Ask any astronomer when the first day of summer is and they will take a thoughtful puff on their pipe and start explaining that that particular event takes place when the sun reaches its summer solstice. With the sun directly overhead at the Tropic of Cancer, this usually occurs on June 21 but sometimes on June 20.
Ask any kid when the first day of summer is and they’ll quickly explain it's that first day they DON’T have to go in to school during summer break. It’s that first day, usually in June, when you don’t have homework to turn in, no buses to catch and no classes to try and not be late to. It’s a freedom that has come none-to-soon for the hardworking kid that’s been buried in the books and computer screens for months on end.
The release has been building like a pressure cooker ready to blow, as the days get warmer and longer, the clothes are lighter and airier and excitement just seems to generate from everywhere as the countdown to the end of the school year gets into the single digits.
It's finally here
Then the great day comes. The kids wake up and rub their eyes and realize it’s as late as a Saturday morning — but it’s a weekday! And then the thoughts rush through their mind as they realize summer’s first day holds the promise of the entire summer all at once.
There are dogs to play with, the pools are filled and you can even have a Coke whenever you want, even with breakfast if your parents aren’t paying attention. Lying ahead may be a vacation somewhere even if it’s a day at Six Flags or Lake Winnie. There will be blockbuster movies in air-conditioned theaters on hot afternoons. There may be watermelons for dessert or even an afternoon snack. And fireworks are definitely on the list for the Fourth of July.
Why just last week, on the last day of school, some kids couldn’t wait and as the sun set I heard the distinctive “booms” of fireworks being set off. I don’t know if they were bought early and couldn’t be held on to, or if they were leftovers from New Year's Eve that never got launched, but someone was putting the old lit match to fuse.
Off to see the grandparents
On the first day of summer when I was a kid, I’d head to my grandparents' house. Both my parents worked so my grandmother was my personal daycare. And yes, she had cold, glass bottles of Coke in the fridge that I could get into as early as 10 a.m. And sometimes Dr Pepper as well, and back then they went ahead and told you on the bottle that you should have one at 10, 2 and 4.
At some point she would make a pitcher of sweet tea, hot at first, but cooled on the table for a while and then placed in the fridge for iced tea by afternoon. Breakfast would usually consist of oatmeal and some toast, washed down with whole Mayfield milk. You know, for strong bones. I might be allowed to watch a little TV while I ate, but it wasn’t long before my grandmother would turn it off and tell me to get outside and play.
I would prowl the yard and see what was going on. There were trees to climb and a dirt bank at the edge of the property that would be good for little green plastic soldiers to have a battle on later.
The garden was already set out and growing and I’d give the green beans the side-eye. I knew when they started coming in, part of the afternoon would be spent on the steps stringing and breaking beans with my grandmother. That was almost as bad as school because she would take that time to make me work on memorizing my multiplication tables.
Sports were a big part of being a kid, and in my home neighborhood there were enough kids for big football games in the fall. My grandmother lived out in the country a bit and so there just weren't enough kids for a pickup game of summer baseball, but with only two kids you could shoot some basketball hoops. I knew the different houses that had basketball goals in the driveway and so I would make the rounds to see where a workout may be taking place.
Driveway basketball can be so different from basketball in the school gym that you might think they are two different sports. It was hilly where my grandparents lived so a few of the basketball goals were on steep hills. If someone missed a rebound the ball might go sailing off down the driveway to the road below and on. The whole game would have to stop while someone chased the ball down. We got to be really focused on rebounds, sometimes more than actual shooting, because if there was anything that was a real morale buster it was losing the ball twice in a row to a downhill runaway.
Just like in the old days of Napoleon and Stonewall Jackson, summer was the campaign season for military maneuvers. If it was just me or me and one other kid we would take the little, green army men and find a suitable battlefield for them outside. Their marching orders were to move out ... out of the playroom and shoebox storage and into the summer sun.
Using spoons we dug trenches and with twigs we built breastworks. The western front was never as well defended as our little patch of no-man’s land. Plastic models would also be brought out, while 1/32 scale aircraft and tanks from all time periods were put into the fray. Although we’d never seen news footage of it actually happening, for some reason our little boy overactive imaginations knew that the tanks would run over the men as well as blast them with their cannons. Violent yes, but the green plastic was always bloodless.
If we got a group of guys together though, we might go out on an actual patrol. Armed with stick guns or plastic toy firearms, we’d head out into the woods in search of the imaginary enemy. We always fought Germans.
Now was the chance for some real bloodshed as we’d scratch up our arms and knees wading through briars or, one time, sliding down on the ground to take cover only to discover we were under a chestnut tree with the spiny shells covering the ground. The only thing worse than getting scratched up like that was knowing we’d get doused with Mercurochrome before a Band-Aid would be stuck on.
World War II lasted six years but we battled the Germans for probably a decade ... and we never lost a battle!
Exploring was also something that might start on the first day of summer. There was always a patch of woods or a creek around that hadn’t been totally explored yet and so we could march off into the wilderness of Whitfield County not unlike the Lewis and Clark expedition of the 1800s heading into the terra incognito of blank spaces on the map.
Woods were fine but I always preferred wading unknown creeks. Sometimes the explorations would be slow and easy with all of us getting distracted by the hunt for spring lizards hiding under stones in the water. We’d find a likely rock, gently take hold of it and pull it back. There would be a swirl of mud as the current washed it clear and, if lucky, there would be a spring lizard laying there, the bigger the better. We’d also keep an eye out for turtles and frogs. Personally, I would keep on the sharp lookout for snakes, the one bugaboo I’m afraid of.
The first day of summer would kick off a season without school lunches or cold winter “hearty” eating fare. There were hot dogs and hamburgers to grill outside in the evenings. There was homemade ice cream to churn — first by the grownups hand cranking a handle and later with electric motors humming to turn the icy metal cylinder automatically.
And maybe the first day of summer was a little early, but very soon would be tomato sandwiches from tomatoes fresh out of the garden. White bread, mayonnaise, salt and thick slices of tomatoes that might still be warm from the sun made up the only ingredients. Simple and delicious.
And there would be fresh corn on the cob soon as well as, yes, the green beans I helped string. And no, they didn’t taste any better to me because I had helped. When I ate them I couldn’t help but taste the lost hours of play spent helping prep them for meals and my grandmother’s canning.
With no school, summer always delivered on its promises. When you’re a kid there was always something to do or look forward to. Even when you were doing the chores like mowing the yard or stringing the beans you knew another warm weather adventure was right around the corner.
Mark Hannah, a Dalton native, works in video and film production.