Defining Summer

1945-1952: "summertime .... and the livin' was easy"

When our adult son Neal was about six, he asked me a question which should not have been surprising, due to the fact that he only came along as an only biological child after his father already was old enough to have been his grandfather. Neal’s dad didn’t know or care much about music groups like Duran Duran, but he could talk all day about the significance of Chuck Berry and Chet Baker and Louis Armstrong to contemporary music. In a way, Neal missed out on a first hand pop cultural education of the 1980s from a young normally age appropriate father of those times, but he got one that could put him directly in touch with the birth era of rock and roll and the earlier eons of modern and traditional jazz – and the big band era. Plus, Neal’s dad had grown up as an old sandlotter during the golden baseball era of the Post World War II era. – As the old song asks, “who could ask for anything more?”

All that being said, young kids often form a very different mental picture of what was included in the older parent’s “good old days.” Neal’s out-of=the-blue question one morning on the drive to school put the whole distortion into clear perspective.

“Daddy,” Neal asked, “when you were my age, was it scary dodging dinosaurs on the way to school?”

I felt like answering: “Only the Raptors,” but that statement would have fallen short of the whole truth. I also feared the T Rex and the Pterodactyl flying species. (Come on. I’m just kidding. I told him the truth – that the dinosaurs disappeared at least a month or two prior to my birth – and that we were too busy when I was a kid, getting ready for summer all year, to worry much about wild creatures on the loose here in Houston back in the day.

Today’s date, May 31st, always reminds me of how blocked and clearly we used to view summertime when I was growing up here in the Houston East End during the post-WWII era. Summer was all of June, July, and August. It began on the last day of school and it ended on the first day of our return to school in the fall – and it usually included a few end-of-month dates from May and early dates in September that were included in our clear Catholic school boundaries on what dates started and finished each school term.

School used to unfailingly begin on the first Tuesday following Labor Day and it ended on the last Friday prior to Memorial Day. how clear and easy was that? It was easy, all right, but it still wore us out. The end of school simply could not get here fast enough. By the time we got past Easter each spring, we were ready to pack it in. There was no spring break in our era, We had to live for the end of the school year.

Knowing when it was time to check it on learning for the year was fairly easy to gauge in Houston back in the pre-air conditioning days. No one I knew had yet been spoiled by AC through 1952. We lived in sweat at home – and we lived to sweat at school. Both were conditions that told us that it was sleepy time down South and time to put the books away and have some fun. If we were going to do any sweating, we guys, at least, preferred to do it on our own terms, playing sandlot baseball.

In school, the Houston humidity caused note-book paper to stick to our arms as were trying to write. That served as sweat-sign number one that it was time for the school year to end. The windows are wide open and we still can’t buy a breeze into this classroom. – Sweat sign number two was all over the faces of our Dominican nun teachers. They wore these long full-body length white dresses with the black penguin-like veils. Only the skin of their faces and hands showed openly – and their faces rolled in riveting beads of perspiration as another clear sign that summer was coming and that it was time for school to end.

The last day of school was an event of mixed tension for some – and final elation for most. I always looked forward to the day with no concern, but, even then, I felt the system was a little brutal upon the students who had trouble keeping up academically. The way it worked  was more like a public jury sentencing in a capital crimes trial than anything else.

The school principal came into each room with the final report cards for the whole class. Than she went down each row and aisle, reading all of our names aloud, one by one, as we each took turns standing and receiving the results of our academic years. As each student stood, we heard one of two statements:

(a) “John/Jane Doe, having successfully completed the work of the fifth grade, you are hereby promoted to the sixth grade;” or,

(b) “John/Jane Doe, having failed to satisfactorily complete the work of the fifth grade, you are hereby retained in the fifth grade for another full year school term.”

Most of the time, the rest of us would then have to sit there and awkwardly watch the next person get their results as our “failed” classmates sat back down in tears or head down quiet desperation. How cruel was that? All I can say for that system is this much: It sure put the fear of God in many of us about making sure that we were never that failed person at year’s end. Can you imagine a school getting away with that kind of format in 2011?

On the brighter side, summer was on from the moment we fled the halls of Judgment Day, Off came the shoes, except for Mass on Sundays. For guys like me, it was sandlot play and Houston Buffs baseball time. And summer was a long green lawn of freshly cut grass that went on forever. A time for sweet watermelon, June Bugs flying mindlessly into the front screen door at home, and then falling helplessly on their backs on our front porch, Houston toads hopping all over the place at sundown, and lightning bugs twinkling their fire-flying way across the darkened sandlot.

If only we could’ve figured out a way to get all the fire flies, or lightning bugs, of Pecan Park to gather at the sandlot at one time. We could have played a night game. – And why shouldn’t we have entertained that thought? . It was summer. And summer seemed endless. And all good things seemed possible on June 1st.

Once upon a time.

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