Remembering the Sounds Of Summer as a Child

I was biking through residential streets to avoid the screaming highway when I ran smack into summer.

Four or five children sat cross-legged on a sunny driveway, entertaining themselves without the benefit of CD-ROM or Toys * Us. They reminded me of the summer of 1933, when the kids on my block always seemed to be playing in someone's driveway.

A freeze-frame memory as I rode by was my bit of the madeleine whose taste gave Proust some 2,300 pages of remembrance:

A sound of scraping. Two boys and a girl kneeling on skinned knees. They rub bricks back and forth like scrub brushes on the cement of the driveway. Sand from the bricks gathers on the cement. We pile the sand with cupped hands. My brick is red. His is gray. Hers is white. The cones of colored sand get higher.

Why were we collecting that sand? I seem to remember bottles filled with layers of the different colors forming a design. This year I've seen splendid sand bottles sold as Caribbean folk art. How did children start doing it back in a small Midwestern town during Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first term?

The big kids probably showed us. I think a big kid had to be on hand when we did another summertime thing - dipping leaves in hot wax.

Mothers kept pale bars of paraffin on their shelves to melt for sealing jelly jars. Someone's sister from high school would preside over liquifying a bar in a saucepan. The dipped leaves - the smooth curves of the lilac, the teeth of the box elder - would find gleaming immortality in the pages of a 5-cent school tablet.

GROWN-UPS themselves joined in another passing pleasure meant to last for years. I'm not sure of the recipe. But these platter-size indoor gardens grew like ``the Thing'' from lumps of coal crystallizing with household chemicals such as salt and bluing.

Two more hunter-gatherer items not thought about for x-number of years:

* The summer I listed all the out-of-state license plates on cars parked along Main Street.

* The summer I collected tinfoil from candy and gum wrappers wherever I could find them. The idea was to make a ball of foil and turn it in at the restaurant for some kind of reward according to its size. I remember mine grew to the size of a baseball. This was before World War II exhortations to save everything. No one had heard the word ``recycle.''

Grocery stores liked to have cardboard boxes returned, too. We had to go around to the alley and bring them to the back door, where everything seemed so messy compared with the neat shelves and bins up front. I can almost taste the chocolate-covered peppermints - eat your madeleine heart out, Marcel Proust - that an aproned clerk would distribute to us after making sure our boxes were not the ones he had just thrown away.

Sometimes we even got cash for our scavengings. A dime looked good when a major block of Baker's chocolate, embossed like a medal, went for two cents.

I feel a pang now when I see grown men having to make a business of combing trash cans for the refundables that we collected mainly for fun, even in Depression days.

This spring, I had to saw off an overhanging tree branch. When it fell, it ripped away some bark. The wet-sap smell of peeled wood was another ``rewind cue'' for the summer of 1933.

The first time I encountered that smell was when someone showed me how to make a willow whistle (after I thought all whistles came from Woolworth's). I remember finding the right straight piece and cutting through the bark with a jackknife, releasing that unmistakable odor.

I wonder what that driveway circle of 1994 children did after I rode by. Were they finally bored with their sit-down game?

Sixty years ago, someone would have said, ``Let's do stunts,'' and we'd leave behind the brick-rubbing or leaf-waxing to run to someone's lawn.

Then it was somersaults, handsprings, and cartwheels; the girls tucked their skirts (who wore jeans?) into their underwear - the better to act like tomboys. The girls tended to be the stars doing stunts, but everyone was philosophical about it.

Or someone would say, ``Let's play Tin Can Off,'' and we'd find a can to put on a stump and a stick to knock it off with while everyone thought of places to hide.

Or, if it was raining, ``Let's roll covers.'' Does any child today consider it amusing to sit on the floor, set a jar lid on edge, and brush an index finger across the top to propel it to a child in the opposite corner?

Or, after the rain, someone would say, ``Let's sail boats,'' and we'd choose twigs, seed pods, or slivers of wood to see how far they'd float down the rivulets rushing along the edges of the streets.

Back in Minnesota, it seemed to take longer for spring to segue into summer. But now I'm in New England, and James Russell Lowell's Hosea Biglow says: ``Jes' so our Spring gits everythin' in tune/ An' gives one leap from April into June.''

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