Summertime when the living is easy

Summertime always make me think of my youth.  Most of the recollections are happy ones of being outdoors, hanging out with friends, and most importantly, not having to do homework.  In short, summer was, and is, an escape from the routine.

Ask people to tell you about their summers as kids, and the question almost always produces a wide grin.  My running friend George remembers summer as the time he sold ice cream from one of the old-fashioned push carts in Central Park.  He explained that all the carts were controlled by a concessionaire who doled out the top locations to the kids he liked best.  Always a charmer and hard worker, George was usually well positioned to capture large crowds of hungry New Yorkers craving a treat. “One day,” he bragged, “when the local orchestra was performing in the bandshell near the Bethesda Fountain I pulled in $150. That may not sound like a lot of money but it’s equivalent to ten times in today’s money. Not bad pay for a kid of 13.” 

Charlie also explained that creamsicles and ice cream pops on a stick covered with chocolate were not the only things he sold.  He described how the front of the cart had a drop-down section containing peanuts, Cracker Jacks, Almond Joy candy bars, and cigarettes. Clearly, those were different times with no anti-smoking moms lingering around wagging their fingers at a minor selling tobacco products.

Another pal, Harry, described summer as the time when his family with their five kids headed to Lake Hopatcong in New Jersey for a week’s vacation. “We were dirt poor. It was a big deal from us to escape from our less than fashionable, hooligan-infested neighborhood.  It was like living in West Side Story back then. To survive I had to join the Italian gang.  We were confined to a three-block-square ‘turf’ which we rarely ventured beyond to avoid conflicts with the other gangs of Black and Hispanic boys. But, once a year we put all this behind us and headed to the lake.  My parents rented a shack of a place two miles away from the water, but my brothers and sisters didn’t care.  We were in heaven.  I vowed that if I ever made a little money as an adult, I’d buy a country home.  And, I did. Several of them.”  Ah, the beauty of the American dream for success.

My trainer, Jen, remembers the Mobile Library which circulated in her neighborhood during the summer months.  “We had a library in town but for a book worm, which I was, the convenience of the mobile unit was a real luxury.  I remembered when I was in middle school, spending the whole summer devouring almost the entire Babysitters Club series.” That was quite an accomplishment considering the series exceeded one hundred books.

The other day at my knitting class, the women were comparing notes about their children’s and grandchildren’s plans for summer camp.  As they recounted all the sports and recreational activities offered, I had to laugh to myself recalling my own camp experiences. 

One summer when we were living in Brussels my mother drove me and three other eleven-year-old girls to Ostend, a beach resort in Belgium known for its long esplanade along the water.  We dragged our little suitcases up to the third floor of a somber-looking, brick building to stake out our bunk beds.  Suddenly, in walked a small group of rambunctious little Belgium boys carrying knapsacks stuffed with their clothing. My mother, who was still there, was horrified.  No way was she going to allow her precious daughter to shack up with little boys at camp, even if it were customary in Belgium to mix the sexes at that young age.  At my mother’s indignant insistence, our group was whisked away and resituated in the dormitory for older girls.  We were greeted with sneers as we intruded the Belgian teenagers’ much-coveted, segregated space.

The two-week experience in Ostend was rather dreary, as I recall.  The camp’s idea of recreation was daily forced marches along the boardwalk where we braced ourselves against the powerful gusts of wind coming off the navy-blue North Sea.  It rained the entire time we were there except for one morning.  That day the sky was filled with ominous grey clouds but at least it was not pouring.  After a good hour hike along the boardwalk the camp counselors said we could go to the beach. We ditched our towels and ran like liberated wild colts galloping into the freezing water. Within five minutes, the heavens opened, and it began to thunder.  Our counselors feverously blew their whistles to warn us that our swim time was over. We trudged back to the camp in the driving rain completely drenched and disheartened.  However, when we arrived, we were consoled with a popular Belgian snack for kids of pain et chocolat: thick slices of crusty country bread slathered with sweet butter then topped with decadent, dark chocolate sauce.  As an American kid, I had never eaten anything quite so delicious.  It was a culinary revelation which almost made up for our disappointing day at the beach.   

The following year, the parents of our little band of pre-teenage American girls felt obligated to do better by us.  They found an American sleep-away camp for kids which was located in Germany.  My friends and I were ecstatic. The pure, innocent expectations of youth made us giddy anticipating our time away from home in a different country. 

We drove a whole day to Wiesbaden where we were deposited in a camp set up on the far side of an Army base.  That had us worried, and for good reason.  When I think back, we should have been grateful it wasn’t a Marine base!

The campers were housed in tent barracks with a wooden floor and lots of mosquitos. The latrines were in the wooded area. We rose every morning to a bugle recording of Reveille blaring over a loudspeaker like a bunch of privates at basic training.  Everyone dressed quickly and made their beds following strict instructions. “Make sure you use neat hospital corners.  And don’t forget to pull your blanket tight,” our counselors sternly instructed us. If it were done properly you could drop a dime on the army-issued, scratchy wool blanket and the coin would bounce.  To this day, I can still make a mean bed!

Every morning before breakfast our tents were inspected by a senior counselor we affectionally called DS for Drill Sergeant.  Whosever’s tent has the highest number of well-made beds was given the honor of raising and lowering the American flag that day.  This privilege, which was the only exciting moment I can recall at the camp, happened only once to my group.  But this ceremony also included a detailed lesson on how to fold the American flag, a skill set I’ve used only once in my life, there in Germany.  

Our kids’ version of boot camp was probably not what our mothers had intended for us that summer but at least we had two weeks of freedom. Plus, we didn’t have to fight the rain and bitter cold winds of the Belgian coastline! On the other hand, none of the food we ate at the American camp could hold a candle to those delicious Belgian pain et chocolat.

I was curious to see if non-Americans children had similar summer experiences to ours.  So, I asked Pedro, one of my spinning pals who is from the Philippines. He recounted that he was raised in a quiet, rural area far from Manila.  In summertime, he and his friends would amuse themselves by wandering around the rice paddies and swimming in the irrigation ditches. “This was strictly forbidden but as mischievous young boys, we did it anyway,” Pedro explained with a devilish look of self-satisfaction. “We also loved playing in the corn fields where reddish-colored beetles would fly around on the top of the husks in the summertime. The trick was to catch a female ‘sebong,’ and tie a thin string in front of its wing. You would lightly hold the string and watch the female fly around attracting hordes of other male beetles.  Capturing as many as we could, we would run home with our catch, cook them ourselves in oil and garlic and have a feast.”

 My Italian teacher was born and raised in Rome to an American mother and Italian father.  She recalls that her mother—who did not work at the time—made it her mission, once school was over, to pack her three kids into the family’s tiny Fiat and take them on cultural excursions.  La Mama would do day trips to gardens, castles, churches and small rural museums close to Rome.  For lunch they would normally bring a simple panini(sandwich) with them, usually of mortadella. On special occasions, they would eat out in simple trattorias sometimes with other friends.  Anna always ordered the same thing and claims to be among the few children in the world who loved calamari fritti.

While Anna recalls that she and her siblings would moan and groan as well as take bets on who would get the most carsick on these cultural outings, today she appreciates all of her mother’s thoughtful planning.  Anna remembers too that periodically La Mama would also take them to the beach. The family’s favorite spot was Fregene, a quaint, picturesque village close to Fiumicino, Rome’s airport. On the way home Anna and her sister and brother would nag their mother unmercifully until she stopped the car by the airport’s runways to watch the planes come in.  Anna recounted, “It would never be permitted nowadays because of safety regulations, but we waited outside at the fenced-off area and competed to see who would be the first to identify the airline from the plane’s tail as it came in for landing over our heads.”

Summer also makes me think of locally grown foods I devoured as a child, such as bright red, strawberries bursting with flavor. It also conjures up images of ice cream cones dangerously melting in the sun.  When my family moved back from Europe and settled in Ridgewood, New Jersey my mother and I started a summer tradition of taking a long walk once a week to our local Friendly’s. I would treat Mom to one dip of any flavor of ice cream she wanted.  One year, when I came home from my first year in college, I discovered that Friendly’s had raised the price for one scoop from 19 to 25 cents.  I was outraged. Naturally, I broke down and paid for my mother to have her weekly ice cream cone, but I swore off Friendly’s for the entire summer. 

When I think back to the price of a quarter which I bemoaned versus the $5.00 you pay now for a cup of gelato at Éclair (my local French bakery), my personal protest seems laughable.  But I still love ice cream, especially gelato.  Now, for a treat, I make my own.  My first spoonful transports me back to those innocent days of my youth.  But, it also reminds me of the one summer of stubborn, misguided abstinence.  While Friendly’s only lost $3.00 dollars that season in sales from me, I deprived myself of one of my all-time favorite summer foods.  Nonetheless, I was proud—and still am—that I was able to hold out for the entire three months thanks to the strong conviction of an adolescent becoming a young adult.