It’s been a hot summer, not just here in South Florida where everyone warned us we’d melt, but also in just departed New Jersey and pretty much all across the country. 105 degrees in the Pacific Northwest? Please, people, you can’t deny climate change, this summer.
I don’t know how people lived on the sand spit that is Florida before air conditioning, but I do remember living without air conditioning in Philadelphia during the 1950s and the 1960s, until my parents broke down and bought an AC window unit for our downstairs.
When I think of childhood summers, I think that they started earlier than they do now. We weren’t a “down the shore” family so Memorial Day did not mean the start of the summer as it did for many of my friends whose parents loaded the car and headed to a bungalow along the Jersey shore. For me, summer probably started with Field Day on the elementary school playground, the day that we could legally wear shorts to school. We had a school bazaar that came complete with goldfish guaranteed to die within a week and painted turtles that inevitably crawled out of their bowls and fell behind the radiator to end their pitiful lives upside down.
A day or two later, school was closed and summer really began. The windows in our row house would be flung open, covered by expandable screens to let the outside air in. A cross breeze was what you aimed for in a Philadelphia row house, which meant that you opened the windows in the sun porch and opened the back door with the wooden screen door and hoped that a bit of freshness would waft through and meet in the middle.
The thing about screens was they were supposed to be inserted a certain way, locked in place by the frame of the window itself. If you did it incorrectly (we did it incorrectly), the screen was placed in front of the window leaving just enough space for mosquitoes to slip in. I remember so many nights hearing that insistent, high pitched hum in my ear and awakening to track down the blood sucker with a rolled up Little Lulu comic book. I was terrified of spiders and other creepy-crawlies, but mosquitoes were my natural enemy and I felt no compunction in splattering them on the bedroom wall. In lieu of killing the tiny vampires (rumored to be spreading encephalitis), you buried yourself in the airless room under layers of blankets and pillows suitable for a cold winter night.
One time a confused bat fell through the screen into our house. My mother, armed with her trusty vacuum cleaner, beat the poor thing to death in the corner of the bathroom. You did not mess with my mother, armed and dangerous.
I had about two weeks of outside play with friends before they all went to camp in cooler areas of Pennsylvania, and I spent the rest of the summer sitting on the front step waiting for them to come home. I did not go to camp. Even then, I most closely resembled Thomas J. in the 1990s movie, My Girl. I was allergic to everything and two weeks in the country would have resulted in bug bites, hives, sinus problems and, admittedly, terminal homesickness for my own bed and my own house. To this day, I do not know how to make hospital corners, a sad oversight that would have been cured if my parents had sent me to camp with my friends.
Meanwhile, my mother, a working mother ahead of the curve, had to come up with ways to occupy me when my sisters weren’t around to watch me. Day care? Babysitters? Never heard of them.
Whatever I did had to involve the words “air cooled.” On many mornings, before she had to work the counter in my parents’ “mom and pop” store, my mother and I would head to one of the downtown movie palaces on a bus and an El train, to see a first run movie like Polyanna with Hayley Mills or Mary Poppins with Julie Andrews. The movie theatres were so cold that we took sweaters to ward off the chill. Summer movies, for me, were a function of the season and the oasis in the long, stagnant days of a stay-at-home child.
There was one amazing enrichment open to our family and other Philadelphia children that I remember more than any other. For four Wednesdays in July, the Robin Hood Dell, an open air amphitheater, was turned over to children’s concerts played by the Philadelphia Orchestra under the director of the Assistant Conductor, Mr. Hill. I do not remember his first name, but each concert began with us shouting out, “Good morning, Mr. Hill,” not once but twice, until we had reached an appropriate level of fervor and enthusiasm for the upcoming concert. Concerts of this caliber are now open only to children of the wealthy, but these concerts were free to everyone. We would scan the pages of the Philadelphia Inquirer and search for the ticket coupons. My mother would send in the request in her perfect handwriting with an equally perfectly self-addressed envelope. In a few days we would have tickets to hear The Firebird, Peter and the Wolf, or my very favorite, Tubby the Tuba narrated by “Mr. I-Magination,” Paul Tripp. This was one of the few activities that my mother, a classical music lover, embraced with all her heart. I know she was disappointed, when in my early teens, I declared myself too old to attend the concerts.
Once home from the concerts or the movies, the days dragged monotonously on. Much later, the city opened a library within walking distance and I set my future career path as a librarian haunting it and checking out books far above my age level but within my precocious reading range. Before the library was built, there was a Free Library of Philadelphia bookmobile that came by several evenings a month, but the selection of books for young readers was wholly inadequate.
Weekends centered on “going to the farm.” My father’s brothers had farms in South Jersey and we would spend a day, each weekend, driving 100 miles, round trip along back roads lined with fresh produce stands with the most delicious fruits and vegetables right off the farm. There was a river, nearby, with a narrow beach and a food shack where we would get hot dogs and orange drinks, junk food my mother would not have normally allowed. This was actually my first exposure to Holocaust survivors since many people in the area had emigrated from post-War Europe. My mother called them “refugees” in a hushed voice as if she was naming a terminal disease. I saw the numbers on their inner arms but it was years before I understood the significance of the tattoos.
One thing that I remember clearly is that, prior to 1955, there were times when we were not allowed to go to the beach or to the movies or any place where crowds congregated and might spread the dreaded polio virus. Whenever I hear young parents talking about the alleged dangers of vaccinating, I want them to go back in time to the days when the possibility of a crippling disease tainted the summer and terrified us with the specter of paralysis and iron lungs.
In the evenings, back in the city, we played late on the street catching lightning bugs and sucking down popsicles and shaved ice liberally doused with flavored syrup. We carried burning punks to keep the bugs at bay and to act as tiny torches as we ran up and down the street. We played outside even after the street lights came on. The house was hot and the outside, while still sweltering, was cooler. We had little to fear about playing outside. Our parents could hear us through the open windows and street crime in our neighborhood was unheard of.
In the middle of August, despite the still oppressive heat, the leaves would start to change and school supplies would appear in the neighborhood 5 and 10. We would go to the corner candy store and beg the owner for empty cigar boxes which we would need to store our school supplies in our new desks. We bought black marbled copy books, boxes of crayons (only the more privileged children got boxes of forty eight with crayon sharpeners and flesh-tone crayons), school paste, #2 pencils, and a pencil box to hold it all. I squirreled my school supplies away admiring their unused condition and anxiously awaiting the new school year and the return of my friends.
Finally, at the end of August, the camp buses brought my friends home and, for a few blessed weeks, there were people to play with as we ran in and out of each other’s houses. The day after Labor Day, the school doors open and, despite spells of Indian Summer, the real year commenced.
It seems so long ago that life existed in cycles, in endings blending into new beginnings. The heat was merely a way of marking the seasonal changes and, since there was no alternative, we stood it as best we could.