may never be the same.

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My brother still lives in the Northeast, but I have long since moved to Atlanta and married a woman from Siesta Key, Florida. For vacations, we venture out to exotic spots.

But the word "vacation" always conjures up images of the Jersey Shore in my mind, and I have often found it difficult to communicate to my wife and my Southern friends what an important cultural touchstone the Jersey Shore is for people in that region. All they know is the caricatured version presented by MTV. But for tens of millions of people in greater New York and Philadelphia who live a short drive or train ride away, the Jersey Shore has always been a weekend destination where families vacation year after year.

New York after Sandy: A tale of two cities

It was not a coastline of resorts and golf courses, like so much of the South. It was grid-based towns that went right up to the beach and were capped off with boardwalks that stretched for miles. Back home in Pennsylvania, we all knew those towns. We knew which had the best piers with the best rides, and we knew that the best sausage and pepper sandwich was at a boardwalk stand in Seaside Heights. We knew that Lucy the Elephant was actually a hotel in Margate and that the places on the Monopoly board really existed.

New Jersey beach before and after Sandy
'No way' to let people in Seaside Heights
Obama tours damage in New Jersey
Choppers captures damage on Jersey coast

We also knew that "the Shore" meant only the Jersey Shore. Everywhere else was just the beach.

But the shore was more than just a beach. It was carnival rides and boardwalks and the remnants of what entertainment looked like in the Victorian era. It was the birthplace of Miss America and the land of Springsteen. It was beach towns filled with memories made by generations of families.

My grandparents were the first ones in my family who were born in America, and for them and every generation in my family, our first encounter with the ocean was at the Jersey Shore. As a result, I was able to do some of the same things in the same places my grandmother did, when as a young woman she would take the train from Philadelphia to Atlantic City with her girlfriends to frolic in the sand and walk the boardwalk.

I could hang out on the beach and wander around the sights in Cape May, just like my mom did.

It is a connection that binds generations. It was to the Jersey Shore that my brother and our high school friends went the day after senior proms, just like our dad did. And we both agree our best family vacation ever was in Lavallette in 1977, when he was 12 and I was 10. So many of our friends were there at the same time, and we could finally hang out on the boardwalk on our own. I loved it so much I vowed I would keep forever a T-shirt I got at a boat race we attended that week. And I have. It is now my 9-year-old son's favorite T-shirt and his special connection to the Jersey Shore.

Entertainment: 'Jersey Shore' cast on Sandy devastation

When you are married to someone who grew up on an island with palm trees, it is hard to convince them the Jersey Shore is a worthy alternative. But I finally convinced my wife to go there for a family reunion when she was newly pregnant with our first child. We arrived when it was dark, and the cool, late summer air was damp with the ocean spray. I insisted that she walk up to the beach with me, and when we got there we turned, looked north and I showed her the boardwalk pier stretching out over the water, with a Ferris wheel and a roller coaster lighting up the night sky over the black ocean.

I stood behind her, with my arms wrapped around her shoulders, and sang in a whisper into her ear: "The amusement park rises bold and stark; kids are huddled on the beach in the mist."

I could finally show her that place was real.

And that imagery was the imagery of my memories.

And my parents' memories . . . and their parents' memories.

And that was my Jersey Shore.

Share your memories of the Jersey Shore with CNN's iReport. What are your memories? What photos of the Shore are important to you?

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Vigilante.

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