Summer officially begins this weekend.
I will be inside working several hours a day for the Memorial Day weekend sales, I (at times) will be thinking wistfully of childhood summers past. I had no Face Book, Twitter, texting or blogging inundating my young world. The only things my thumbs were doing back then were catching baseballs, butterflies and bubbles while pulling wads of pink gum in and out of my mouth.
I was about nine years old when my family lived in a tiny twin home several miles outside of West Chester in the small village of Marshallton, PA. My mother didn’t drive and my father worked several shifts for many hours with the Philadelphia Electric Company. My brother, John, and I were fairly isolated out in the country. Not that we minded. We always found something to keep us occupied and would spend many a full day playing outside and not watching television.
In contrast, my cousins, the Rulon family, lived in West Chester and happened to be members of the Bernard F. Schlegel Swim Club American Legion Post 134 on the outskirts of town on North New Street. In past summers, I went with them on occasion as a “guest” with the many passes they’d get for the season. One warm summer day, my Mom’s sister, Mary, surprised us by showing up at our house unannounced, driving my Uncle’s forest green Chevy pickup truck, bearing a sign in two lines of script paint: “Rulon’s Amusements – Jukeboxes, Pool Tables and Pinball Machines – sold and serviced.” She was honking the horn as she pulled in our driveway while my cousins including Steve, Randy, Billy, Jean and Danny were shouting and waving from the truck bed in the back proclaiming that we were going swimming! My brother and I quickly grabbed our bathing suits and towels as our mom, pregnant with our brother Rich, hurriedly packed a small blue and mint green plaid beach bag with snacks and extra towels. Holding onto matching flip flops from Woolworth’s, my brother and I climbed over the metal tailgate and into the back of the truck bed to a carpet of cousins.
My summer had officially begun!
We didn’t use seatbelts, hell we didn’t even have seat belts. It probably wasn’t safe in the back of the truck and it certainly wasn’t law, but we were FREE! As we began our adventure over country roads, we were seven young kids thrown into the back of a truck drinking cans of cooler-chilled grape and orange sodas while chewing and popping Bazooka Bubble gum. Mom and Aunt Mary and the smaller tots Nina and Timmy were sandwiched snuggly in the cab as we older kids hooted loudly while we were tossed about in the back of the truck like drunken sailors on a stormy sea. The warm summer sun would scuffle with the cool shade of the dark green trees to touch our skin, blinking over us as we wound our way around deeply curved bends and over stone-laden bridges. Our thin light hair was blown about our scrubbed freckled faces in the wind and into our sparkling eyes.
We found ourselves “surfing” in the truck’s bed by holding on to two tension straps and a few thick ropes that my Uncle had in the truck which he used in his business to secure pinball machines and pool tables while delivering them to customers. We tied them to a brace at the cab of the truck and as we rounded curves or hit bumps in the road we’d roll and giggle hysterically as we’d fall to the floor of the bed while the other kids would try to break the fall.
I absorbed the scent of the cool dark forests we traveled through as our journey to the pool continued. The dank smell of decomposing leaves from summers before and the fragrance of new pollen and honeysuckle mixing to create a world of shaded serenity. Occasionally, a small bug would hit me in the face but never bothered me as our trek continued through the back roads of the country. We made up songs to pass the time as we played Punch Buggy and counted out of state license plates (with limited success on country roads).
As we finally entered the winding driveway onto the thickly wooded acreage of the VFW, the combination of charcoal briquettes, hot dogs and the chlorine from the crystal blue pool wafted from the base of the hill. The “boing” sound of divers pushing from the diving boards, kids squealing and radios playing indicated our ride was almost over. We leapt out of the truck before it barely stopped and skipped in bare feet over grass and stone to the locker rooms to change.
The cement floor of the locker room was cold on the bottoms of my feet as I stripped into my bathing suit on a bench in the dampness. The echo of voices chatting in the showers and slamming metal lockers barely kept my interest as I rushed outside to the blinding sunshine and burning concrete. Realizing I forgot my flip flops in the locker room, I went back into the dimness and found them on the floor. I returned poolside to where my aunt and mother were already setting up camp under the shade of the many tall oak trees. I watched briefly as some of my cousins ran (then walked quickly as the lifeguard’s whistle chastised them) to jump into the pool. I could smell the barbeque beginning at the VFW at top of the hill and I watched as small wisps of white smoke from the grills drifted lazily like the echoes of ghosts through the trees above.
My stomach grumbled softly indicating that I was slightly hungry since I had only a small bowl of Captain Crunch cereal for breakfast while watching Gene London earlier in the morning, but I could wait for our lunch by the mansion on the hill in the afternoon. Apparently, the VFW was having what they called a “clam bake” later in the day and we were all invited! I glanced once more at the light bustling of activity on the hill before I spun around and leapt into the clear cold water creating hardly a splash with my slight boyish frame. I felt my heart race and my eyes sting from the chlorine as the noise outside became muffled in this underwater world of human legs. The pool hadn’t quite warmed up to the bath-like temperatures of late July and August as I immediately pushed to the surface and turned around to see my mother setting up her aluminum woven lawn chair and placing it securely in the grass.
My cousins, brother and I spent hours splashing, playing Marco Polo and dunking each other throughout the early afternoons blazing sun. Halfway through the day our moms provided tee shirts (our version of sunscreen) to put on so we wouldn’t get too much sunburn. The pool became very crowded during the day as the older teens began a game of volleyball in the deeper end. I watched while seated on a damp towel next to my mother as the ball was hit out of the pool in my direction. I squinted in the sun as I stood up and ran to get the ball and threw it into the “pool of popularity” with a splash. No one said thank you as I sat back down on the towel and tuned out the screaming teens.
I stretched my skinny arms to the sky and lay down on the towel while listening to the birds in the tree branches above me. The clattering noise around me turned into a dull drone as I sighed then drifted off to sleep while watching another wisp of smoke from the hill above drift lightly toward the sky.
My brother ended my brief slumber as he came out of the pool to dry off and shook his head over me like a dog shakes his body to dry off. “Creep!” I yelled as I sat up and tried to smack him in the knee and missed. He laughed as he dug deep into the beach bag for a box of pretzels as someone’s radio played the “Last Train to Clarksville” by the Monkees in the distance. Two of my cousins were playing the card game “Go Fish” on a towel by the chairs as Aunt Mary suggested we pack up and head up to the hill for something to eat.
We needed no further instruction as we grabbed what we could and headed quickly across the sidewalk of the pool passed the baby pool and exited through the locker room leaving Mom and Aunt Mary tagging behind. Dumping the folding chairs and towels in the back of the truck, we continued through the gravel parking lot on our march to the hill.
I love the big house on the hill known as the VFW. As a nine year old, I have no idea what VFW even means, nor do I care. The large windowed mansion of massive stone sits like a fortress with a deep set slate covered porch around the entire place and it has a portico. I didn’t know what a portico was either until I asked my Grandmother last year when we were here and she explained it to me. The mansion is surrounded by stoic oak trees that tower over it like multi-armed soldiers, guarding the palace from the summer’s heat and humidity. Three stories of stately stone and mortar supported with thick white pillars and garnished with matching painted multi-pained windows that surely must have been a grand home to a family at one time long ago. I sometimes imagine it haunted with the specter of a long lost widowed bride standing breathless on the heavy stone steps, holding onto a pillar during a violent thunderstorm while staring into the lightning filled valleys in search of her lost captain of war as her gown blows frantically in the wind.
I snapped back into reality as I watched the older boys racing to the top of the hill, quickly getting lost in the small crowds of men and women seated around smoking grills eating corn cobs and clams while sucking down cool mugs of beer. Loud guffaws of laughter boomed from the broad porch as someone must have shared a joke.
This was THE clambake.
The food smelled incredible and my stomach began to give away my plight. As I crested the hill and came upon the grounds of the house, I was all at once enveloped into a party like atmosphere of sights and sounds that truly overloaded the mind of this nine year old. Torches of fire were stuck in the ground as decoration as the smell of burgers and fish drifted from the iron slated brick enclosed grills. My mouth began to salivate as I watched my cousin Steve grab a couple of plates and hand them to the group of us as we waited in a short line to get food. I watched as flames lapped from the depths of the grill, licking the smoking food that was about to be devoured.
Music was playing from the jukebox which had been wheeled out on to the porch from inside the home where the VFW “bar” was located. As I munched a sweet ear of corn, I watched as men smoking cigars wondered in and out of the bar area. I observed as they joked with each other or compared the scores of the latest ball game.
Mom and Aunt Mary, both with slightly sunburned Irish faces, clutching plates sat down with the rest of us as we finished off the better part of our early dinner. I could see the sun drifting further toward the horizon as I yawned. Aunt Mary tossed her red hair in the breeze as she sipped a beer and laughed at something my Mom was explaining to her.
Jean, Dan, John and I got up and headed to the larger area of the porch to watch the adults dance to the records playing from the jukebox. We watched as “Wild Thing” by the Troggs enraptured the hips, feet and waists of the older folks. I would snicker as Jean and I attempted to emulate the steps they were doing. Our Moms came up and danced with us in circles as we laughed and stomped our way into dusk.
Finally, Aunt Mary said it was time to “hit the road” as the coals in the grills began to fall apart and the men on the porch began to fall down. We were full and tired as a woman that knew Mom had given her a box of popsicles from the freezer in the VFW and we headed toward the truck.
Our faces were freckled and sunburned as we sucked melting Twin Pops from rounded wooden sticks and our fingers. We shared the color of our tongues to each other as we rode home in the sultry summer air on this first day of summer. I slept well that night.
Happy Memorial Day to all of you! Enjoy your time spent with family and friends. Peace.