Saturday, August 17, 2013

A Presage of Summer's End: "Children in August"

 Children in August. . . The phrase isn’t mine.  It’s the title of a play by a writer friend from college.  But it came to mind as I started to look back on that other part of summer when we were growing up, the end of it, or what we took to be its ending in that last flush of mid-August heat.
     The Fourth of July had come and gone with those final, sporadic explosions of firecrackers and cherry bombs in the fading light of dusk at the Cut and along the banks of the Blynman Canal.  The noise of carnivals, wafted across to us from Stage Fort Park on the freshening night breezes—those snatches of merry-go-round music, the sharp voices of the barkers urging you to bet on the wheel or take a shot at a doll for your girl—was stilled now and the park was bare except for the swings and seesaws, which we had long ago abandoned in boredom.
     Day camp was only during the week, and by mid-summer we had played so much evening baseball or watched so many adult league games at Newell Stadium that the freshness had worn off that, too, like the burnish from summer itself.
     Saturday mornings we’d hang around our porches or in the shade of someone’s back yard swapping comics and planning adventures.  But we—Billy Homans, Russ Henderson, Barry Clark, my brother and I—were getting too old to be making superhero capes from our mother’s old drapes, too old to be ambushing Mrs. Anderson as she hung her wash with a single arm, or teasing her grandsons Ronnie and Denny only because they were a little younger than we were.  Mothers would appear at the back door with pitchers of Kool Aid and ask what we were up to.
     “Nothing,” would be the inevitable reply.
     “Then why don’t you go to the library?” they’d offer.
     “Naw,” we’d answer. “It’s too hot to walk there.”
     Children in August, we were, with time on our hands, with the summer still hanging on and we hanging onto it because its end meant just one thing—back to school.  No one in his right mind would wish that to come again so soon.
     But what to do?  You could always make the rounds of the neighborhood and collect tonic bottles.  These you’d turn in with milk bottles at my Dad’s or next door at Irving Morris’ First National store.  With the refund money you could always buy a Baby Ruth candy bar or a Milky Way.  Then we’d stick the Milky Ways in the old General Electric refrigerator, in those tiny freezing compartments that could just about hold a few trays of ice cubes and wait for them to solidify, making a hundred trips in and out of the house to see if they were “ready” yet.  All this, of course, while our mothers were trying to finish their house work or relax in front of the radio with a cigarette, fanning themselves in the heat with a copy of Life magazine.
     Of course, we’d straggle over to the beach on hot afternoons.  Maybe across the Cut Bridge to the narrow strip of sand just by the entrance to the canal we called “Crab Beach.”  I have an old snapshot that shows us with towels knotted around our necks, sticks stuck in our bathing suit waistbands for knives, longer slats of crate wood for swords. . . homemade bows and arrows even.  But we did those things when we were younger.  Now I’m talking about the days maybe just before we entered fifth or sixth grade, when you no longer wore wooden swords or cutlasses any more than you acted out what you’d just read in comic books or heard on the radio—“the Shadow knows!”
     By then we’d also graduated from selling punch, lemonade or Kool Aid from our porches or along Perkins Road to those obliging parents or neighbors who would contribute a few pennies and endure the poorly made drinks.  Onetime I even opened my own “business,” selling pieces of my mother’s and my Aunt Helene’s discarded costume jewelry from the top of an orange crate on the porch at 3 Perkins Road.  The hand-lettered sign I hung from the porch railing said “Curio Shop” because it seemed that Lamont Cranston, alias “the Shadow,” was always encountering some mysterious stranger in the back room of an old curio shop in London or the Orient and the phrase had captivated me with its eerie recreation of faraway places and shadowy characters.
     But selling things bored us too, so on late afternoons we’d wander down the river bank among the tansy, which had by now broken out everywhere into golden buttons, the milkweed already gone to green seed pod, and the golden rod still green tipped, waiting until the end of August to finally flower when it would run riot everywhere.   We’d grown too old to chase the butterflies, as we’d previously done, though we remarked on the profusion of monarchs prior to migration and the last of the tiger and black swallowtails.  You didn’t have to be a naturalist to understand what the arrival of the monarchs meant.  It was an event you lived with all your young life, a presage of fall in the rich, darkly-veined rust-red of their wings, in the slow, stately figures of their flight.
     And in that first glimpse of the monarchs, in the smell of the fields on the river bank, the burnt over weeds and grass, the rich perfume of the tansy bruised under our running feet, came the inevitable signs of the end of summer, and with them a perhaps less clear but far more deeply impending sense that soon we ourselves would no longer be children in August.

(from A Walker in the City: Elegy for Gloucester, by Peter Anastas.  Published in May 2013 by Lost &  Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative.  Available from