I post this video for my younger friends. If I have any friends, aside from a couple of bros I attended DPS with, they have to be younger, because I was young–15–when this song was in the Top 40. I don’t even know if there is a Top Forty anymore, because that was AM radio days. I don’t imagine the younger people know what an AM radio is, unless they listen to some right wing windbag or a Hellfire preacher. Maybe Sportstalk, which is a guilty pleasure of mine. Anyway, “back in the day,” this was a chart-topper. I was living in Philadelphia and Penn Wynne, where you thought 85 degrees was hot. A July 4 when it hit 104 is a distinct memory, because it damn near NEVER happened. Now I live in South Texas, and I’m glad for it to only hit 90 is June or July. Sad. I will forever blame the Spanish Empire for my fate. Inside joke (why he Hell else would I have lived in Texas or California? No good cheese steaks.) As it happens, that day was July 4, 1966, so I guess looking at local temperatures down here in God’s Little Acre must have set off some synapse deep in my brain. Cause it never got that hot back home. At least BCC–Before Climate Change. Now, who knows. 104 sounds like the number of murders in Philly on a bad weekend. But, as Mark Twain used to say, I digress.
I used to really like Summer. I liked it in Philly, although it could get awfully humid around about August. I liked in in Berkeley, where watching the maritime layer (fog, for amateurs) roll in in the afternoon was a treat. It was almost never hot in Berkeley, and the little bit of it there was I could handle. And then came San Antonio.
I guess, in the abstract, I knew Texas was gonna be hot. You don’t grow cotton in the cold, right, and I had been in Andalusia (Sevilla) doing archival research once or twice in the Summer. Yeah, it was awful, and the locals had a word for it that I loved–bochornoso. I thought that meant shameful, but to the Andaluces, it meant hot and probably humid too. So while I dug going to Madrid or Sevilla, even in the heat, I always knew it was for a finite interval. In Catholic talk, they were Purgatory. Believe me, Texas is Hell. It never ends. And, that, among other things, is the big difference. We got two seasons here, Summer and Tolerable, Mostly. Summer runs from May to November. It gets old, believe me. And it’s a dry heat, right? So’s an oven, and you wouldn’t go sticking your head in one, would you? Well, what about Houston? Oh my God, forget it: literally a hot mess. But it’s not my problem, thank God.
By the time I had moved on to country life in Penn Wynne, Summer traditionally began on June 15. Year in and year out, the warders at the Archdiocese of Philadelphia set that date for parole (September 8 was the day the misery began). There had always been a few scorchers before then, when the Sister of Mercy (sic) would let us take off our hot maroon woolen blazers while we planned our upcoming escape. But the actual vacation was always a surprise. You’d go bursting out of the house at 8:30 in the morning and, lo and behold, the air was usually fresh with a cool edge from the night before. It was a real tonic after being confined for so long, and we headed off to various destinations, or sometimes just sat out on the front porch and enjoyed our freedom.
Yeah, sooner or later, you’d get involved in a game of catch or baseball, or drifted over with the gang to the park to see what trouble we could find. “Trouble” was a relative term. It usually involved some form of territoriality where various factions contended for control of an ancient gazebo. From there, various projectiles could be rained down on the barbarians–usually public school kids. Crab apples, black walnuts, dirtbombs, you name it. We also specialized in booby trapping the paths up the hill to the gazebo with lots of loose soil. Alas, there were casualties, cause someone always didn’t get the memo. Some hopeless kid would loose his or her footing and slide down the path, and go over a retaining wall, occasionally damaging a limb and falling into Powder Mill Creek. I don’t think anybody from my cohort ended up in Vietnam, but we already knew the tricks. I saw this kid nicknamed Skunky take a punjy stick to his ample fanny. He was sidelined for a week or two, poor guy. I, of course, was always in the rear. Safer there. Let the foot-soldiers contend for the high ground. A few hours of that was generally enough to guarantee that by evening, less strenuous pursuits–like The Flintstones–beckoned. No computer screens. This was the battlespace. No one knew from defilades. You burned off calories, excess energy, and aggression. For guys about to suffer from testosterone poisoning, it wasn’t the worst thing in the world.
We had other outdoor pursuits as well, but some of them were typically only available in more urban settings: wall ball and half-ball. Someone ought to write a book about how to play half-ball, except the rules varied from block to block in West Philly.
You had to start with a trip to Boodis Hardware on Lebanon Avenue to buy a pimple ball. You don’t know what a pimple ball is? You can podcast but you don’t know from a pimpleball. Doofus. See the little orb below. That is a pimpleball. Accept no substitutes. Cause if you don’t have one, you can’t play half-ball. You’ll also need a broomstick handle. Where you get that is not my problem, but it has to be wood. No plastic or aluminum. At least not in my neck of the woods. And you’ll need a good sharp penknife, or failing that, the family meat cleaver. I think a scissors might work, but I never saw one deployed.
When you cut the ball in half, there was always some kind of a residue of powder inside. Even a little moisture. I have no idea, but that was the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. The “field” was the alley that ran behind the homes facing 66th Street. You needed a pitcher, a catcher, maybe an outfielder and some gofer to chase the ball down. That was it. If you hit the thing, it was a single. If you hit it over a wire strung across the alley, a double. If you “roofed” the ball on to Reale’s Bakery, it was a grand slam. And game over because there was no way to get it. On to the roof of Caravellis’ garage was a foul and you had better have another ball, cause your little friends would kick the crap out of you for losing the ball. There were other subtleties, but I won’t bore you with them.
You pitched underhand (at least I did), and some guys got pretty good at getting some movement on the ball. You didn’t want the fat side coming down in front of the batter with no motion because that was the way to get clobbered. The only grand slam I ever saw was a kid named Hotsy who hit it off of me (figures) on to Reale’s Roof. He was a lanky kid anyway, and he got a fat pitch that I can still hear ricocheting off the green broom handle. What a humiliation. Hotsy, a/k/a Hoagie Nose going deep on you. We did kill hours that way, though, with all the requisite razzing, name calling, and pinning current Phillies’ names on to people. I got the ultimate ignominy, Chico Fernandez. Go look him up. Hotsy sealed it with that monster hit. I didn’t get to pitch much after that. Then I got demoted to the suburbs anyway.
Oh. No baserunners. If you didn’t swing at a hittable pitch, you swung (true). Three strikes, out of there. Caught on the fly (never saw), out. Three outs per “side.” This was 66th Street rules. I have no idea what they did elsewhere. Believe me, it was fun and is probably the only game from my youth I’d taken a shot at today.
Back in the suburbs, there were other pastimes (is that a word?). I don’t know if lightning bugs have been a victim of whatever Great Extinction we’re into now, but catching the poor creatures and putting them in bottles was another source of entertainment. For us, not for the poor bugs. But we entertained easily until some adult called a halt to our merriment. You could do this day after day and not get bored. At least I wasn’t.
I discovered our public library too, which had a reading program. Not that I needed much excuse, because the place was cool, quiet, and yes, some of the librarians were cute. You could stay up nights and read–sometimes with a flashlight angled under the pillow to keep your parents happy. I don’t remember a lot of fiction (any, really), but I was a great anticommunist and a war hero. You know, imaginary bullets don’t hurt and your plane never got shot down anyway. I was desperately concerned about the Commies taking over Manoa Road, so I did a lot of that know your enemy kind of stuff. This one was one of my favorites.
I went to grade school with a bunch of Cuban exiles, and they were helpful in stoking our paranoia. As were the nuns, who had more Reds crucifying communion wafer stories than you might believe. But do remember Cuba was a thing, as in October 1962. Dude, I was 11 and I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to make it to 12. As it turns out, there was a lot of that going around, and if we had only known how close we were, we would’ve been even more scared than we were. And I was good and scared. So I never really got around to Venceremos until college, and even then, it was half-hearted. The Barrera brothers trained me well. And in college, aah, a classmate was a future mayor of Miami, who apparently insinuated to a young lady in whom we had a mutual interest “Your boyfriend is a Communist dupe.” Reader, she married me. Take that, gusano.
Anyway, the Penn Wynne Library was next to my Godfather’s place, so there was always that excuse too. Summer was endless possibilities back then. Not endless days of 100+ heat. Starting to see the difference?
Even going to Mass was more fun in the Summer. They dumped the 12:15 slot–too many of us downashore, or somewhere, so demand dropped off. The 11:15, which I somehow always pulled as an altar boy, was not too bad and, I’m sure it’s a trick of memory, the weather always seemed pleasant. To the point that I can remember a nice breeze across the altar and lousing up the candles, at least until they got those thingamajig wax savers. Even the priests seemed fascinated by candles getting lopsided, or at least one or two of them did. You know the Sinatra song, Summer Wind? Frank must have picked it up in Church, which I’m sure Dolly (Mama Sinatra) made him go to. But man, you’d get outside, once it was over, and it wasn’t hot, but it wasn’t cold. You walked home and got to smell the azaleas and if you played your cards right, by the time you finished lunch, there was a Phillies game on. What was to dislike, for God’s sake. Absolutely nothing. Jim Bunning might even pitch a perfect game. I saw it on the tube (June 21, 1964). After which Bunning became some kind of right-wing nut. Baseball in Philly will do that to a guy.
To be honest, I really don’t think it’s the heat anymore. It’s the responsibility. For a lot of us–at least the lucky ones–problems as a kid were abstract, as in Commies and nukes and whether the Phillies would ever win another game (some stuff never changes). And all of it was wrapped in some kind of pretty package called “The Future” which had no hard constraints of which you were aware. I could have probably lived in Death Valley and thought that was just fine. My older self doesn’t really care–in the abstract–about whether the climate in South Texas is lousy or not. You know what the real issue is:
“But at my back I always hear / Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near; / And yonder all before us lie / Deserts of vast eternity.”
Andrew Marvell got that one right. It can be 100 degrees in the shade when you’re 15. There is, after all, always tomorrow. What a luxury in any weather. Time was, as the Stones intoned, on your side.
(Apology: I have some weird formatting issues in WP. Sorry)