July 7, 2018
As I write this, it is just after the fourth of July. Because the holiday fell on a Wednesday this year, there are those who chose to celebrate on the fourth, the historical Independence Day, while other chose to start up the party on the following Saturday. Therefore, we might have seen the fireworks already, or will see them depending on just when Independence Day will be celebrated. While this means that no long weekend was granted by the tsar of holidays, we are left to suffer on with little chance to recover from this year’s parties and celebrations. Only those who choose to party on Saturday will have a chance to heal and pick up some badly needed sleep. No doubt there are party-animals that will use the excuse to simply celebrate all week!
Because my wife, Suzie, and I are in the process of moving to a newer home, I spent Wednesday all day on my knees; not praying, but replacing grout around the kitchen floor tile. We really need to invent something that will allow us to either stand or sit while working on the floor, rather than crawl around! Please, please at least give me a way to get back up on my feet. Whew!
Our nation’s birthday marks ‘mid-summer’ for many of us. It is when corn and tomatoes are ripening and watermelons are at their sweetest. Summer also meant to me back in the old days, that it was time for canning. Grannie ‘put up’ beans, beets, jellies, apple sauce, sorghum, pickles, jellies and preserves, pickled eggs, and lots of other things.
This may have been hot, heavy, work for the ladies, but often the kids who were too young to help were turned loose to simply run amok through the neighborhoods. For kids, besides all the outdoor games, it was the time when lightning bugs had arrived, easily spotted in the evenings as natural light fades. We all remember collecting those magic bugs in canning jars and continuing the hunt for more. In the end, mom made us release them. June bugs were fun, too, in spite that they were larger, ugly, and a lot noisier. I remember that we would tie a string around their legs and let them fly in undulating circles around our person. Some thought it cruel to do that. If I were a bug I’d likely agree, but in that day, I dismissed those charges saying, “For goodness sake, they’re just bugs!” (Don’t judge me too quickly because somewhere down deep I figured it was wrong. I would have turned my attention to something else.)
By the time I was ten years old or so, I had already pulled out my catcher’s mitt and applied generous dollops of Neatsfoot Oil over the stiff leather and rubbed it in, giving it new life and subtleness. I pounded a deep ‘pocket’ in the center of the glove. An older kid suggested I put a baseball in the mitt and then put a rubber band around the whole to make the leather take on the shape of the hard sphere. By July fourth, this had already been done. The mitt and I were already in mid-season. My friends and I played ‘catch’ all around our little town and had already enjoyed a schedule of organized games. The sound of the ball hitting the mitt, and the sound of a wooden bat sending the ball back toward the outfield are sounds of heaven to a youngster. In truth, that sound still registers in my male brain and alerts me to turn and watch the ‘homer.’ When we hit the pitched sphere with the barrel of the bat we knew that the ball would fly away. It had a feel and a sound that told us immediately that this one would sail for hundreds of feet. Our ballfields rarely had fences, but it they had the ball would have easily cleared them for a home run.
Summer also meant lots of ‘bike riding,’ and hopscotch, picnics, a trip to Dreamland to swim, or Camden Park to ride the roller-coaster. Many of us lost our shirts and went around looking like pre-Columbian American Natives. I often wore a fully unbuttoned shirt that flapped in the wind when I was speeding on my bike. I remember that I rolled up the right leg of my jeans to avoid being caught up in the sprocket chain. It was common that the chain guard had been removed and lost in the distant past. If it was not common for my peers, the look of having the one leg rolled up would have looked weird, I’m sure.
We were soon out running around under the hot sun. As it happened, I was naturally dark and slow to sunburn, but I tanned quickly. A few of the boys I knew went without shoes in the summer, but I normally wore worn-out tennis shoes that were often filled with holes. I remember the soles coming off and flapping when I walked. I felt like a clown and likely looked like one. Sometimes holes in the shoes would allow a toe or two to be exposed. It was also aggravating when one of those ‘dang’ shoe-strings broke. I’d have to make repairs that after a time resulted in several knots that would not make it through the eyelets. We didn’t have Velcro in those days, but it would have been nice.
I wrote about camps a couple of weeks ago, but I will mention them again as something we looked forward to year after year. Ice cream is a real treat in the summer, too. We would make some in an ice cream maker for dessert on the 4th of July, or another occasion. The older men would do the cranking. At first, I could add ice chips in layers and sprinkle salt to aid the cooling process. Turning the crank grows harder as the ice cream freezes until it is nearly impossible to turn further. When the men gave up I was teased by them allowing me to try my hand at cranking. Of course, I failed to get more than a turn or two before my energy was spent. I lacked the muscle to do more. The older men laughed. There was nothing left to do but let it sit until the ladies deemed it ready to spoon out.
I remember when someone built a small ice-cream store between Simpson’s Gulf and the Cypress Inn on Madison. Early on, I had one of those swirly cones that was dipped in a waxy chocolate. The trick was to get it eaten before it melted or dripped on your hands or clothing. I remember little bits of the chocolate would float down on the melted ice cream and onto my hand. The handle-bars would be next and they would remain sticky until I could wash them with a garden hose. There came a time when I selected a milk shake, or banana split, instead. At least it would be contained if it melted.
A year or two later Dee put in his Dairy Queen and turned it into a drive-through. It was be several years later when he added the dining room. He hired ‘car hops’ who would put your order on a tray that hooked over the car window. Dee’s added to the menu and did well. They had good onion-rings, hot-dogs, hamburgers, and shakes. They still do. This was, and still is a popular meeting place in our little town.
This late in the season fresh strawberries had already been exhausted, but it was nearing time when lots of blackberries were getting ready for using in cobblers and muffins. Watermelon and cantaloupe were sold at farmer’s markets, stands, and grocery stores. I remember kids having spitting contests to see how far they could spit a watermelon seed. That led to sticky faces and hands, perfect to collect layers of dirty, sticky messes. As sticky as we were it was be best to avoid hugs. Those could lead to a long-term commitment. Wild days, those.
Summer rains and storms were a regular occurrence, and usually brought welcome relief after a day of hot, muggy weather. I played in the overflow of rainwater along the streets gutters. I floated toy boats and played until the water subsided. When I was a teen I rode my bike though those puddles to see how big a splash I could make. For a moment I would see a giant wave break away, but if the water was deep enough, it would sap all my momentum and bring me to a halt. I remember at least one time when I slammed so hard into some deep water that the resistance caused my bike to stop and fall over dumping me into the puddle. We had a laugh and repeated it for the growing crowd of kids running up to join the ruckus.
Lounging on the porch, sometimes reading comics was a regular summer pastime. The warmth of the weather, and the comfort of the swing often got the best of me. I’d drift off into dreams of grandeur, finally giving way to the sandman. For a short moment I was Batman, or Spiderman, or even a favorite cowboy. I fought World War two all over again in my mind and in the process, took out many machine-gun nests. I liberated villages across Europe. It wasn’t for the medals that I would surely earn, but rather I wanted to save my country so mom would be safe from the evil enemy. She had to be protected as did all those sweet girls waiting at home.
With school out, I was required to mow the grass, cut back weeds on the fences, and to hire out to do the same for the neighbors. Lizzie Shannon was quick to hire me only after her fancy, twisted wire fence was covered in tough honeysuckle vines. I had to dodge bees and find ways to pull the creeping plant and still not pull the fence out of alignment. It was a time of growing blisters from the wooden handles on the push mower, sickle, or rake. I dug flower-beds and cleaned overgrowth. It was hard work, but it gave me pocket change for the movies, or some baseball cards, or even a milkshake. That certainly made the blisters feel better.
I remember staying a week or so on my uncle’s farm and helping with baling hay. My cousins could pick up a bale and toss it up on the flatbed truck with ease, but it was all I could do to use two hands and lift it so another cousin could pitch in to help put it in place. That was very hard work for a skinny town boy. It would likely kill a real city boy, I figured.
Houses and cars did not have air-conditioning unless you were rich. The Garden Theater was the only place I recall that did. By the time I was in high school more and more cars finally had AC, but again, only for those that could afford it. I loved the sweltering, dog-days of summer so much. The other seasons had things I liked, too, but overall, I hated being cold. My house didn’t have insulation unless you counted the wallpaper. In the winter I could see my breath as I walked through the house. In the summer, I just tried to stay as cool as I could. A shady hammock would have been nice, but a porch swing was all I had.
We used oscillating electric fans to try to get a little relief. The older table models had a protective cage but you could still reach in and touch the turning blade and hurt yourself. The old fans we had were also dirty and oily. I would put 3-in-1 oil on them to help them twirl easily, but that also helped them accumulate the dirt. I can still see them in my mind. They were black and had a multiple colored, striped, cotton-insulated cord. Those cords were later replaced by plastic or rubber cords that didn’t fray. You could easily get a shock with those earlier ones. I remember that some stores had big floor models of the fans. It would be later when box fans were sold. Those could be set in windows to either pull fresh air in from the outside, or expel warm air out of the home. Personally, I wanted the feel of the moving breeze.
I remember everyone at church would sit and fan themselves with those paddles with advertising for funeral homes. I think we had some from Young’s Funeral Home, some from Curtwright’s and some that had religious themes, such as pictures of Christ. With everyone fanning in unison, it was a sight to behold. It reminded me of a symphony orchestra with all the fiddle bows sawing away. I used them sometimes, but it made my arm tired. Besides, they didn’t help anything beyond your face. My trousers would be wet, as would my shirt-tail. Whew!
In those days the town didn’t have a pool, so Dreamland was the only choice we had for safe swimming beyond jumping in a shallow creek somewhere. I think my family made one or two trips each summer to Fallsburg, but mom kept me close from her fear of my drowning. My cousin, George, got washed over the falls once and everyone panicked. Bystanders swore he’d been caught up in a whirlpool. He was perfectly safe when we found him. Later, when I was a high school senior I was washed over the falls on senior skip day. Stanley Brown and Johnny Justice jumped in to save me because I couldn’t swim. Once in the water I swam back to shore without any help, but that was another story that I’m sure I’ve already recounted. Back then it was at least a ten foot drop, but the last time I was by there, it wasn’t much at all. Perhaps the flowing water has cut through the rock and lowered the drop?
Dreamland had two islands in the middle of that large pool. The first was in the shallow end, the other at the deep end. I learned to reach the deep one once I had grown over six feet. I could almost reach bottom on the one side of the deeper island, but the water was well over my head on the other side. Coming back toward the shallow end was easy because I’d dive toward the shallow end and allow the momentum to make me coast. By the time the momentum stopped I could put my feet down stand up without fear if drowning. My mother was grateful. I was pleased over the result, too, else, we wouldn’t be writing this, eh?
I don’t remember if I was with the scouts or another group that took me to Camden Yards one summer. I do remember riding the wooden coaster all day. The first time was exciting and it didn’t wear off. There was a ride (now forgotten) that I wouldn’t take, but I loved the big roller-coaster. The boy scouts did go on camping trips in the summer as well as take hikes, but I can’t pull up any memories of anything I saw or did on those excursions. I guess they were fun. Someone who remembers should write and tell me if I’ve forgotten something.
I remember a picnic my family once took. There’s a place called ‘Beech Grove’ out toward Wallbridge where we laid out a blanket and ate a good lunch with the neighbor ants. I think we had peanut-butter sandwiches, but I remember the watermelon best. Of course, with no sinks around beech grove, my fingers got so sticky I could barely spread them. Pieces of leaves, ants and dirt clung to them to the point my hands were useless. That was a real mess. My face was sticky too, but it didn’t build up as much of the dirt. For the first time in my life I couldn’t wait to clean up.
If you were there and remember, these were the days of Saturday night baths. I usually faced those with dread as I scrubbed all over with lye soap and a wash cloth. The miracle was that after I did the rinse, I discovered that I was there under all that dirt. I was pink, happy, if a bit reddened from the scrubbing. Another time I enjoyed a bath was after Harry Richard and I played tackle football on the berm outside of Creep Chandler’s house. Harry and I were caked in mud so we went to my house where my aunt hosed us down. Then we were sent dripping upstairs to the tub. We were two laughing, fighting, and splashing boys in a tub. That means there was lots of water on the floor and the dripping ceiling in the room below.
Playing hide and seek, practicing music, sitting and listening in on porch conversations with the adults after supper, and watching the All-star Game, all made up what I saw as summer. For our family there was no such thing as a ‘vacation.’ Some of the better-to-do families did do some traveling, but we stayed home. Summer meant wool baseball uniforms that were scratchy and hot, and many times worse under catcher’s gear. A walk to Fort Gay for an evening game was hot, both ways. I remember some trips when I caught a slight breeze on the bridge over the river. There was always a chance that I would be washed down by a sudden evening rainstorm.
Today, it’s too hot to sit out on the deck. Heat warnings are keeping many of us home and inside with air conditioning. Flags warn of danger at the beaches. Whether heat-related, rip tides, or upcoming storms it’s helpful to know what the flags mean. It’s easier to stay in our cooled houses. Maybe we are growing soft, eh?
The good days of summer were often duplicates of the days before and of the days ahead. We tended to slow in our work as well as in our play. The saying, ‘Slow and easy goes long into the day,’ was quoted to me time and again. Slow and easy times are just perfect for a nap. Zzzzzzzzzzz
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