Summer of '52 -- 08/10/02

Nancy and I ordered some books from amazon.com a couple of days ago -- some math books Nancy wanted, a Lord of the Rings DVD to give to a niece as a gift, and a copy of Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle ... and Other Modern Verse, a poetry anthology that contains one of my favorite poems, "Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle Received from a Friend Called Felicity" by John Tobias.

This will be the third copy I've bought -- I've owned and lost two others since I first came across it more than thirty or so years ago. It's the kind of book you keep lending to people. I like many of the poems in the book -- it would be well worth reading and owning even without the Tobias poem -- but Watermelon Pickle truly speaks to me...
During that summer
When unicorns were still possible;
When the purpose of knees
Was to be skinned;
I suppose all of the summers of my childhood had elements of the summers described by Tobias... those endless childhood summers... but looking back on them I realize how few they were, those summers of freedom and adventure and magic, those summers belonging to the years between the restricted bounds of early childhood and the storms of adolescence.

1952. That was a good summer.

When you are really young, just a little kid, your life is restricted, you need parental permission for almost anything, ask before crossing the street, etc., but every day is a play day. Then you begin school and summer becomes something special, vacation time, those wonderful weeks of freedom. And after you've been going off to school for a couple of years you get granted much more latitude to wander away from home, the entire neighborhood becomes your world. It seemed to happen for me in the summer of '51, when I was between second and third grades, when I was able to push for that freedom and those wonderful childhood summers spent "Far above and away/From the softening effects/Of civilization" continued until the summer of '56 when, with a year of junior high school under our belts, the neighborhood became too small and we pushed to wander about the entire city.

1952... I no longer had to push for freedom... Get up, eat breakfast, brush my teeth... and I'm off to meet my friends, not returning home until time for lunch. The universal signal to come home: "when the noon whistle blows."

My closest friends -- Louis Nacaratto and Mike Amato -- Louis lived two houses up the street, was a year older than Mike and me -- Mike lived across the street from Louis -- we had been playmates since infancy. By the summer of '52 the circle of friends had expanded to include Norm Arlinksi, two houses up from Louis; Louis' cousin Louis Catarino from up in the next block; the two Bigando brothers (whose family ran the neighborhood grocery store); Sam "Tate" Perry; Richie Turk; one or more of the Senor kids... We built "forts" and "clubhouses" behind Mike's garage (yes, actual shacks, just like in the "Our Gang" movies) and prowled through the woods behind our grade school and explored the wilder woods down near the river (where we would build at least one tree house every summer).

After lunch I would be off again... we'd play soldiers and cowboys and Indians and space explorers on an alien planet (uh, that idea was usually mine) and jungle explorers... or we'd play softball in the road on Grove Street or maybe in the vacant lot next to Bigando's Market. Home in time to wash up for dinner. (This was a blue collar neighborhood; everyone's dinner began sometime between five and five-thirty.)

Yes, after dinner I would be off again, with the injunction to come home as soon as the street lights came on. Tag. Kick the can. Red Rover, cross over. Hide and seek.

Day after day after day with but a few variations. Sunday school and Church on Sunday mornings. On Saturdays and Sundays, of course, my father would be home from work and on one of those days we might go fishing. And one afternoon would be library day. That is, the day my mother would go grocery shopping and she would drop me and my brother off at the public library where we would browse through the books in the children's room, perhaps check out some books, and then (if our recent behavior had been good enough to warrent Mom giving me a dime) go a couple of blocks down the street where we would go from the bright summer heat into the coolness of a soda fountain and sit in a book with our books and each drink a nickel Coke until our mother came to pick us up.

1952... the summer of being nine years old... finished with third grade, heading toward fourth grade... but that was far off because summers lasted forever, calendars were unknown and the reality of approaching autumn remained a mystery until the last two weeks of August when the movie schedule would alert us. The Broadway Theatre hosted a summer movie series, the Summer Matinee Special for Kids. The tickets for this series were made available in the schools just prior to the end of the school year. There were twelve shows in the series (several cartoons plus a second run feature, most often a cowboy movie) and the strip of twelve tickets cost one dollar. It was a money maker for the theatre because these older movies didn't cost them much and the theatre could seat almost twelve hundred downstairs (they kept the balcony closed for these shows) -- this was one of those big old 1920's vintage movie palaces, today it is a performing arts center -- and twelve hundred kids can buy a lot of popcorn and soda and candy. (Normal children's admission was twenty-five cents in those days; adult was fifty or sixty cents.) But this series also provided an early warning alarm that school was about to begin... these shows were once a week for the first eight weeks of summer vacation and then two per week during the final two weeks. So during those summers the sure sign that the end of summer was approaching was when we had the kids matinee's twice a week instead of just once... other than that we just went from one day to the next oblivious to calendars.

The summers of childhood....

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