It was about 11 a.m. when Michael Norden squinted into the horizon and spotted the flapping tail of a banner-towing plane. As it buzzed closer toward the North Wildwood beach, he began to panic.
His wife, Lauren, was still at her mother’s house nearby. And it was important that Michael and Lauren witness the banner’s message together. He frantically dialed her number.
“Oh my God,” Michael said, “the plane’s coming early!”
“We’re coming! We’re coming!” Lauren said.
The converted World War II piper planes and their messages can be seen flying over beaches every day, all season long — a rite of a Jersey Shore summer for more than 70 years. Once a booming business, aerial advertising is now down to a handful of companies. The signs these days usually promote happy-hour specials, sometimes acknowledge birthdays, occasionally propose marriage.
But between 11:30 a.m. and noon on this late July day the flying billboard would divulge a secret: the sex of the Nordens’ second child, known only by a handful of people including their doctor, a close friend, and the pilot.
Is it a boy or a girl?
The plane fully emerged from the clouds. It dragged a string of letters that spelled out the name of a local restaurant.
“I almost had a heart attack,” said Michael.
Lauren ran up the beach to join him, and to wait. Their plane was still to come.
Lauren is due Oct. 3. The couple purposely waited until her third trimester to learn the baby’s sex, wanting the announcement to coincide with an emotional milestone: This day marks the one-year anniversary of her father’s death.
On July 28, 2017, Dan Metz died from lung cancer. He was 71.
Lauren decided that a gender reveal ceremony on the same day would shift the family’s attention to celebrating life instead of reliving loss.
And if it’s a boy, she said, his middle name will be Daniel.
They didn’t bother learning the sex of their first child, who they were convinced would be a boy. To their surprise, blue-eyed Emily Holland arrived at 8 pounds and 5 ounces. So this time they wanted to be prepared.
Kate Metz, Lauren’s mother, suggested the venue. After 50 years living mostly in Grays Ferry, Dan, an electrician, and Kate, a payroll manager, realized their dream and moved to the Shore. They spent 18 years together on the 300 block of West Pine Street, driving more than an hour to work but walking 15 minutes to the beach.
“Do it on the beach,” Kate said, “for Daddy.”
And Lauren’s 11-year-old niece offered: “Write it on those planes.”
“I thought it was crazy,” Michael said. “There’s no way this doesn’t cost thousands of dollars.”
They approached Paramount Air Services, the oldest and largest of the surviving flying-banner companies. Andre Tomalino, a pilot during the war, started the company after returning home in 1945. Advertisers were regionally focused at first, selling deals on clams casino, but they’ve expanded to include everything from national insurance providers to personal announcements. Prices range from a few hundred dollars for a one-day banner to thousands for a summerlong contract.
“For a personal banner in Cape May, Wildwood, Stone Harbor, Avalon,” said Barbara Tomalino, who bought the company in 1985, “that would be $395.”
“OK,” Michael said, “if we get at least 50 guests on the beach then I’ll do it.”
The extended Metz family decided to attend the beach reveal, rerouting their reunion from Allentown. Their involvement brought the total to 65 people gathered at Dan’s happy place to learn the sex of his ninth grandchild. The first he wouldn’t meet.
Kate set out a tray of bathroom cups, alternately filling them with pink lemonade and blue Gatorade.
“OK! We’re going to do a toast for Danny,” she said, “because it’s the anniversary. …”
Behind sunglasses her face twisted into grief. A friend rubbed her shoulders.
“This is a good diversion,” she said after composing herself. “I had my moments leading up to today, but this helped, getting this all together.”
At 11:20, once every hand held a cup, the group formed a circle.
“I think everybody knows that a year ago Big Dan went to the big couch in the sky,” Lauren said. “They say that to become a saint, you need to do three miracles.”
Kate drew her hand to her face.
“Don’t cry,” Lauren said. “Now I’m going to cry.”
After a deep breath, Lauren listed the miracles: The Eagles won the Super Bowl, the Golden Crown club won first place in the Mummers’ Fancy Brigade Division, and the ninth grandchild is on the way.
Bing Crosby’s version of “Danny Boy“ streamed from a portable Bluetooth speaker.
“We all appreciate you guys being here for this,” Kate said, raising her cup. “Cheers!”
A cousin pointed and yelled, “There’s a plane coming with a blue banner!”
“It’s either a boy or Bud Light,” Lauren joked.
It was for Bud Light.
Both 33, the expectant couple had diverse upbringings. Lauren is the fourth child of a Catholic South Philly family. The baby. Michael, who has a twin sister, was the only boy in his Jewish northern New Jersey household.
Now, in their Robbinsville, N.J., home, Michael has Lauren, their daughter, and two female dogs.
“I told Lauren, if this is a girl, the next dog we’re getting is going to be a boy,” he said. “The selfish part of me wants a boy for obvious reasons, but then I look at Emily and I think it would be nice for her to have a girlfriend.”
Suddenly, to the right, the faintest whir of a slow-sputtering engine, followed by the unmistakable snap of a banner tangling with the wind. Instead of meeting them head-on, the pilot sneaked around the flank.
At 11:55, one cousin noticed the plane. Then voices rose, streamers twisted, the group rejoiced.
Dan’s name lives on.
It’s a boy.