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Summer Souvenirs

When I was in elementary school, the thrill of the last day of the school year wasn’t ever about the last day of school. The excitement wasn’t about time away from homework, books, tests, and the wool skirts we had to wear year-round, although those were great bonuses. The real prize was only one sleep away. And that was summer. An astronomical event on a calendar didn’t mean a thing. SUMMER began the day after the last day of school.

The freedom we had in the summers of the ‘60s was seductive, in the most innocent way. Hours felt like days, and days were endless; time was longer then, and we filled every moment with exuberance and adventure. It was simplicity married to imagination and spontaneity. Gulping a mandatory breakfast and scrambling to get out the door, we’d throw an over-the-shoulder shout of “I’m going to Meg’s/Mary’s/Paula’s house” and clamber over the fence to start knocking on doors.

Some days, we’d ride our bikes to the nearby lakes and laze in the shade of enormous trees, planning the day. Sometimes, that’s as far as we got. On days when we had some change in our pockets, we’d race to the Ben Franklin Five and Dime, which housed the most glorious smorgasbord of penny candy, each different goodie inhabiting its own square wooden bin. In the sultry Baltimore summer, wafts of sugar met us a block from the store, beckoning. Pixi Stix, candy cigarettes, root beer barrels, swizzle sticks, paper candy dots, circus peanuts, wax coke bottles; we were a dentist’s dream. Even if you only had a quarter, the bag was brimming. Most of the confections were unwrapped so, despite the amount of sugar consumed, we strengthened our immune systems immensely – often several times a week. If our parents had only known.

Heat and humidity baked the asphalt into shimmering waves, curled our hair into tendrils, and enhanced the dimensions of every scent. Days at the pool were punctuated by the aroma of french fries from the snack shack mixed with the unmistakable incense of Coppertone. The peculiar but agreeable odor of hose water was welcome when you needed to cool off on a scorching afternoon but didn’t want to go inside. Air conditioning was a luxury no one had, so we fell asleep to the sweet potpourri of honeysuckle and grass drifting through the screen.

Nearby neighbors owned a fenced-in acre behind their house that was undeveloped and left to nature, and we had permission to cavort as we wished. Overgrown, laced with vines, cooled and dappled by scraggly treetops, and crawling with life underfoot, it wasn’t simply an untended lot – it was kid paradise. One day might be a jungle expedition, where we intrepidly fended off predators. Another time the trees became ships and we swung from their masts and swayed over the ocean. The next visit could find us lurching from rock to tree to avoid the blazing lava that only we could see. Other times, it was simply Soller’s field – but always deliciously enchanted.

Around mid-afternoon on most days, happiness on wheels rolled through the neighborhood. The bells of the Good Humor truck could be heard a block away and hollers of “The ice cream man is here!” went up on every nearby street. The truck was an icon of summer, the ice cream man exalted to hero status in his crisp white uniform, peaked cap, and oh-so-cool change belt. Kids sprung from every corner and sprinted to get in line for a chocolate eclair, toasted almond, firecracker pop, or some other icy ambrosia on a stick. Sometimes, especially late into the summer, your favorite flavor might be sold out and you had to stand to the side while you agonized over what other delicacy to choose. And that second choice was never quite as satisfying.

Summer storms were spectacular. We’d watch a gray-black sky barrel in, percolating with the scent of impending rain, and we’d play chicken waiting out the initial random sprinklings. But when the fat, pelting drops started and the cloudburst began to unfurl, we’d bolt for home. Harpoons of lightning split the sky, and thunder blasts shuddered the house; it was a sound and light show. Finally, the storm would peel away leaving the air steamy with the smell of washed earth, and the ground dappled with puddles that required feet. We happily obliged.

The aroma of a charcoal grill, the puff of smoke and distinctly satisfying tang of a cap gun, or the cotton-candy-popcorn-salt-spray-tar-and-hot grease spice of the boardwalk – every scent was magnified and etched into memory. The tiniest drift of these perfumes can fling me back to very precise and happy places in time as my ten-year-old self.

So many other small pleasures were woven into those seemingly endless hours…the simple fun of running through a sprinkler, wading in a creek, staying up late for a game of SPUD under a streetlamp, and lighting up jars with fireflies. But the days did begin to wind down, and we’d woefully reach the last day of summer, which was the day before the first day of school when we’d return to homework, books, tests, and the wool skirts we had to wear year-round.

Until next June.

One comment

  1. Deja vu! You lovingly describe better than I could those intense and magical days of summer, days of yore, the 60s.

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