MAXWELL: A SUMMER IDYLL’S BITTER LESSONS
7/8/2007 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper
Summer officially has arrived. For most Americans, summer is the season of hot days and easy fun.
For an unabashed sap like me, summer is a source of enduring nostalgia, a longing for good things past.
Often, when we recall happy summers, we resort to embellishment, making those times more idyllic than they were in reality. I had one of those moments two weeks ago, while on vacation, as I drove along a familiar two-lane road through a lush-green Virginia landscape.
I remembered a special summer in the late 1950s, when my childhood friends and I, shirtless, barefoot and wearing cutoff jeans, discovered four ponds. Foot-long catfish, various trout and bluegill, fathead minnows and other species teemed in the water, all there for us to catch with our jury-rigged poles. For bait, we used red wigglers that we had dug with vegetable cans.
Each day, we took fish home to our families. Driving along the road, I remembered the sweet smell of fish frying in hot oil in a black wash pot supported on cinder blocks.
I recalled that when we weren’t fishing, we walked around the ponds, where we hunted frogs and toads, ringneck snakes, salamanders, crayfish and crickets. We regularly tried to sneak up on a turtle sunning on a rock or a branch. We often got close to one of the reptiles but never close enough before it slipped into the water. Its lightning speed always surprised us. How could such an ungainly looking creature move so fast?
One day, we found a barn at the end of a little-used dirt road. We could tell the barn had been abandoned or forgotten. In one corner, we saw bales of hay; in another, a big pile of brown tobacco leaves. Using newsprint and whatever other paper we had, we rolled crude cigarettes and smoked. Intoxicated and laughing, we stumbled down the road, some of us throwing up all the way. At home, we fell fast asleep. We returned to that pile of tobacco often.
As far as we knew, our folks never learned our secret.
Now – as I write, nearly 50 years later – I recall the ugly realities of that summer. We were not at home. We were migrant farm workers, unwanted strangers in a town that merely tolerated us. We were valuable only as pairs of hands. We were stoop labor. We harvested crops for the market. We were “on the season.”
Local children didn’t play with us because we were considered to be, among other unflattering labels, “dirty,” “larcenous,” “irresponsible,” “ignorant,” “stupid” and “animalistic.”
I recall the night a group of us crowded onto the open bed of a truck that was used by day to haul potatoes from the field to the packinghouse. The truck was our transportation to the local drive-in theater, where the “white only” section was roped off from the “colored only” section. We parked in the “colored only” section and huddled around the lone speaker.
Our fellow blacks, all locals, harassed us. When my companions and I walked to the concession, a gang of kids followed us, taunting us all the way. As we walked back to the truck, a big local boy shoved a boy in our group and called him a dirty name. The two exchanged blows.
Needless to say, the rest of us joined in. Not only did we lose the scuffle, we lost our drinks, popcorn, hot dogs and the little bit of dignity we had. We returned to the tuck empty-handed and bruised.
About a week later, another ugly truth came to light: Those ponds were man-made, and the farmer had stocked them with fish for his private use and for sale.
After punishing us, our parents had to give up several days’ wages to repay the farmer for his losses. In turn, we lost our modest allowances for several weeks.
I’ll never forget that summer. It taught me a valuable lesson: The deeds and misdeeds of children are integral to the lives of their parents.
When I recall my father’s anger and that of the other adults in the labor camp, I am forced to put away my rose-colored glasses of nostalgia and see that time as one of bittersweet maturation. It was a good time, and it was a bad time.