Hot summer nights of childhood
“We came here for the skiing but stayed for he summers” has become a cliche.
It reminds me of the story about a guy who moved to Scottsdale from Boston. When questioned by an old friend about living in the Southwest, he said with a tone of resignation, “It’s just one damn beautiful day after another.”
Denizens of the valley enjoy barbeques, softball, hiking, kayaking, bike riding and just about any other diversion one can think of. But the period between June and August has never really felt like summer to me.
I grew up on Chicago’s West Side, far removed from the almost idyllic climate of the valley. To us, summer nights meant heat still rising from the pavement, kids running through sprinklers, the guys on the corner wearing Dago T’s, mosquitoes so big that I think they landed at O’Hare to refuel, sitting on the front steps, calling neighbors by name as they walked by and drinking real lemonade. These were the days of Sputnik, Hula-Hoops and 45 rpm records.
Our family lived in a standard middle-class bungalow on 76th Avenue, in a standard middle-class neighborhood about a mile west of Harlem. The front door led directly into the living room that led to thedining room (used only on holidays) and then into the kitchen, which although small, was where we ate our meals.
Every house had a back porch, for what purpose I’ll never know because they were too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer to be of much use. Primarily they were used to store everything from canning jars to old sewing machines to broken bicycles. But it was a good place for kids to scrape the mud off their feet before entering the house.
The houses in the neighborhood were practically identical except for minor detail and façade variations. Most of the neighbors painted their eves and gutters in two colors, allowing for individuality in houses that were stamped out by a cookie cutter. That type of vernacular identity has been lost today.
Most of the homes had a dormered and railroad-style “upstairs,” which meant that one had to go through one room to get to another. Between each house was a gangway, and for those who don’t know what a gangway is, it’s the walkway between houses, usually about six or seven feet wide that led from the sidewalk in front of the house to the back yard, which led to the alley. Alleys, by the way, doubled as football stadiums, basketball courts if one had a hoop attached to the garage, and baseball fields (center field only for obvious reasons.)
The streetlights came on about 8 p.m. and that was the universal signal to start home. Once inside, I would take off my Little League cap and put in on the spindle of the kitchen chair, open the refrigerator and yell, “Hey Mom, there’s nothing to eat.” At which time I would receive the “millions of starving children in China” lecture and retire to my bedroom.
By today’s standards, my room during the summer was oppressively hot. But I didn’t mind because it afforded privacy. My father would never come upstairs because of the stifling heat, and Mom came up only during the day to clean – and that was good.
This was my own magical land of baseball, model airplanes and dreams. Superman comics, baseball cards and of course copies of Boy’s Life were strewn about the room. (If you were a Boy Scout in those days, you know what I’m talking about.) There I spent endless evening hours listening to Sox games, drinking Pepsis out of bottles and eating Jay’s potato chips.
My brother and I had two twin beds and state-of-the-art out-cranking windows with a fan at each end up the upstairs.
No homes were air-conditioned; that was for rich people. Instead we had one 10-inch fan in our room blowing hot air in and another 10-inch fan in my sister’s room sucking hot air out – we had to keep the doors open for cross-ventilation. Our parents told us this was as good as air conditioning.
When we closed your eyes and listened to the sound of the fans, we could imagine ourselves anywhere, maybe even inside one of the brand new Boeing 707s. We didn’t know anyone who actually flew in airplanes, but we could dream.
What we did know was that like the Drifters singing, “Up On The Roof,” we could leave the world behind by just crawling out the window. Once on those still warm roof tiles, we became masters of our universe.
Would I give up my home in Singletree to go back? Not a chance. Nevertheless, sometimes I think back about those sticky, torpid nights and the rooftops of the west side of Chicago. There are times when I can almost hear cacophony of street sounds and smell the old neighborhood, and for a moment I’m wistfully transported back in time wearing a nostalgic smile.
One of the nicest things about getting older is that while we can still create new dreams, we don’t have to forget about the past to do so.
Butch Mazucca of Singletree writes a weekly column for the Daily. He can be reached at email@example.com