The sounds of summer

Published 8:03 am Friday, July 8, 2016

Summer. 1940s. Austin.

Here’s the truth. Though the days were glorious; the nights were not. How well I remember the slurpy scrape as I untwisted my moist, sticky body from my even moister, stickier sheets. My skin felt like one big adhesive bandage with the tacky side out, everything glued to me.

I had just endured another stifling night of July heat; yet another attempt at outwitting the fug. I had not been the victor. Even a thin cotton sheet felt like a weighty woolen wrap, and slumber had been as elusive as a frost on the Fourth.

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I was just a little kid who only wanted for the night to end; for my sweaty ordeal to be over. Still tossing and turning when the sun bugled over the horizon, my wet, wrinkly and whorled sheets looked as if they’d been caught in an egg beater. I felt — and looked — like I had been, too. There on the edge of the bed I remained in an exhausted slump, telling myself I must arise. I tried, but was stuck to the bedclothes as if we were both made of duct tape. Ishy all over, I knew first hand how an old tennis shoe felt.

Just then the breaking moan of morning came to my ears. It was a dove in a large oak tree outside my window. I couldn’t figure out if it was actually announcing the morning or if it was in mourning. Which was it? I was never sure. But, oh, the melancholy of her song! And I asked myself, how could a bird be eternally grieving day after day, world without end….never giving up its funereal sadness?

So rather than deciding this dove was habitually depressed, I chose to believe she was simply demoralized and greeting me in the cheeriest way she knew how. Actually, on those sultry mornings, she and I were in the same camp; both moaning mourning morning lumps.

Then a second sound pierced the morning calm. It was the Hormel Plant whistle letting folks know they’d better speed up or be late for work. Its tone, too, was a doleful lament making me wonder if the workers felt that way about going to work. Should I suggest that Mr. Hormel change out that melancholy reveille for something more perky … like … say … a squealing pig? Or would that be too graphic? After all, the workers knew they’d soon be stuffing that pig in a can!

By now much of my energy had been spent on deep thoughts. Sheesh! I shouldn’t be so serious. After all, I was a kid! It was July! I had far more important priorities than grieving birds and Hormel’s hog kill department. First thing was breakfast. If I got downstairs early enough, I’d be the lucky duck to get the cream from the top of the milk bottle. Or would one of my three siblings have already eaten it on their Rice Krispies? Bummer! The milkman, I reasoned, should have a bell. A morning bell that rang under my — and only my — pillow. I’d have to talk to him about that.

Not waxing poetic here, but I must say that our Austin summers were syrupy idyllic. The days belonged to us kids unless, of course, our moms had other ideas. So, next on my list was the morning’s weightiest decision. What was I going to do with this day; this oyster of a day that was mine? Let’s see … I could play house! Because it was summer, this entailed hours of work as I had to do it outdoors. Thus the exodus of most of my liftable possessions began as I carried them from my bedroom, down the stairs and out onto the lawn. My labor was impressive.

I absolutely loved doing this! Spreading across the lawn, my things soon took on the shape of a house. This was my special kind of heaven painstakingly placing things just right. Routinely, the last items were my dolls and their beds. The major problem was that by this time the sun was waning and suppertime waxing. This meant I must schlep everything back upstairs. Ironically I did it ungrudgingly, knowing I’d get to repeat the entire undertaking the next day.

Wouldn’t you know that seventy years later, I still do the same thing arranging furniture and accessories. When I’m finished I seldom sit back and enjoy the accomplishment. Instead I prefer the moving and staging. I probably should have worked for Allied Van Lines. Actually, this peculiar behavior boded well for my future because as a real housewife I’ve moved twenty-eight times — and never tired of doing so! And, yes, I recognize it as a special brand of insanity.

As a kid on North 10th Street, we had the biggest yard in the neighborhood, so all the kids came to our house. If enough showed up we played softball. Designating certain oak trees as bases, we had a batting box and a somewhat hazardous forested outfield. I don’t remember any broken windows … except for … okay … that one! To us, the yard seemed huge. Now when I drive past our old family home, it’s hard to imagine we ever thought so.

We also went to the swimming pool. The changing room there was perilously slippery and we had to tread carefully or risk cracking open our heads on the slimy concrete floor. But in the water, we swam like dolphins knowing in our hearts we were Olympic material. Only the life guards brought us back to reality, repeatedly yelling at us not to run. Between them and Mabel Olson at the library, our summertime freedom was, we thought, unfairly constricted. It was good we had our side yard where we could be our rambunctious selves.

My sister and I often walked uptown to Kresge’s where we’d buy a coloring book or a set of paper dolls. Sometimes both! Absolutely nothing instilled a sense of sophistication and glamour like a long-legged paper doll. By the hour I designed clothes for her, sketching around her body on big pieces of paper while constantly reminding myself to not forget the tabs. If you ever went to all the work of designing, drawing, coloring and cutting only to discover you’d forgotten the tabs, you’ll know about that particularly frustrating flub! I wonder now what happened to all those paper dolls? I fear they’re nothing more than compost in a moldering pile at the city dump. Such an undistinguished ending to a girl’s labors!

If Mom needed something from Bradley’s corner store, the reward was a Popsicle, a clever enticement on her part. It was important to consume it immediately before it melted off the sticks and great chunks made a muted splash on the cement. There the resulting orange stain was a reminder of our great misfortune. The sidewalk between Bradley’s and my house was replete with pumpkin colored blemishes.

On special summer days, Mom took the four of us kids swimming at the Hormel mansion. The sparkling pool, like a Hollywood set, sat directly in front of the house, not far from the front door. Nearby in the right wing of the house was a mud room where we changed clothes. Talk about fancy! And why they called it “mud” I never understood because there wasn’t a speck of it anywhere. On those blistery hot summer afternoons we showed off our ungainly side strokes while entertained by the raucous squalling of peacocks that roamed the grounds, as well as the whirring of diaphanous dragon fly wings alighting on our shoulders. I never failed to instantly transform myself into Esther Williams!

I must remind you that during those hot, long ago summer days, kids never stayed in the house. It was too hot in there. Instead we were always outdoors talking and playing and making up things to do. I wonder if today’s kids know how slimmed-down and congested the space is between them and their friends? Do they even realize what they’re missing when they’re huddled indoors immersed in their cell phones? I’m glad we didn’t have them; that we weren’t so unceasingly connected. We had separation; intermissions from constant interruptions.

But now, in conclusion, I will admit to feeling guilty over my so-called suffering on those long ago sweaty, never-ending, sleepless nights. If truth be told, it was my mom who did the suffering. Only days before she delivered her first baby, Austin had one of its hottest days ever. In July, 1936, the temperature got up to 108! Of course there was no air conditioner. Folks then were lucky to have a decently balanced, rattling electric fan. Besides, what’s this with the word “conditioner,” anyway? Shouldn’t it be called an air cooler or air chiller or air frigorificator? (Did I just make up that last word?)

Peggy Keener of Austin is the author of two books: “Potato In A Rice Bowl” and “Wondahful Mammaries.” Peggy Keener invites readers to share their memories with her by emailing Memories shared with Keener may be shared or referenced in subsequent editions of “Full Circle.”