The Long, Slow Summers of Youth

 Watch them dawdling home for dinner, picking wide stalks of quack grass from which to fashion whistles, tossing a ball high in the air and losing it in the sun.  Kids eight and ten years old, dawdling in the knowledge that they’ve got four hours of sunlight left, and an hour of dusky delight after that.  Growing an inch a day, it seems, they are taller when you see them at the dinner table than when you left in the morning.

We are envious of these slow kids with a long summer of easy fun ahead.   We, too, will have our summer vacations.  But it’s not the same.

Adults don’t always look forward to the throwing open of school doors at the end of June, and the release of thousands (millions, it seems) of gorpers and gorpettes in their resplendent Bart Simpson badness.  We adults enjoy summer, sure, but when we’re not mowing the lawn or firing up the volcanic rock, we worry about whether the weather will hold for the weekend, or whether the credit card will survive the family holiday.

We secretly crave summer the way it used to be, the way it was when we were eight or ten: an idyll.  The children of summer, the children we once were, don’t read or watch or worry about the weather, they wear it in their skin.  Skin wet with a recent shower, or glowing red from a little too much lazing in the sun, it matters not to them.

For what these kids have is not only  time, as in available hours, but the time of their lives.

It may be the perfect age, the elementary school years, judging from its ample storehouse of memories.   It’s a time of life we are bound to spend a lifetime trying to recreate.   Old enough to ramble a little, kids stretch out and explore the outer reaches of the universe (or at least the strange breed of eight year olds who live in the next subdivision).  Yet they are young enough to have more than enough friends, and too young to be self-consciously planning their fun in advance.

During July and August, school is a four letter word.  And no spelling lessons will correct that.  Other four letter words may get your parents’ attention, but school is the one to do it to your buddies.  It’s a gamble, though, using that word at all during the summer.  The guys may well conclude that you’re a certified geek and quit inviting you on missions to discover new secret hideouts.  

Summer is when the tall grass gets tired of standing up so tall, and decides to lay down under a shady tree. Just like a young boy.  A time when your body feels languid and loose, like a rubber hose lying in the sun.

If  told that this was the happiest time of  life, a summer child would look up with a bit of a tilt to the head, as if trying to get a better angle on an alien life form.  “Happy?  Mick just let the air outta my tires, Angela says I oughta learn how to wipe the snot off my cheek (as if I care), and Bobby (the Basher) McCrandle thinks I swiped his catcher’s mitt.”

Happy? You bet.  Not happy like a birthday party, or getting a new bike, or such.  Happy the way a kid is when he looks back, over his shoulder, at a wheelie he just popped, as if seeing some rear-view mirror replay. 

Is it just the looking back that makes it so clean and good?  Does it matter?  If the memory is sweeter than the reality, who cares?  We’re allowed to hold it.

We can revel in memories of learning to tightrope across the creek on fallen logs, riding bikes on sand dunes (where a housing subdivision now stands), or gathering our nickels together to buy a jug of draft root beer up at the A&W on the north edge of town.  We would practice taking a swig while hoisting the jug on one arm, just a thumb hooked in the handle, the way Jethro drank whatever it was he drank on the Beverly Hillbillies.  Our role models, you might say, tended toward the lower end of the IQ scale. 

We had spitting contests on the front steps, or peeing contests, off in the woods (at least in those summers when the mosquito counts were low).  Much time was spent making up nicknames, preferably nicknames that the subject detested.  Murray the maggot.  Slimy Suzy.

There were many hours of sweet boredom, with absolutely nothing to do.  Selling Kool Aid from an overturned box in front of the house, waiting for the world to beat a path to our curb.  Attracting only freeloaders and Mom, who (after cleaning up the sugary mess in her kitchen) eventually came out and paid a dime for the privilege of a glass.  Finally giving up and deciding to drink the remaining pitcher yourself, only to discover it  warm and peppered with flies.

As an adult, you realize that many of the best adventures were imaginary, like the scheme to hitchhike to the lake and back without your parents knowing, or the brilliant and complicated plans to capture a wild hare you had spotted down in the gully.  Even these mental adventures were made possible by the throwing off of academic harnesses.  It was two months of being stupid, loving it, and following your base instincts wherever they would take you.

It may not be pretty, but those are the ways of young boys.

Summer did have its eloquent moments.  Lying flat on the grass, chewing a blade, and watching the cloud transform from a craggy old face into Zorro.  Or rolling up your pants and wading in the chilly river, feeling its slippery rocks on your bare feet while minnows tickled your toes. 

Of course, summer was not always so for children, nor will it remain so.  Summer vacation for children is one of the great achievements of the industrial revolution and universal schooling.  Children were not always so free to pursue pleasure.  And with changes in vacation patterns (many families now make winter their get-away time) year round schooling is increasingly popular.  Perhaps the latter half of the 20th century was the golden age for children and their summer vacations. 

Which is all the more reason to treasure the moments, and the memories.  As we watch today’s kids saunter into summer, wish them two months that will last a lifetime.