Summer nights can never be as good as they were when you were young.
Especially in the confines of our sleepy little town in Northwest Ohio.
The feeling of freedom after the last day of school that stretched across three blissful sunburnt months doesn’t quite have an equivalent in adulthood.
When I reminisce about my childhood summers, I think of the smell of sun and sweat on my skin after playing outside all day long. I think of the sizzle of sparklers and the big colorful explosions of fireworks with their sulfuric scent lingering in the air on July 4th celebrations at Veterans Park.
I think of the smell of chlorine and blood-shot eyes from swimming in Teagarden’s pool.
I think of cupping my small hands around fireflies and dropping them into mason jars, little pieces of summer I wish I could have treasured forever.
As a young child, the highlight of each summer was marked by the annual county fair. For several days in July, kiddie rides, games of chance, concession stands, and fun houses were erected in the heart of our county. Unlike some of my friends, that would go to the fair every day, I usually was only able to get to the fair one day during that week. I looked forward to it for months. I look back at the time now and realize that my anticipation for the event was much more exciting than the real thing. When my day finally came around, I spent my day shoving cotton candy in my mouth, riding the giant swing ride over and over and going to look at all of the animals.
At the end of the day, I’d crawl sleepy-eyed into the backseat clutching cheap trinkets won playing “everyone is a winner”carnival games. It was the highlight of my year.
Along this time in my life, the memories seem to blur for a few years. At the age of 9 years old, I lost my older brother, my cousin and a close family friend in a tragic car-train accident. Today, almost 50 years later, except for the details of that horrific day, I struggle with the memories of that time. I have a very clear and distinct memory of having an older brother. But the thing is, unless I see a picture, I can’t remember what he looked like. I don’t remember his voice. I remember him going to school every morning. I remember him teasing me. I remember his friends he would have over and me begging him to let me play with them. I remember the color of his hair that was always messy. I even remember his bedroom. I remember a few days just before he was killed that we sat in his room playing “I’ll Be There” by the Jackson 5 over and over until our mom made us turn it off. To this very day, I can’t listen to the song with having tears stream down my face. I guess the memories of a 9-year-old never quite leave you.
I was not aware of it at that time but my path in life would forever be affected by the events of that day. The innocence of life in a small town, although strained by tragedy, would continue for me for a few more years. I was still wrapped up in the warmth of a community that still wasn’t hardened by the events of life.
The details of that fateful event is a story to be told another day.
As my summers accumulated and I advanced towards junior high, summer life became all about friends. My small group of friends and I rode our bikes all over town on long summer days, creating our own adventures to shake up this small town life. Life was filled with Little League baseball and the strange realization, but not ready to admit just yet, that girls weren’t so yucky after all.
The only fear we had in life was getting home before the street lights came on. Never had a worry that our picture might wind up on a “missing child” milk carton. We were only bound by the town limit signs and we felt like our town was ours and ours alone. There were nights that our gaze would try to look past those town limit signs. We were slowly coming to an understanding that there was a life beyond what our eyes could see.
We bought candy by the fistful at the W.R. Thomas 5-10 store. All that sugar would fuel late-night sleepover conversations. I am reminded of the arctic chill of basement floors and how we’d seek refuge from the damp heat by spreading our sleeping bags out over the floor. The lights turned off and there was just enough glow from the black and white, three channel TV for our time of telling stories and lies to each other.
Tucked in a sleeping bag on a friend’s cold basement floor, summer nights had the effect of a sacred place. We would talk about our plans for the next day, told scary stories and made fun of each other in an attempt to make ourselves feel better. Usually that would always cross the line somewhere along the conversation and we would have to break up a fight every now and then.
Midnight felt so late and so adult.
Sometimes, as we fought to keep our eyes open to see who could stay up the latest and after we would hear that familiar yell come down the stairwell “to keep it quiet down there” would then start the conversations of our dreams of what we would become when we got older.
Dreams of becoming a professional baseball player had not yet been dashed upon the rocks of reality. We believed they could come true for all of us. We could, in fact, all play professionally and we all would play on the same team. Like the pick up games in our backyard, we were only limited by what we dreamed. We would talk until our conversations drifted off into sleep.
In the morning, none of us would dare talk about our late night conversations. We knew that any further discussion in the light of day would jinx the possibilities. It was a pact that we all believed but never discussed. It all felt surreal, for now, our dreams were safe from the rocks of reality. Protected from the light of day, forever stowed away with the moon.
Each summer day marked by the bike race to Van Atta’s Dairy Queen to get our .25 ice cream cone. Then we would mad dash it to Yeisley’s field to play baseball until we would get too hot to play and then, if we did not have a game that night, we would make our daily trip to the pool. We never swam on game days. We were told we couldn’t because it would make us too tired and we would not be able to play at the top of our game. We were convinced that the lifeguards were going to call our coaches.
On game days we would ride our bikes to the pool. Not only just to see the girls but to see the fun we were missing with our other friends that did not have a game. We would stare through the fence for a while then slowly head home one-by-one to rest up for the game.
Baseball was life during that time. We never considered that there had never been one player in our small town that ever made it but for now our dreams were safely protected by the belief of the certainty of the young and naive.
Summer still ended with the fair. But instead of playing games and riding rides, the focus had shifted. We now walked around the fair. We walked in packs. We were all just walking around trying to look cool.
However, there was strength in numbers. Even though not one of us would ever admit to it, our pack walked around, hopeful to run into the group of Jr High girls that were gathered safely in their own pack. We would walk until we grew tired. Tired of daring each other to do outlandish acts. Tired of acting like little immature kids. Tired of trying act like we were older than we were.
Truth was… we really wanted to go ride the rides like we did when we were little.
But here we were, suspended somewhere between childhood and being a teenager. It was all wrapped up in the security of living in a place and time where time seemed to stand still. All the people, and all the houses that surrounded you were as familiar as the things in your own room. You believed it would always stay the same.
The dreams of life beyond the town limits of Hartford were still off in the distance.
But as much as we believed, something deep inside of us knew the truth. Slowly change was happening. Soon enough, little league baseball would end and we were made to face the reality that only a hand full of my friends would continue to play baseball in high school.
I wasn’t one of them.
I suddenly had the over whelming feeling that I walked out of my childhood and into the next phase of my life. I wasn’t ready. I wanted to stay there, in the comfort of the summer nights of Hartford. But I knew I couldn’t. I was now fourteen. I slept under a roof that belonged to someone else, in a bed my father bought. Nothing was mine, except my fears.
And my growing knowledge that not every road was going to lead home anymore.
Things were changing. I would hear some of my own friends start to talk about making plans on leaving the safety of our hometown. I started to hear the other side of growing up Hartford. The negative. In my mind and memories, the place was perfect, almost sacred.
Looking back, I know it wasn’t perfect and obviously not sacred.
It was clear that my feelings were found in a place that was caught up in the reluctance to move from the 1950’s to the 1970’s.
Before I knew it, I found myself in High School.
Going to the fair was now focused on running into other kids from school and seeing who had coupled up or broken up over the last few months, triumphs or casualties of summer.
We no longer walked in packs. I would usually hang with just one of my friends. It kept the competition down and I would not have to be embarrassed by that one friend that always acted like an idiot.
During fair week, when the sun went down, that magical familiar feeling of youth slipped over me once again. Those exciting feelings of not knowing what would happen next.
There was the possibility that the crush you had might see you and smile at you.
When it looked like no one was around, we worked up the courage to go on the Kamikaze, a ride that shuttled you in giant, nauseating upside-down loops. I screamed at the top of my lungs while “Do Ya” by the Electric Light Orchestra blasted through the ride’s crappy speakers, and I felt like a badass.
At the time, there was no greater heartbreak than when the fair packed up and left town with all of your wishes still unfulfilled.
That last night at the fair, in the darkness of night, we walked home from the fairgrounds.
Our ride left us and we had no choice but to walk the 4 miles back to Hartford. The only light coming from the moon.
I was deep in thought and walking to the town I grew up in. I realized that there was a time I knew every family on the block. Their kids, names of their dogs, but most of those families were gone now.
The ones who stayed were not the same. The world was moving on.
Only the lights remained the same.
Maybe I was starting to realized that growing up doesn’t have to be so much a straight line. Maybe a life was a series of advances and retreats. Maybe I was learning that I was growing up too fast. Maybe it was the fact that I was missing something about my childhood.
But I could not shake the feeling of loss on the long walk to Hartford.
Eventually I made my way home. I walked slowly. Walking past each one of those houses, called homes, I started to realize something. I was beginning to understand that in each home, with its Ford parked out front and its white bread on the table and TV set glowing blue in the falling night, there were people with stories. There were families bound together in the pain and the struggle to make it in life. I was just starting out on my journey to figure out what life was really about. After growing up in Hartford, protected by the outside world, I wasn’t even sure I knew what “real” life was anymore, but I knew I had a lot to learn and my quest to finally find it was a long way off.
Walking up my driveway, I noticed what a beautiful night it was – lit by the moon. The world smelled fresh and clean. I turned the handle of the front door and opened it. Like always, there was my mom sitting at the kitchen table reading the newspaper. As I walked into the room, she put her paper down and stood up. I could see in her eyes that she knew that I had a tough night. She gave me a big hug. She never said a word and neither did I. We didn’t have to, for in that moment I felt like a kid again. Life and all of its responsibilities were knocking on the door. But for tonight, they would have to wait.
I never went to the fair again.
Summers took on a whole new level of gravity after graduation. Now, summer was a season of returning home to a life put off to the side while classes were in session. People stopped coming home for the summer. Jobs replaced summer freedom–real ones, not the mowing lawns or life guarding for minimum wage of the past. The cycle of seasons felt like it accelerated a little bit more each year, like a record playing on the wrong setting. Most people I knew had long abandoned the town limits of Hartford. The town was now different. Van Atta’s had long since been sold. W.R. Thomas closed it’s doors.
Except for the hardware store, the familiar storefronts of Water Street were now empty.
Years have become decades, and my early memories have lost their sharp edges.
But I can still recall the names of the old stores in town. I can still remember reading magazines at the counter and ordering no better cheeseburger and fries in the world than the one I would get at Van Atta’s restaurant. Especially for $1.25.
I can still remember the way my heart would race when I knew it was a baseball game day. Or the feeling of pure joy of being flanked by my best friends on our bikes. It was our first taste of freedom–to be able to take ourselves anywhere within the town limits, powered by the adrenaline pumping through our veins with each spin of our silver spokes.
I wish I could have bottled all those feelings all of those years ago, like those fireflies in a mason jar. To once again feel that youthful freedom and the delicious possibility of how any given night might end.
I’d open the lid and breathe in the smallest sample in order to make it last.
On summer nights in Hartford, it truly was a great way to live life.