Summer is not just my favourite season; summer is me. Summer is heat, freedom, senses always alive, moving from peaks of sensitivity and delight to the drowsiness of summer’s lazy lethargy and the exhaustion following brief nights of slumber and hard sweat-slicked workouts.
Summer made its vivid imprint on childhood memories. School-free summer months were the best of times. I remember childhood summers as times of zero responsibility. Every day was a blank slate. You woke up and there was nothing to do but “go out and play.”
Our mothers and fathers provided us with the necessities of life: three meals a day, the beds we were forced into before it was even dark, the few articles of clothing and the bathing suit worn over and over for two months. What our parents didn’t give those of us who grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s was a structure for our daily life: there were few organized activities; TV was limited; computers and video games didn’t exist.
Growing up in Toronto summers meant heat at a time when most homes (ours included) didn’t have air conditioning. I have a theory (not original, I know) that we are shaped forever by happy childhood experiences; maybe that is why I still love hot summers, and often miss the true heat of a Toronto summer here in Vancouver.
We had our low-tech ways of coping with summer heat. Kool-aid. Lemonade. If we felt like it we could set up a stand on the street and sell it for two cents a glass.
Often, in the middle of the day, we would saunter over to the local library, our bare feet leathery-soled after multiple trips across the schoolyard pebbles, and relish the cold blast of air-conditioning when we walked in. We could kill an hour or two dipping into books before trudging home with an armload of them.
My family’s basement playroom was always cool, but I didn’t want to be there if my brothers were in the middle of an airplane model-building project (which was usually the case), when the air in the basement was so thickly tainted with model glue that they were surely high some of the time.
Often my German girlfriends (two sisters) and I played board games in whatever shady spot we could find outside. Or we would “work” in my bedroom, which was relatively cool until the sun came through the window in the late afternoon. I had an ancient typewriter and we would take turns banging out short articles and stories for a magazine we had created, or write each other notes.
In the afternoon, we usually headed to their house (across the street) after their father left for work. I loved the ultimate freedom my friends had; unlike every other family on my street, their mother was not a “stay-at-home mom.” She worked 9–5, and their father worked a 2–10 p.m. shift, so the girls, even as 10- and 11-year-olds, had their house to themselves during the afternoons. As pre-adolescents, we had a trio of TV shows that we watched almost every weekday afternoon (this was the only time in my life I watched this much TV!). The shows were “Let’s Make a Deal,” with Monty Hall, “The Newlywed Game,” and “The Dating Game.” How we loved watching the newlyweds giggle or fight! And we commiserated with the “bachelorette” who had to choose one of the three hidden men after she asked them questions for half an hour. Would she pick the ugly guy and then pretend to be happy when she saw him at the end of the show and knew she would have to put up with him for the three-day trip that was their prize from the show?
When we weren’t watching TV, we could play our 45s (records) at high volume on the stereo and practice our dancing. Or we listened to the radio as we continued our endless board games. How well I remember “Summer Breeze” by Seals & Crofts! It was a huge hit in 1972.
Makes me feel fine
Blowin’ through the jasmine in my mi-i-ind…
Sweet days of summer
The jasmine’s in bloom
July is dressed up
And playing her tune…
At 4:30 we would head over to the high school pool, where a five-cent swim was up for grabs from 5:00—6:30 every afternoon. It only took us five minutes to get there, but we always wanted to be first in line, not only so we could be first in the pool but so we could flirt with the lifeguard, John, who was always there to keep the line in check. Once in the pool, we did little actual swimming. We mostly played a “follow-the-leader” game on the diving board, where we took turns deciding which special jump or dive we all had to do. We’d stay in the pool until we were shivering terribly, then take long hot showers and walk home to our separate family dinners.
After dinner when it had cooled off a bit lots of the kids from our cul-de-sac might be out on the street playing ball games or tag. Often I went for a bike ride with one of my friends. Bikes were my childhood way of exploring and being independent. From a surprisingly young age my brothers and I, and our friends, could go riding without mentioning to our parents where we were going or how long we’d be gone. Usually our rides were short ones. They weren’t done with any idea of training or exercise in mind—it was just for fun. My neighbourhood was fairly hilly (by Toronto standards) and we loved the thrills of riding fast downhill. I still have a scar on my forehead from the time I lost control on an unreliable bike. It was one of those big-handlebar, banana-seat bikes popular around 1970. I was going down a steep hill when the handlebars started wobbling wildly on a dusty patch of road. I couldn’t stop the wobbling and crashed at high speed. (I don’t think helmets existed then.)
My girlfriend was terrified at the sight of blood spurting from my head. Luckily, a passing motorist stopped right away, went to a neighbouring house (this was before cell phones), and phoned my parents, who came to take me to the hospital Emergency. I only needed a few stitches, and was heartened by a note and a present from my girlfriend that she brought to my house later that night. In her own inimitable way, she wrote about how scared she had been for me. Her present was a library book that she highly recommended to me and was lending me temporarily: Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes. (It was made into a movie called Charly; but do read the book! It is written from the point of view of a retarded man who is given an experimental drug that turns him gradually into a genius—and the text matches his changing levels of mental acuity and literacy.*)
There is so much more I could write about childhood summers. The best time of the whole year (beating even Christmas) was the two weeks every summer when my family and another family with kids our ages rented cottages at Lake Shebeshekong, near Parry Sound. The contrast between summer in the big city and summer in cottage country is huge in Ontario, unlike in BC. In a couple hours’ drive north of Toronto (weekend commutes excepted) you escape from the stifling humidity, pavement-enhanced heat, and drab washed-out colours of scorched grass and polluted air. You arrive in cottage country and instantly feel both more alive and more relaxed. The air there is scented fresh-tangy and a cool breeze blows off the lake. Best of all is swimming in the lake; there is absolutely no comparison between swimming in a clean lake with the sky as your ceiling and being confined to a crowded, chlorine-laden swimming pool.
Writing about the cottage would be a whole other set of stories. Suffice it to say that my childhood cottage experiences shaped the love I have for lake swimming that is so much a part of my everyday summer life here in Port Moody.
In writing this post, I’ve wandered to unplanned subjects—but I plan to write about summer in 2014 too! Watch for Summer Fun Parts 2 and 3: “Teenaged Summer Fun” and “Summer Fun 2014.”
* More about Flowers for Algernon:
The novel was published in 1966 after originally appearing as a short story in the April 1959 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Many adaptations of the novel have been made since then (including versions for stage, screen, and radio, with the 1968 film Charly being the best known. Even as 12-year-olds, my friends and I were reading “deep” adult novels such as this one, which raised provocative ideas about how we see and treat mentally disabled people, and how “goodness” and intelligence are not necessarily correlated. Another heartbreaking story-within-the-story is about the protagonist Charlie’s evolving relationship with his teacher, Alice Kinnian. The book has occasionally been removed from school libraries because of its sexual content. Yet even with our limited understanding, my friend and I recognized the significance of Charlie and Alice’s relationship to the overall meaning of the novel.