“Every Summer has a Story”
It does not really matter what the calendar says, if you live in the Deep South you know when Summer has arrived. I felt that way this past week as the heat and humidity teamed up to make you sweat before eight in the morning.
The gnats arrive if you live below the gnat line. The early arrivals are the most aggressive. By August they are just a pesky thing we have long gotten used to. School is out, corn is shoulder high and the rest of the fields are just being planted.
I have more memories of Summer as a boy growing up in a small town in Alabama than this column could handle. Each Summer was different but strangely the same. I was always glad when school was out, sad when Summer ended and yet thrived in school.
Summer meant watermelon fields, picking okra and hoeing peanuts. Picking okra led to a lifelong ban on that particular food, in retaliation for all the itching it caused after you had picked it each morning.
I learned a lot in the watermelon fields, working with boys older than me. Color or status had no meaning when you were bent over all day picking up and throwing the melons towards the trailer. Six dollars was my first paycheck in those fields, with a dollar deducted for lunch. Lunch was one pack of crackers and an Orange Crush at a country store that has long disappeared. We were all just kids.
Although the peanut mill my father owned was in its slowest time during the Summer, we had plenty to do to earn our keep. My father and grandfather believed in the value of hard work, a lesson so ingrained in me I have a hard time letting it go, even though I am long past the age they both retired.
The early peanut warehouses were made of wooden poles and studs, with corrugated metal nailed to the wood. They did the job just fine, but left thousands of places an individual peanut could be left behind. A Summer job for many a young boy was “picking peanuts” in the warehouse. You would bend a welding rod and methodically go up and down the wall digging out any peanuts from last year’s crop that would have remained in a crevice.
There were no boom boxes, transistor radios and certainly no iPhones to play music or listen to news. We worked for hours with other young boys, standing on ladders and climbing in the rafters, just talking. We made up stories and told tall tales. Occasionally one of those stories was true.
We played Little League and Pony League baseball in the earliest part of the Summer, before there was real work to be done. The hot dogs from the concession stand remain the best I have ever had.
We skinny dipped in various creeks, slipped into the city pool at midnight, and otherwise grew up oblivious to what the real world was like. However, our bodies were lean and our minds were clear as everyone I knew worked at some job and was no better or worse than anyone else.
Without fail, the last day of Summer would bring about some pickup game, usually around the school. I would walk home late in the afternoon on that last day before school would begin and there was always Indian Cane growing in the Newman’s yard down the street. I chewed it and headed home for dinner.
To this day, I never see a field of Indian Cane without remembering those incredible Summer days of my youth. Each Summer was different, but each has a story to tell in my memory. It was the best of times.
Dan Ponder can be reached at email@example.com