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More Stories - The Way We WereI
was touched by a story in Recipe du Jour's great newsletter about the last free summer before high school's ending. Even though I can't relate to it personally, it reminds me just a little of one I wrote about my sudden realization of the reality of war - Who Do We Owe?
In the Heart of Summer By Walter MillsThough it was 1967, the sixties were just beginning in our backwater of the world. Our high school still had just one certified hippie, who came to class glassy-eyed, wafting an as-yet unidentifiable odor like burnt leaves. We all still dressed alike in what we called Ivy, and what everyone else in the country, apparently, called Preppie - khaki slacks, shiny loafers, and shirts with button-down collars. Our hair aspired to the Beach Boys’ surfer look more than to the shoulder-length style of the Beatles. Rock stars could get away with it, but we were afraid long hair would be ridiculed as effeminate in our school.
For my friend Richard and me, that summer was spent in long rides to the beach while we listened to Top 40 songs on the radio. Chic's Beach was a small community with a beautiful sandy beach on the Chesapeake Bay. It was less well known than Virginia Beach a few miles away on the Atlantic, attracting locals but few tourists. It was limited to a restaurant that served shakes and burgers, and a beach ware store called Black’s that sold swim suits and linen shirts, beach towels and sandals. When we pushed open the screen door and stepped onto the sandy wooden floor of Black's, we knew we were in the heart of summer.
Our favorite teacher lived on a hidden lane a block from the beach. She let us use her little cottage as our second home, and we hung out there all summer, talking about books and playing our favorite records for her on the stereo between times when we weren’t in the water. You could throw a rock from her back door over a sand dune and hit the Chesapeake Bay.
On starry summer evenings we walked on the beach, under the great towering pillars of the Bay Bridge, watching out for the luminescent jelly fish that littered the shore. Some nights they rode in on the waves like squadrons of suicide bombers, hoping to touch and burn us. We were young and just waiting to be burned.
One summer night I drove out to Chic's Beach with a girl I liked, and we walked for an hour in the sand with our shoes in our hands. She had on a black party dress that swirled around her hips each time I twirled her around under the moonlight. It was all innocent, but when I took her home her boyfriend was waiting and knocked me to the ground and kicked me in the head. Despite the bruises, I went home smiling. We wanted to be touched by life in any way we could; a dance in the moonlight was worth any number of beatings.
In the late summer our friend Tim came home from upstate New York, and Richard and I decided on the spur of the moment to initiate him into the rituals of summer nights on Chic's Beach. We made up a trial that required him to walk on his hands out into the waves while we held his legs like a wheelbarrow, scooping up jelly fish with his head and back. Out into the surf we plowed until we were all stung. We came back laughing, so anxious to be touched by life that it hardly mattered how.
That summer quickly faded into our senior year of high school. My father came home from a year in Vietnam, looking ten years older than when he left. The brother of a girl in our class was killed in what I now think must have been the Tet Offensive, his death the first casualty that came close enough to touch us. The days of innocence were over. My friends and I flung our caps into the air and took our diplomas.
That is the summer I recall when summer comes again here in landlocked central Pennsylvania. It was the last summer of pure freedom for us, a few months of light in a darkening world. After that we went to work and on to college and Richard went off to war. The tunes on the radio changed, and the bright Beach Boys sound faded away.
(The above column originally appeared in the Centre Daily Times and is copyright © 2006 by Walter Mills. All rights reserved worldwide. To contact Walt, see http://americanimpressionist.wordpress.com/ .)