Memorial Day is upon us, and summer is right behind it. If you go by the calendar, summer doesn't officially arrive until June 21. But as a kid, that holiday signaled the start of summer vacation.
The end of the school year. Final grades and one last report card for parents to sign (or not). Free at last!
Free to stay up late and sleep in. No homework or projects to worry about. Free to conspire and plot with the other kids in the neighborhood on things that parents only knew on a "need to know" basis.
That's was when "school's out for the summer" meant just that: Over after Memorial Day and not on again
until after Labor Day. A full three glorious months to do whatever our little imaginations could dream up.
Like most kids, I'm not sure I ever really appreciated how special that time was, or how fleeting. Why would you? You're a kid. And even though we didn't have cell phones, iPads, video games or 500 channels, you could, believe it or not, still have fun.
What was special about a Texas summer in the Sixties? A few things leap to mind:
-- The nightly chorus of the cicadas. As darkness fell, the 17-year cicadas (also known as locusts) would begin singing in trees all over the neighborhood. Loud. Sometimes ear-piercing, depending on how close they were. My brother and I, being somewhat insect nerds (we collected bugs), would set off to find the source of the noise and sometimes capture the culprit if we could pull the tree branches low enough. Little did we know the singing is how male cicadas attract the females, so now I feel bad for interrupting their fun.
-- Fireflies. Speaking of insects, what is more magical than watching the on/off green glow of a firefly on a summer night? Sometimes it seemed our whole backyard was aglow with these tiny, twinkling "lightning bugs." As the years passed, we saw their lights less and less. Maybe they moved on, or we weren't looking as much.
-- Insect Honorable Mention: June Bugs. These little brown flying beetles that swarm to porchlights. Beware their sticky legs if they land on you, or Heaven forbid -- your hair!
-- Homemade ice cream. Ice cream the old-fashioned way: A wooden bucket, rock salt, a hand crank and muscle power. Why pay a couple of bucks for store-bought ice cream when you could spend double that on ingredients and ointments for your aching arms and back? But on my! I can still taste the homemade vanilla and still feel the pounding "brain freeze" headache it gave you. (Sidenote: According to Wikipedia, "its given scientific name sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia (meaning 'nerve pain of the sphenopalatine ganglion'), is a form of brief pain or headache commonly associated with consumption (particularly quick consumption) of cold beverages or foods such as ice cream and ice pops." I knew it wasn't all in my head.
-- Playing games. That was what the backyard was for. Football and baseball, no matter the season. Volleyball, badminton and croquet (with equipment Mom supplied courtesy of S&H Green Stamps). The grownups would set up the card table for games of Canasta and Dominoes. Of course, the games we played were not without drama. On one occasion, I hit the baseball over our fence and into the narrow alley that ran behind our house. It was overgrown with honeysuckle, and I had to crawl on my stomach underneath to reach the ball. Of course I never saw the nest of yellowjackets just over my head, but they saw me. I got stung three times.
-- Food. Summer is the perfect time to fire up the grill, and we wore out several of them. Family and friends would gather at our redwood picnic table (a "must-have" outdoor item at the time) and enjoy burgers and all the fixins'. On the porch was a yellow metal chest where red and yellow-meat watermelons rested in frigid water between chunks of ice. During the hot summer days, Mom always had a big picture of Kool-Aid at the ready (made with one cup of sugar -- it's a private joke). My other favorite drink was NeHi Orange. We would hoard the empty bottles and redeem them for a nickel each -- money enough for new comic books.
-- Books. As a book lover, summer meant I could read the books I wanted to read, instead of what was assigned. Besides the comic books (little did I know my super heros would be the future heros of the Hollywood box office), my passion was science fiction and fantasy. Favorite authors included Andre Norton (I had no idea at the time Andre was a "she"), Robert Heinlein, Issac Asimov, Philip K. Dick and Arthur C. Clarke. I also became a big fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and collected the entire series of paperbacks illustrated by Frank Franzetta. Besides Tarzan, he authored many science fiction titles, including the exploits of John Carter on Mars. Thanks to my spouse, Pamela, I still have those books now.
Additionally, there were some memorable times involving fireworks and the Fourth of July. But I'll save that for another blog.
Yes, I know it's spelled like "Jerry." No, I don't know why it's pronounced "Gary."