Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The old-fashioned summer of 2009

One hundred and forty-six years ago tonight, Union General John Buford bivouacked with his troops at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Earlier in the day, his men had happened upon the lead elements of Confederate General A.P. Hill's corps as it advanced from nearby Cashtown, down the dusty roads and through the hills which would soon be filled with the turbulence of a cataclysmic confrontation between the two opposing armies. The bloodiest battle in American history would be played out under the auspices of the seminary and farmhouses, churches and barns, old ridges and endless rows of gently-swaying wheat and corn. Like iron filings being drawn helplessly to a magnet, they would come, the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia, two enormous masses of men who would decide the fate of the country in the blazing sun of the first three days of July, 1863. After a bloody grudge match which dragged through two sweltering days, the apocalyptic climax unfolded in the early afternoon of Friday, July 3rd, as James Longstreet directed George Pickett to initiate a direct assault across the open fields against the fortified defenses of the Union center, Robert E. Lee's last futile gamble to procure victory north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Nearly obliterated in the desperate charge, the Confederates fell back, tragically wounded but still with an iron resolve. As the Fourth of July unfolded, Ulysses S. Grant was securing Vicksburg, Mississippi and dealing a second crushing blow to the Confederacy as the United States celebrated the anniversary of its independence. Two more years of blood were to come, but the events of that summer were eternally etched in the character and legend of America, and the drama which played out on those fields became another component in the unfolding, the evolution of the American Experiment.

I thought about Buford tonight as I watched the last vestiges of daylight drop behind the hills. As I contemplated the onslaught of July, I felt like he must have as he ruminated on the coming Confederates who would arrive in the morning. Summer is only a little over a week old, but the days are already getting shorter, and I'll awake tomorrow morning to July. Summer is hard for me to even fathom anymore.....even seeing my step kids
out of school doesn't really register. There's something about the crushing monotony of adult working life that manages to strip all the wonder, all the magic out of that brief, balmy expanse between Father's Day and Labor Day. What was once the incredible allure of the arrival of warm weather is now nothing more than the reality of a sweaty commute to the office, walking across a parking lot you could fry an egg on and longing for those late September days when the clouds drift like long-dead dreams across a young autumn sky. But it is summer, and, at 44, I sit here trying to redefine what that means to me. One month bleeds insidiously into the next, so it might as well be February. I took a week's vacation in the middle of June and sat through a frustrating expanse of soaking wet days as punishing thunderstorms ripped the sky apart and a daily deluge of rain rendered doing anything outside an impossibility. Now, back at work, the weather is temperate, generally clear and warm, and so far, relatively devoid of the suffocating humidity that too often defines a western Maryland summer.

I don't know for sure, but I think my family and I were in Walt Disney World 35 years ago today. It was 1974, our second visit there, and we were staying on property for the first time, at the Fort Wilderness Campground, in the 17-foot trailer that my mother observed seemed to somehow shrink about two feet every day we were in it. To the best of my recollection, 35 years ago today I went through Pirates of the Caribbean for the first time, decades before Jack Sparrow and the 2006
refurb of the ride which infuriatingly removed my favorite scene, a finale depicting a treasure room where a group of drunken pirates blearily fired their pistols and celebrated their plundering. Now the scene is gutted, all the pirates gone, and the only original figure still there is a parrot perched beside the newly-installed Jack Sparrow, an astonishingly well-animated figure who reclines in a chair with truly uncanny movement. But the buccaneers of my youth are gone. Midway through his spiel, the Sparrow figure proposes a toast to 'my many shipmates lost at sea', and I can't help but think he's referring to those figures I first fell in love with three and a half decades ago today. I feel like Robert Louis Stevenson, who, in his poignant preface to Treasure Island, offers the wish, 'May I and all my pirates share the grave where these and their creations lie!' A whole generation of kids whose parents weren't even born when my family and I first cruised through Pirates 35 years ago today can love it, and be amazed by it, just as I first was, but they'll never know or care about what used to be there, and about what was forever altered to conform to the changing sensibilities of an ever-more fickle world.

....which got me thinking about just how much has changed since that summer of '74. The Internet,
Youtube, Facebook, My Space, Twitter, cell phones, Ipods, texting, and the rest of the digital inundation that floods our lives would have seemed like something from Star Trek in that vanished summer. It's permeated the fabric of society now, and the entire weave of the family, and not having those things would strike a younger generation as a heinous deprivation, but we came home from that Walt Disney World vacation in '74 to a world that would seem as removed to today's kids as John Buford at the Seminary is to me tonight. In '74, my parents still had a party line, which we shared with about four other families on our street. Placing a call meant first delicately, quietly picking up the phone and checking to see if someone else's conversation was occurring, and, if so, to then gingerly hang up, coming back five minutes later, and ten minutes after that, if necessary. Crazy and anachronistic today, but we didn't question it. It was what it was, and patience came with the territory. It was the only game in town. We turned on our Zenith TV and sat for what seemed an eternity while the picture tube glowed slowly to life, like the aurora borealis tentatively drifting across a night sky. Our reception was limited to about five or six channels, in a day when there was only ABC, CBS, NBC, a smattering of shows on PBS, plus a couple of oddball channels we could occasionally pick up from Washington D.C. and Baltimore. If there were too many 'ghost images', Dad would turn the knob on a black box that sat atop the TV cabinet called a 'Tenna-rotor'. Outside the window, on the metal tower which clung to the side of the house, the antenna would squeakily rotate, and the picture would improve-hopefully. I remember turning on WBFF channel 45 from Baltimore in the afternoons to watch Captain Chesapeake, a locally-produced kid's show with a host who wore a jaunty skipper's cap and welcomed us all aboard with a hearty 'Ahoy, crewmembers!' His sidekick, Moandy the Sea Monster, was always at his elbow, with a stiff, paper mache-looking head and a shiny costume. He looked like a refugee from one of the Japanese action shows like Ultraman or Johnny Socko and His Flying Robot which formed most of the staple programming for the good Captain, who sat with his reptilian sidekick on a bare-bones set with a blue screen rear-projection of scenes which looked more like the Potomac River than the Chesapeake Bay. All the while, a giddy, zippy organ piece played in the background, a cheesy but instantly recognizable undercurrent as powerful as the choppy, lapping water we saw on the fuzzy background. It didn't even matter that about every eight seconds the camera angle on the background footage changed. It was enough that we were spending the afternoon with the Captain, until that time he wished us bon voyage with 'So long, crewmembers!' Goetz's Caramel Cremes was always the sponsor, and the Captain's endorsement of this filling-disgorging confection was as much a constant as the odd water views which formed a backdrop for this strangely compelling afternoon pastime.

The evenings were a continuous loop of mid to late Sixties reruns
: Gomer Pyle, Hogan's Heroes, Gilligan's Island, I Dream of Jeannie, The Munsters, The Addams Family. My favorites were the oddball stuff like Wild, Wild West, The Avengers, and of course, Star Trek, which captured all of our imaginations in an era when something like a hand-held personal communication device seemed a hundred years away. And, when the evening had wound down, the real treat came at about 11:07 as we tuned in my brother's portable radio to the local CBS channel, broadcasting from the tiny, forlorn station just down the street from our house, situated across an empty field we always called 'the playground' because of the ancient sliding boards and merry-go-round the radio station had installed for the neighborhood kids to play on. We locked onto the station and listened with anticipation to a creaking door, followed by spooky music and the intonations of E.G. Marshall welcoming us into the CBS Radio Mystery Theatre. Every night was another macabre story, and it made it somehow even more mysterious knowing that the distant signal from New York was coming through that tiny local station, beaming out through the looming transmission tower we could see from the windows of my parents' den, a few wan, red lights blinking endlessly through each night as a warning to planes flying toward the nearby airport. That the station sat on a desolate stretch of road, beside a deserted manor house, across from a cemetery and a couple of dilapidated barns, combined to make something that was the very embodiment of 'suspense', and, when the hinges creaked and the music played at the end of the episode, only then did we realize it was midnight, and we would go to sleep with the windows open and listen to the distant roar of traffic on Interstate 81, miles away.

Summer was all about food, and we had some definite classics. John Denver once observed that the only things money can't buy are true love and home-grown tomatoes, and you would believe it, too, if you could have sampled some of the crimson beauties harvested from our neighbors' sprawling garden. Then there was corn, amazing, delectable Silver Queen, bought out of the back of Mr.
Stockslager's decrepit pickup truck. When we saw the relic of a vehicle pull up at his daughter's house across the street, we knew the best of the summer eating was here, but we also knew that summer was winding down, because he usually came in the first week of August, so it was not only sweet corn, but bittersweet, too. And then there were those unique dishes my mom made--her amazing, breaded 'Maryland Fried Chicken'; corn fritters that tasted like she had deep-fried summer itself; sweet rice pudding she always served warm; her signature potato salad which she must have made truckloads of during my childhood ("Take more", she would say - "there's thousands!"). And to wash it down there was the tea she brewed from the spearmint which grew at the end of the yard. The guy next door had planted it in the late Fifties to use it in mixed drinks, and, when the plug grass he had installed in his yard had crept under the fence, it had decided to bring the mint along for company. My mom had a grove of it down there, and she would sometimes let me help pick the fragrant leaves. My dad's specialty beverage was lemonade he squeezed in the old metal juicer, with a judicious blending of sugar that he measured like a chemist, resulting in a taste I've never experienced in these subsequent years. And, if we really felt exotic, we'd build a small fire in the makeshift stack of bricks on a rock in the backyard and roast a wannabe-Polynesian concoction of skewered Spam chunks which had been basted in brown sugar and crushed pineapple.

When the lightning bugs started to come out, we'd take sticks that had fallen from the huge willow tree which draped like an umbrella in the back yard and stuck the ends of them into the fire until a small flame
leapt from the tip. Then we'd blow it out and run through the darkened yard, waving it through the blackness and making figure eights with the glowing red embers, an improvised sparkler. Those same sticks would end up harpooning marshmallows, and we would scald our tongues trying to carefully eat the blackened goo we always ended up with. Sometimes we'd round out the evening just sitting on the patio in the dark, with the only illumination being the pale shaft of light from a flicker bulb my brother had inserted in a cast-iron lantern he had suspended from the patio ceiling. We sat for hours in that mesmerizing light, and I experienced a virtual time warp this past Saturday as I sat with my mom and dad on that same patio, and looked up at that same flicker bulb, and talked with them about the glory of faded summers when we were younger and the world was younger, and life moved at a very different pace down a very different road. The lightning bugs still drifted through the old trees at the end of the yard, just like they did in that summer 35 years ago when we came back from Disney and engaged in the simple pleasures that defined my youth -- late night rides in our '62 Rambler convertible with the top down, looking through my brother's telescope at the moon, lying on blankets on the hill in the back yard and relaxing in the cool of the night.

A few weeks ago, on Flag Day, my wife, kids, and I were driving on the Beltway
enroute to Fredericksburg, Virginia to visit some friends of ours, and I found my mind racing back to summers gone by. I realized that 30 years ago that day, I had spent my last day in the eighth grade, at the old middle school we joked was held together with bubble gum, in an auditorium that looked exactly like the the one from A Charlie Brown Christmas where Linus walked out to deliver the Christmas story from the book of Luke. My homeroom that year actually met on the stage, and I could sit there during roll call and look up at the rolled, painted backdrop that said Scrooge and Marley, and recall the days I first saw the play when my brother was at the school and I was just a little kid, a lifetime ago. But now it was Flag Day 1979, the last day of middle school, when we had assembled in the auditorium to watch a crazy old Disney movie with Ed Asner called Gus, about a Hungarian soccer player who trained a mule to play the game. Before the film started, in honor of Flag Day, they asked us to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. I recall sitting beside a girl named Blythe, and, when I rose from the wooden folding seat, it clattered to the floor, somehow a fitting commentary. We were the last eighth grade class to ever graduate from that school, and our underclassmen moved into a new building with a tiny gymnasium, and suddenly our old alma mater was gone.

But now, it's
all gone. We used to climb that radio antenna on my parents' house on Saturday mornings when my mom was making breakfast, and the smell of pancakes and bacon would waft out of a vent high on the side of the house, and it seemed somehow even more aromatic in the open air, twenty feet above the driveway, looking down on a world and a summer where the simplest things were the greatest adventures. I'd like the rest of 2009's summer to be like those old ones...basic, uncluttered, a celebration of being together as a family. A world where technology didn't matter, and money wasn't a prerequisite for fun. I can't step into that world of 1974, but I can still sit with my elderly parents and bask in the glow of the flicker bulb, a 'poor man's Disney World'. In the throes of vegetarianism, I would probably not partake in Mom's chicken, but sometimes that taste drifts through my head like the lightning bugs bobbing around the back yard. Life is too much, and adulthood is more complicated than I ever thought possible. Just like John Buford, I'm sitting here watching something bigger than I am pressing its way into my path with urgency and resolve. There's too much to figure out, so maybe I won't worry about it. You can't live in the past, but you can sure drop by to visit, and I'd like to find a way to spend at least some of summer 2009 like we did when things were a lot easier to get a handle on. Old fashioned? I wouldn't have it any other way.......