Friday, July 04, 2008

A Thousand Phantom Summers

Here it is July the Fourth and Summer almost half gone and I haven’t caught my first frog !

After 83 summers, (79 of which I cam remember something about) and because I can remember so many things about so many summers, it seems like I’ve lived a thousand.

And like all older people I am going to say it—and say it in a new way: “We just don’t MAKE summers like we used to make ‘em !”

Because, we DO make them. God PROVIDES them, but we fashion their flavor by the way we run out and away through the dew and return in the dust, searching for shade, a breeze, a spring of natural water.

The first summer I can remember well was in New Jersey on the tar and pebble roof of an apartment house, and walking to Caruso’s pasta restaurant several blocks away...AND going to Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus in Manhattan at Madison Square Garden...AND getting a neat little sour-smelling whip that I used to terrorize another boy in the apartment building.

I’m sure the NEXT summer was the first one I remember in Georgia, the aroma of gardenias in bloom under the window of the room where my most favorite person on earth, my Mur-Mur grandmother, lay dying.

They wouldn’t let me go to the funeral, and my young Uncle Royce made me a sprinkler truck from a grapefruit juice can. I can SEE myself in that backyard drive, forlornly watching them hide Mur-Mur in the hearse and go away. I can smell my sun hot sandals, feel the tears.

Next, the summer of fishing for the first time from the red clay bank of a pond that smelled like nothing I had ever smelled before...last year’s leaves, damp moss, scummy green water and “Turtle” Briard, who gave me Kipling’s Just So Stories, trying to help me get a wriggling catfish off my hook, and both of us getting finned, and he made my puncture bleed more and his puncture swelled up badly and mine didn’t. I can smell it all, close and funky, now.

The first summer I had to wait for, imprisoned in Miss Daisy Shadburn’s classroom, was so delicious that all I remember is that it actually ARRIVED. Miss Daisy, who also taught my three sons in first grade, said she could not keep me quiet. This accounts for the fact my handwriting has always been poor, despite the fact Miss Johnson spanked me quiet the next year.

That post-first-grade summer, James Tapp, Martin Lawler and the Puckett boys and I discovered the Tarzan Woods behind my grandfather’s house—--some hardwoods canopied by Kudzu vine so that very little sunlight got in.

We invaded a small branch running through the jungle and captured what we called “spring lizards” until we were in our 30s and using them for troutbait. They were several species of salamanders and newts, some with spidery “ears” that hypnotized us.

We invented a game we had no name for that involved taking prisoners and four or five years later, as Boy Scouts, I remember we thought “Capture the Flag” was too restricted by rules...almost sissy.

In May, corralled in that old dusty red brick school house and rock infested game area where we played dodge-ball in the elementary grades, you could smell June coming through the windows in the breezy midafternoons.

Marbles were just interim and schoolyard competition, because the woods, willow-cushioned creeks and small ponds beckoned.

As did baseball by the time we were in the fourth grade. We never saw a softball until I was 16 or more. There was a semipro team in our town, and the great prize was a big league bat splintered at the handle. We all know how to cut a wedge, glue and screw the splint back, tape it with friction tape and wear them out.

All Louisville Sluggers, they had strange big leaguers’ names like Pepper Martin, Jim Bottomley, Joe Cronin, Paul Waner and, mirable ! George Herman (Babe) Ruth. This was in the middle of the depression, 1935 when I was ten.

I remember an uncle sold bats made in Athens, Georgia, called “Bat-Rite” and one of the semipro players, Red McSwain, shattered as many as my uncle would give him. They had no “hard’ face.

I don’t think the Athens people understood about “curing” ash and large willow.

The smells are haunting. I remember them, but only experience the nostalgic jolt when I an in the North Georgia and North Carolina mountains, looking for Lady’s Slippers in the coves, marveling at the huge tulip popla r trees, or stumbling along the stony banks of Fodders Creek or the Soque, or the head of the Nantahala in the Whitebark Bottoms, under Chunky Gal’s shadow.

Then, and there, I can sense the presence of lacewings, dragonflies and waterbugs crazily etching the still slack pools...though I can no longer see them. The smell of mountain water changes, markedly, from the swift current’s rush to the still, almost stagnant pools ringed with multicolored moss. The smell also changes from April to late June and July, and again, in Autumn, when the trout spawn.

First frost on the Tallulah or upper Chattahoochee is a distinct, unforgettable aroma. Undescribable and not explicable, even for this connoisseur and sometimes wordsmith.

Smells are what shatter the summers into thousands, I believe.

The odor of the plastic-cloth first baseman’s mitt I bought at Sam Singer’s dime store with money I earned digging “Wriggler” earthworms near our swimming hole on Tarzan Branch and collecing spring lizards that the older Puckett men used for bait.

I preferred the mitt to a nice leather glove, and I was exactly 51 years old and doing some soul excavation before I realized I loved that ten-cent-store mitt more because it was MINE, and that it was the first thing that was not a boon of my family’s fawning generosity. That cheap mitt probably saved me from a shroud of privileged “Liberal” soul-death. The point is, it smelled horrible when it got hot in the sun.

Later, with a professional level glove from A.G. Spalding’s in Atlanta, I learned to lose my dreams in the aroma of neat’s foot oil and genuine calfskin along with the mythical horsehide essence of the new baseball.

And, though my extended family owned the semipro baseball team, the only new baseball I ever owned in my life, I got one memorable summer for selling Saturday Evening Post magazines. On Saturday.

The magazine man’s name was Ed Winship, and he had a 1934 Ford Coupe. I can see (and smell) that baseball now, in a box lying in the back space, behind the seats. Unlike the standard “big-league” baseballs used by the semipro team, Reach, Rawlings or Spalding, with stylized red stitching–-this Saturday Evening Post ball had blue-green and red-orange stitching.

I thought that was really neat and distinctive and I busted my chops, legs, and back selling magazines, got the ball, and never wavered in my dedication to it when the stitching colors faded in the first foggy dew, the cover split when Franais Lawler orbited it onto Wynelle Shadburn;’s porch, or when it went lopsided like an ancient Irish potato.

I just taped it up and remained staunchly loyal to it. I couldn’t SMELL it any more through the friction tape, but I loved it because I earned it.

I like to believe I earned all the smells and textures of all my summers. They will always be more than phantom to me.