When I was young, I looked upon summer as nature’s apology for winter. Summer brought light, and warmth, and sweet fruit and long, dusty days at the swimming hole. In summer, the living—as the song goes—was easy.
The previews began the final weekend of May, with Memorial Day, parades, barbecues and our inaugural swim. Whatever the weather (though, as I recall, it was almost always summer-like) the neighborhood kids would gather (our neighborhood consisted of only three houses, so there wasn’t very many of us) and we’d trek through the fields and woods to the Kinderhook Creek, about three quarters of a mile away. (The colloquial term was ‘crik,’ as in “I’m goin’ down t’the crik to cool off.”)
Despite the promise of summer, the water—swelled with snow-melt—was scrotum-clenchingly frigid. But we didn’t care. We’d swim until our lips turned blue, then head home for the barbecue.
School, after that weekend, became even more of a chore. We were short-timers, but there was still work to do, projects to finish and tests to study for, which was hard to do as summer’s siren song called to us through the giant windows. During those final weeks, they would be open, letting in sweet, summer breezes. Sometimes, the teacher—using a long stick with a hook on the end—would pull the shades down and turn the lights off in an effort to keep the classroom cool. But sitting in a dimmed classroom, my shoulders hot beneath my shirt from a weekend in the sun, couldn’t keep summer far from my mind.
Then there would be tests and assembles and the final bus ride, culminating in that sweetest of all feelings: waking up on a sunny morning with ten full weeks of summer vacation stretched out ahead of you.
The summer uniform was a pair of cut-off jeans with an optional tee-shirt. Shoes were hardly worn and by July the bottoms of our feet were like leather. We rode bikes, we walked—a lot—and, mostly, we swam, but there were many other things to do, my favorite of which was nothing. Many summer afternoons would find me—often alone but occasionally with a sibling or neighbor kid—just lying on the grass, staring up at the sky, making pictures of clouds, or watching the airplanes, or just letting my thoughts wander.
Kids today know neither the joys, nor the benefits, of boredom, but we had lots of it.
Summer was a time of screen doors and windows. In the winter, our outer doors had a panel of glass windows in them. When summer started, we took those out and put in screens. Likewise, the windows in the house were opened and various sized screens were put in them. In later years, one or two of the screen held a built-in fan, which was the height of technology.
The screen doors had a long spring attached to them so that, when you went out or in, they swung closed behind you with a creak (from the spring) and a wham (from the door). That remains the defining sound of summer.
The screens were necessary to help keep the house cool, and the slamming screen door was to keep the bugs (mostly) out. Houseflies were frequent guests during the summer, and we always had a flyswatter or two handy. Hunting them down and killing them was mostly for sport, unless they were really annoying us. Inside, that was mostly all we had, but outside, the bugs were numerous.
Flies, naturally, but also wasps and hornets and yellow jackets, along with butterflies, caterpillars, Japanese beetles, ants—both the large, harmless black ones and the smaller, stinging red ones—praying mantis, mosquitoes by the bucket-load and another summer pest known as a sweat fly. Sweat flies were the size of houseflies but with colorful, red and black markings. They would buzz about your head and land on your temples. I don’t know if they actually drank sweat, but they gave a painful bite. Fortunately, they were slow, and as soon as you felt one land, you could easily kill it. Unfortunately, there was always another one to take its place.
The best way to get rid of the sweat flies orbiting your head was to lean close to your buddy, let the sweat flies start circling around him, then move away.
Mosquitoes were not much of an annoyance. In fact, they were kinda fun. We’d let one land, watch it bore into our skin, suck our blood until it got fat and red and then, just as it finished its feast, slap it, smearing the blood over our arms.
In early summer, the county truck would come and tar Rabbit Lane, the dirt road that ran next to our house. This was to keep the dust down, but it provided hours of diversion, especially when it was first poured and the molten tar was still hot and runny. During heat waves, the tar would, once again, run, and the smell of heated tar still reminds me of summer.
During the hot nights, when I slept in my bed, I would turn around so my head was next to the screened window, allowing the cool breezes to waft over me. More often than not, however, I didn’t sleep in my bed; I slept outside, either in a sleeping bag on the lawn or in the Clubhouse, which was the loft over my dad’s shop. (Both the Clubhouse and the Shop deserve their own entries, so for now we will suffice it to say there was a clubhouse over the Shop, and we—me, siblings, neighbors, friends, homeless strangers—slept there most of the summer.)
One of the other rituals of summer was the sprinkler. We didn’t have a lawn sprinkler, but the potato field next to our house was irrigated by a massive jet of water that, very often, hit our side yard, front yard, and our house. The idea of complaining or suing never entered our minds; people didn’t do that back then. Mom simply took the screens out of the windows on that side of the house and we’d get our bathing suits on and run—screaming and giggling—through the cascading water. This was an industrial-sized sprinkler, and the water fell from such a height and in such large drops that it stung our skin. It was also frigid, which felt good on those scorching afternoons.
In those days, a variety of delivery vehicles visited our house on a regular basis. Living in a rural area, and with my mom unable to drive, we—and other rural families—benefited from these rural routes. This allowed us to buy bread and other baked goodies from the Freihofer man, who would come in his big, red bakery van (Freihofer chocolate cookies are still a local favorite), and soda from the Canada Dry guy. We bought grape soda from him, and I don’t think you can get that any longer. I don’t recall an ice-cream van ever visiting, but we always had some in the freezer, reserved as a special treat. There was also a lot of watermelon around in the summer, and I recall messily eating slices outside. But what we mostly had were homemade Kool-Aid pops. Mom made these and always kept a supply handy.
(ASIDE: Mom made Kool-Aid with only a bit of sugar in it, so it tasted like colored water. It wasn’t very good, but it was wet, and the pops were cold, which was what we needed. When I was an adult, I had occasion to read the actual directions on a packet of Kool-Aid was was astonished at the amount of sugar you were supposed to add. I tried it as instructed and it was horribly sweet. Mom skimped on the sugar because we couldn’t afford to waste it, not because she was concerned about our oral hygiene. I remain grateful for her scrimping on the sugar, however, because I can only imagine what that would have done to our teeth.)
All of these summer pastimes—important as they were—took a back seat to the principal occupation, which was swimming. Practically every day we would ride or walk to one of a handful of swimming locations, the more popular one being Wagoners. You could ride a bike to Wagoners, and even take a car over the rutted and muddy farm tracks if you were brave, but, as I recall, we tended to walk there, padding barefoot on the hot macadam of the county road before cutting through the wheat field, down the steep hill and across another field. I remember taking that walk a lot, towels draped over our shoulders, sweat flies buzzing around our heads, our feet sinking into the soft dirt while the sun blazed hot on our heads. When the wheat was ripe, we’d snap the heads off the stalks and roll them between our palms to tease out the grains so we could crunch them between our teeth. Closer to the creek, tangles of black-caps and wild raspberry bushes rimmed the edges of the woodland and we’d fill up on them when we could.
Then we’d play in the sluggish, green water, dive off the rocks, swing off the rope, warm up on the rocky bank and do it all over again before heading back home in the late afternoon.
Sometimes, on very hot days, a thunderstorm would pass through in the afternoon. This was something I enjoyed, but not something you’d want to be outside in. We always made certain we were back in the house before it hit, which wasn’t hard because you got plenty of warming. First, there was the wind, hard and sudden, and if it blew on the trees so you could see the bottoms of the leaves, you knew rain was on the way. Then ominous clouds loomed, far away but coming fast, and thunder boomed and lightening flashed and you knew you’d better find shelter. Being outside in a thunderstorm could be fatal if the land was flat and you were the tallest thing on it. But watching it from the safety of your home (or, in later years, viewed from my car in the driveway) was thrilling. The rumble and crack and blinding light and occasional boom when there was a close strike.
Then, it would ease, and stop, and the sun would return and we’d slip outside, into the cool, crisp air to continue whatever it was we had been doing before the storm interrupted us.
The finale of summer came with September and the Labor Day Holiday weekend, when the Columbia County Agricultural Fair, known to us as the Chatham Fair, came to town.
We always went, either with our parents or, as we grew older, our friends. It was a sensory orgy—horses, cows, sheep, goats, rabbits, chickens, old tractors, pumpkins, all varieties of squash, a prize for the longest string-bean and such like that. It smelled of hay and dung and then we’d find the midway, which smelled of oil and fat and sugar and exhaust, and the low moos and high whinnies gave way to the raucous rumblings of the rides, the belching and roar of the diesel engines, the shouts of the barkers and the excited screams of children. We’d eat cotton candy and fried dough and try to sneak a peek at the bearded lady and then go on the Round-Up and Tilt-a-Whirl and the tallest, scariest rides we could find.
By now, the summer days were shorter and cooler, and the swimming holes were empty, with a few crimson leaves floating on the still surface of the water. In contrast, the frenzied flurry of the Fair served as a fitting, final hurrah of the summer season and, on the last day, we’d go home, leaving the Fair, and summer behind.
Then came the most bittersweet of feelings: waking up on a sunny morning with an entire year of school—in a new grade—ahead of you. After ten lazy weeks, putting on a full set of clothes felt odd, but comfortingly familiar. Then I’d trudge through the crisp morning to the bus stop, with Melinda and the neighbor kids, and wait to be taken to an unfamiliar classroom to begin counting the days until the start of the next summer.