Friday, July 6, 2012

A Summertime Story ...

When I was a kid, I lived in a warren of a neighborhood filled with growing families. Mothers stayed home and tried to make their homes and yards unique, which was hard considering the houses all looked alike architecturally and sat on lots that were all exactly the same size. The streets were laid out in grids and filled twice a day with cars zipping to and from work ... fathers went to work, mothers stayed home, and kids ran wild in the back yards and woods that buffered the neighborhood from the state highway that ran adjacent to all this familial bliss.

During three quarters of the year, the neighborhood was set on a strict time table of work, school bells, shopping and errands, and the three meals a day at which every family gathered for a quick catch-up. When summer rolled around, though, things slackened up considerably. Backyard tents sprouted and kids had sleepovers, the screen doors slammed at all times of the day and night, houses would get quiet and yards would go untended for a week here and there, as families left for vacations. The locusts hatched out and climbed trees to whine and hiss in the heat, and we kids reigned like Viking hoards across the yards and paths of the King/ Merrit/Alden blocks.Those days of summer were filled with all sorts of small entertainments. The big ones were reserved for the holidays - 4th of July, Old-Fashioned Days, and Labor Day. Independence Day was the sweetest, though, because it was the first big holiday of the summer.

As the 4th of July approached, our bikes became the center of a neighborhood design competition. Old playing cards got clipped to the spokes of wheels so that they clacked and snapped as you rode up and down and all around the blocks. Crepe paper and tossed toilet paper rolls became red, white, and blue streamers that were slipped onto handlebars or propped upright on tail fenders so that they streamed out behind when you were riding at breakneck speed. Stuffed animals and dolls got dressed up in their finery to ride atop handlebars or bounce along in small wagons that got attached to the back wheel's axle.

Sometimes, inventive kids used cast-off cardboard boxes and constructed elaborate 'faux floats' that they lowered over the bikes and themselves. The straps holding the 'float'  would ride over the shoulders of the kid and made for interesting steering and control issues. The best one I remember was made by a kid from the Alden block. He made himself into the top of a skyscraper. The box was the building and his head and shoulders formed the pointed top a la Empire State Building . His hat was all silver aluminum foil and was topped with a lightning rod funnel top that sprouted red, white, and blue foil 'sparklers. He was fantastic! Most of the kids, though, had to make due with decorating hats to top off their bike theme. Straw hats were loaded up with flowers, pictures of sports and political heros, ribbons and bows and had to be strapped in place or risk getting tossed by the wind and flattened by other bikers. It was always such fun to, then, ride in the 4th of July parade right down the middle of Main Street Massena, New York.

By the time the evening approached, the barbeques and backyard fireplaces were reduced to coals, picnic tables were loaded with empty dishes, piles of soggy paper plates and tipped soda cans, mothers were wilting in their lawn chairs with well-deserved glasses of iced tea or something stronger. The sparklers and firecrackers would be doled out to the older teens by watchful fathers; bottle rockets and 'zippers' would shoot up from various backyards and the neighbors would take turns zinging hot colors and flashes of light up into the night sky. We kids ran willy-nilly around the yards waving sparklers and screaming or blowing whistles.  It was a glorious hour of flaming flashing phantasm, all orchestrated with the hoots and hollers and admonitions from mothers and the laughing of fathers and big brothers. And then, the noise of celebration would subside and we were left with the last crackle of coals in our backyard firplace.

Our family would toast marshmallows and quiet down from all the excitement. Quietly, we'd recount the highlights of the day and stop, now and then, to listen to other neighbor families doing the same thing. The buzz and whine of mosquitoes would begin to fill the air until, finally, we'd be driven into the house.  You could hear screen doors slam shut for the night, and we kids flopped like limp lettuce into bed to fall asleep to the sound of crickets chirping, Junebugs slamming their heads against the window screens and the occasional low chuckle from a downstairs bedroom. Another 4th of July was gloriously spent and the rest of the of the long hot summer lay ahead.

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