Summers of love: Season of vivid memories and photos that last a lifetime
I made my film debut as a Bond girl, fearlessly steering a speedboat off the coast of Monte Carlo. Behind the wheel, solo and sassy, I was a fox on the French Riviera. Despite the action, my light blond hair — coiffed, flipped, and sprayed like Annette Funicello’s in Beach Blanket Bingo — didn’t move until …
The man working the mechanical boats braked the carnival ride with a jerk. My mom turned off the movie camera as he lifted me from my fantasy and handed me back to her. Though my super-sized imagination was foiled again, being the “girl next door” wasn’t so bad, especially since I lived one street from the state fair grounds.
From our house we could see the fireworks and Ferris wheel lights, hear the tractor pulls and screams from the Zipper, smell the livestock barns and barbecue pit. My sister and I looked forward all year to Pepsi Day via free tickets my granddaddy received for working at the bottling plant. Our mom allowed us to skip naps and, in the afternoon heat, hedonistically ride rides, slurp snowcones, and pet our uncle’s show bulls with sticky cotton candy hands. We’d go home, rest, and return with
Dad to watch from our box seat the Demolition Derby, motorcycle races, or Willie Nelson in concert.
Childhood summers feebly recorded in black-and-white snapshots and faded color reels have always been in high-definition to me. Summer was life in full swing, the season when all things were possible. Sometimes I was Cat Woman chased by my neighbors, Batman and Robin, until our moms called us in for supper. With late sunsets and no homework, we played kickball till dark. Frogs crooned from the trees while window air conditioners hummed. We chased lightening bugs, marveling as we held magic, pulsating fire in our hands. At bedtime we scrubbed filthy feet.
Mornings were cool enough to play in our dollhouse as the cardinals and mockingbirds sang. After snapping green beans, our mom dumped them into a pressure cooker that whistled, rocked, and hissed as fried chicken popped in the electric skillet. Prototypes for Kevin Arnold’s parents on The Wonder Years, Mom had dinner on the table when Dad, a fertilizer plant supervisor, came home at noon. Summer was local strawberries in May, homegrown tomatoes and corn in August. When we tired of playing in the sprinkler’s rainbows, Mom threw a cooler, Lays, beach towels, and floats in the Ford Fairlane, and we drove to the lake. But the real lake larks happened on weekends and Dad’s vacations when we pulled the boat behind our Pepsi van-turned-camper.
Friends’ families circled the station wagons, tents and pop-ups. The kids thought our sleeping arrangements were the coolest — my parents on a mattress on the van floor, my sister and me on a bunk suspended by chains above them. We awoke to sausage frying and moms chasing us with sunscreen and zinc oxide. In the boat our dachshund, Lady, sniffed the air, ears blowing in the wind. Dad cranked the Mercury motor to a roar then tamed it to a growl for the “No Wake” zone. When we took off full throttle, the bow reared as waves bucked and sprayed us. We laughed until wind blew away the tears. When Dad neared his fishing spot, he’d troll into the brush.
Cold and slippery, the minnow flailed as I baited the hook. Lake legends of water moccasin beds made me watch for snakes as closely as I monitored my cork. The only sounds were Johnny Cash playing on the radio, the call of a crow, the splash of a catfish, or the thud of a kamikaze June bug. Overhead, dragonflies piggybacked across invisible zip lines while hummingbirds flashed by fast as sprites. Good times were asking Dad to take fin-flexing fish off our hooks; bad times were when we had to tell him our fishing lines were tangled underwater … again.
At night we showered, ducking willow flies as they gathered in webs around the bathhouse lights. Hinges squeaked and wooden doors slammed behind us, percussion for the cricket and katydid chorus. We were tired from fishing, swimming, and choking (our mom who couldn’t swim sentenced us to 13 years in life jackets whether we were bodies in the boat or heads bobbing just off the beach). Red-faced from the heat and crying from smoke, we’d lie in lounge chairs watching embers wink under crumbling logs. The last sounds we heard were our dads digging through the ice and popping Pabst Blue Ribbons.
Close calls became legendary lore repeated for decades. The bike wreck that gave me a concussion. The skunk that sprayed Lady, clearing the camp. A near-drowning when Mom jumped overboard to save Lady … followed by Dad, who dove in to save Mom.
There were shining moments, like the dance routine I choreographed for our friends. In dog ears and half-tops, scooter skirts and Keds, we grapevined our way to first place in the community talent show to a tune that began, “Jeremiah was a bullfrog.”
Summer sojourns also meant sandcastles and seashells by day, Captain Anderson’s and Angelo’s by night. We’d caravan with my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins to Panama City, Fla. Years before I’d lobby for Miracle Mile or putt putt, I’d beg my uncle to take me to the Hangout for an orange slush. There we’d watch teens dance the Jerk, Monkey and Swim till he returned me to the adults still sunning in Adirondack chairs. With no showers at the Spain Motel and my habitually bare feet, sand filled the bathtub and bed nightly.
Mom’s deciding we’d take a hiatus from the Gulf to visit Central Florida meant new tales to journal. At Disney World, the monorail and Haunted Mansion scared and thrilled us. In Silver Springs, made official by a certificate from the Ross Allen Reptile Institute, I held a 6-foot boa constrictor around my neck. I was proud of this rite of passage even if my little sister did it first.
There were more summer milestones, like the June I was 9 and flew for the first time to stay with cousins in Atlanta. They took me to a Braves game and Six Flags. As I drank my first sweet tea I watched their TV, confused, as a train took Bobby Kennedy’s body to Washington. Two summers later I went with my best friend to Conservation Camp. A year after that I fell in love with Billy Jack, pulled a headband over my Marsha Brady hair, and became a flower child for life.
By the summer of ’75 I had wheels, saw Jaws and played Pong. In July of ’76 at Camp Kum-Ba-Ya, a fellow counselor-turned-boyfriend took me on a canoe ride under a full moon. A month later Frampton played from the boat as my hometown honey taught me to ski. Neither of us knew he’d only live to see one more summer.
After graduating in ’77, I saw Star Wars, Smokey and the Bandit and Saturday Night Fever. I listened to the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac with a boy I’d marry, who took me tubing on his speedboat and won me a stuffed St. Bernard at the fair.
Childhood summers commenced with the cicadas’ song in May beckoning us to my grandmother’s backyard where snowball bushes were in full bloom. Christening the season of play, we’d stage pretend weddings, carrying the flowers as bouquets. By the end of every August, the cicadas’ music reached a calculated crescendo, signaling Labor Day, the last fling of summer fun, followed by pools closing and schools reopening. After the Labor Day of my 18th summer, it seemed especially appropriate that no one wore white. Childhood innocence had ended as I faced college and adulthood. Confidently, I walked forward, forever warmed by those early summers of love.