A word to conjure up mid-summer evenings and long treks home from the public outdoor swim pool at dusk, barefoot. It drags up all the sidewalk cracks filled with tar and little weeds; some bitty flowers, some tender green shoots and faded bubble gum wrappers softened and melted in the endless sun. We spent every summer in the Blue Mountain region of eastern Oregon, a ritual that probably defines my childhood and outlook on life as an adult, found in a thesaurus without too much effort in the midst of references to Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, young little adventurers and innocent hooligan wannabes who lashed inner-tubes together to raft the lazy curves of the Grande Ronde River between the Snake and Wallowa, high mountains and wildflower canyons. Back then Dr. Pepper and Green River and RC Cola and Fresca and Fanta – all pulled from the red pop cooler on the wooden porch of the neighborhood store. There was established the lifelong devotion to Tootsie Rolls of all sizes, but loyalty to the one and only big brown log, soft and chewy chunks to savor for as long as you could make it last without swallowing. I couldn’t resist. I was a Tootsie Roll addict without shame.
Summer began when our prop plane landed in Pendleton, Oregon on a sunny June morning. My grandparents would be waiting in the small airport lobby where all the doors and windows would be open, fans blowing, and people milling around cars parked near the tarmac. Old blond Ford Fairlanes and even older coupes and ranch pickups trailing hay and twine out the back end, stock racks with halters and leads snapped around and ready for the next load of kids and critters headed up into the hills. But our grandparents had a city car, with a clean interior well-coated in prevention of the summer to come. Frampa was a semi-good sport about a summer’s worth of grandkids and Nana was typical for grandmothers of the day – pure, unadulterated, full-on determination to spoil and serve rotten back to their parents four grandchildren with nothing on their minds but swimming, fireworks, horseback riding, and cousins for three entire months.
Key to nostalgia for the time included the old Kool-Aid juice pitchers – jolly, round, and full of ice cubes clinking and swirling in mysterious but tasty blue and orange and green and red sweetness. We could tell if it was pre-sweetened; we knew the difference between cheating that little scoop and using the BIG spoon in the drawer when it came to mixing it up just right. Nana made sure there was always Kool-Aid in the cupboard and we sampled every flavor and color on the market.
On the cupboard below and next to the toaster was the McCoy clown cookie jar, of which I have two, having scrounged E-Bay for a replica and scoring on two in excellent shape. Did I give one to an aunt? Well-stocked with truly terrible waffle cookies (the kind filled with some kind of creamy filling) were Nutter-Butters, Chips Ahoys, Pinwheels, and an endless supply of homemade chocolate chip and peanutbutter and oatmeal cookies. My recipe box has several old scribbled notes for Aunt Thelda’s monster cookies, lemon bars, turds, and versions of Ranger cookies and bars to stuff into day packs up the creek or meadow or for an afternoon ride in the mountains.
In the cupboard above the stove were as many varieties of cold cereal that could be packed in and the doors still stay latched shut – AlphaBits, Lucky Charms, Capt’n Crunch, Trix, Chex, Life, Frosted Flakes, Mini-Wheats, and others that haven’t seen the inside of my cupboards since those days. Feed MY kids that stuff?! Well, maybe Lucky Charms and AlphaBits. I lived.
Bikes. We rode bikes, and Schwinn was the big deal – mine was pink and white and a 2-speed with a basket, bells and tassles on the handle bars. I always used the kick-stand and would stand aghast to find it had fallen over in the dirt. I could ride without hands – around corners, up the sidewalks, dodging cracks and jutting cement, potholes and even raced uphill with my girlfriends on their Schwinns. Yes, we felt very important in our expertise and abilities to ride standing up with no hands. I’m sure I don’t remember how many times, if ever, any of us suffered crash & burn disasters but, just in case, each of us had one little bottle of fingernail polish to match our bike paint and hide any trace of mishap.
Skate keys were sacred things to be stashed, hidden, whereabouts innocently forgotten if we were told to let a sister use our skates. They were measured and locked into size, even to fit around our thongs for all the good one would think that did, but we made sure the summer supplies of recreation was appropriately apportioned between the grandkids along with the green mesh swimming pool bags. Into a bag went a towel, dry underwear or a swim suit, shorts, shirt and something for the feet. Bare was preferred despite the rocks and scorching temps of sidewalk pavement. Run like hell from one tree-shaded section to the next halfway down the block and then hop onto the cool, green grass at the corner to wait for the rest to catch up. Check traffic both ways, hop across the even-hotter hot blacktop street to the corner and race to the end, making our way block by block to the swimming pool. We were early most times, mainly to get the race over with before the day heated up and arrive at the park with plenty of time to play on the swings or in the sprinklers or the little kids wading pool before going in to pay, shower, put on swimsuits and wait for the lifeguards to FINALLY get Creedence Clearwater on the PA system – the signal the day had begun and life was nothing but splashing water, loud music, wet towels on hot cement swim decks, and suntans. The lifeguards knew most of us could swim and allowed us to ride shoulders and push each other, or play volleyball or do handstands or race or dive, but eventually the younger kids and their moms and siblings started arriving and we were curtailed to no running on deck, sedate dives, and fewer and fewer cannonballs were forgiven near the brats who managed to yank our swim suits down. Yep, summer was great in the sun.
Finally, mid-afternoon demanded we gather out at the swings, spread soggy towels on the grass and open lunch sacks. Lucky those of us with plastic pitchers of Kool-Aid, peanut butter sandwiches, chips and a quarter for a candy bar. We piled everything in the middle of the driest blanket and just grabbed from the stash. Sometimes we weren’t into sharing because it might be a leftover chicken drumstick or other favored treat from home, but mostly we snagged the big fat dill pickles and chunks of watermelon or grapes or cherries heaped in leftover grocery bags and washed it all down with juice or pop of some flavor, then lay back beneath the trees and watched the sky move overhead. If we were lucky, we woke up without a sunburn or had at least turned over once or twice during our nap and only felt the twinge of red or pucker of something slightly more painful. Evening swim was short, and cooled what warmth remained of the day, and then we wrapped towels or donned T-shirts for the run home before dusk.
We could see Frampa mowing the lawn out front with his mower, or watering the lawn. He had this little whistle that never changed, just a little ‘whu-whu-whu’ sound he’d make absentmindedly while he worked, and he would holler at us kids to stay off the grass, can’t you see I’m watering there?! Then we thought he was a grumpy old fart, but looking back I saw nothing more than amused annoyment that his evening peace and quiet had come to an end – until it was time for us to go to bed and he could find his favorite TV show to close down his evening. After supper and dishes were done, we’d have regaled the household with the daily adventures and dumped our wet things in front of the washer to be ready for us again in the morning. At 10:00 the television would tone out with “It’s 10:00. Do you know where your children are?” and we’d gather our clutter, skate keys and other treasures, and traipse up to bed.
Curfew nostalgia. Get some.