SUMMER WILL FOREVER BE my favorite time of the year, and much of that fondness goes back to the days of more than five decades now when we vacated our home in the Catskills and headed for the family roots in western Pennsylvania. My dad always took a month off, either July or August, and we landed at the homes of both sets of grandparents for two weeks each. The small towns were roughly 75 miles apart and were two-hour drives north of Pittsburgh, which was, for us, our version of a big city. In both villages, downtown was a short walk for a kid, and as far as I was aware, completely devoid of even the remotest threat. As it was in the Catskills, you could leave your bike in the backyard overnight and locks on doors were rarely used. The only real concern was being sure the upstairs windows were closed if rain threatened. It was what you might now call a Republican Valhalla, complete with the utter absence of anyone who even looked black.
We — make that my brothers and I — loved it. Thanks largely to my older brother’s gregarious nature, there were always local friends to greet us when we arrived, there were comic book stands to be browsed at will, ample open spaces for the re-enactment of key WWII battles, cars had begun to sprout fins, and there were relatives who said we’d grown (“my, how you’ve grown”) and always laughed at our nutso ways.
Four hundred miles to the east were the New Jersey beaches, which also got fair play. Shorts and a bare chest were the uniform of the day as we dashed from the clapboard house that we rented, and over a sand dune to the waiting Atlantic Ocean.
My parents called it a vacation, we simply regarded it as a change in venue, with no language barrier.
What strikes me now is how basic it all was, and, of course, what we would now consider missing, two generations removed (and I’m not thinking about the toys). Or, more exactly, added.
All things considered, we were a fairly well-aware family, and public events were often discussed around the dinner table. Mom described herself a socially concerned Democrat and a fiscally concerned Republican; Dad made no declaration at all. But, with the end of the Korean War, the Eisenhower years were Monroe-like, an era of good feeling, if you could look away from the Red-scare (which finally faded, mostly from lack of interest). People worked, bought houses and filled the churches. For many, there was a new car in the driveway every two or three years. Drugs were particular to New York City, not us.
Warm memories, but they remain that, once enhanced as they were by the innocence and naiveté of childhood. We never saw the smoldering reality of racism, although I do recall wondering about the separation of beaches in Atlantic City. Vietnam was almost a decade away, but the seeds were already being sewn by John Foster Dulles. And the potential for nuclear war was growing, but was still an abstraction for us.
And again, we were never touched by those realities. Mom left “The Caine Mutiny” on her bedstand at Cape May Point, and I talked baseball with my beloved grandfather downstairs, even as forces were underway that would change everything. My hope is that kids of the new generation will be able to collect times and memories such as those, unsullied by a shrinking and trying world, but I have my doubts. We’ve juiced up the pace and the expectations to a frantic degree that rides on a dialogue that is more vicious by the day. There is so little of the imagination and heart now that once made the magic happen.