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More Stories - The Way We Were

Walter Mills, one of the owners of Recipe du Jour which offers the greatest newsletters, reminisces about past summers, movies and theaters, now, and then in old Miami.

Summer Then and Now

Standing in the middle of the burnt grass of the field up behind the barn, it is hard to remember that we held out hopes for summer like this back in the darkness of 4 o'clock February afternoons.

The air has no movement, and the sky, bright and empty, shows no sign of relief.  The cucumbers shrivel on the vine, and the cats lie motionless in the shadow of the pickup truck.  In the heat of the day we close the doors and windows of the house and some of the night's coolness lingers in the lower rooms.  Then in the late evening we open the windows and set fans to blow the night air across the sleeping, restless bedrooms.

So it was in my childhood summers in Florida, and so it is here in the present in rural Pennsylvania in the old house without air conditioning.  Somehow I survived my childhood and my children will survive this.

On summer Friday nights in south Florida we would pack ourselves into the '52 Plymouth with our pillows and pajamas and snacks of oranges and tangerines, and head for the Breezeway Drive-In where the movies flickered on in the late glow of twilight.

Along the edge of the parking lot there was a tall line of pine trees that hid the screen from the road, and in the pause between the first and second feature a truck spraying clouds of billowing toxic fumes would rumble up and down the rows of parked cars.  This was the mosquito truck, and when it came near we rolled our windows up at the last moment to escape asphyxiation.  Death by heat stroke or death by slow poisoning, those were the choices, and we balanced the two evils in the moment it took the window to slide closed.

Two weeks ago we drove into town on a stifling Sunday afternoon to sit for an hour and a half in a cool theater watching the latest animated Tarzan movie.  We choose a movie to escape the heat and this movie because the contents seemed safe for a 3-year -old and a 9 year-old, and yet not terminally boring for two adults.  And so it proved.  But the theater experience was not all it might have been.  The cracker box size rooms of the multiplex, the popcorn, so wildly overpriced and yet so much worse than what you could bring from home, the bare, functional lobbies - all conspired to make a 100 million dollar production feel as though we were already watching the video.  The kids liked it anyway, even without the long glass display cases filled with rows of Black Cows, boxes of Jujubes and Snow Caps and oversize chocolate bars, and the glorious popcorn machine that glowed in the cavernous lobbies of the theaters of my youth.

But summer memories are like a pool of water that constantly bubbles up from an endless source, generation following generation.  In early July we drove along Penns Creek and up the high dirt road to the lake in Poe Valley where we ate a picnic lunch under the trees and lay on the sand beach with a few hundred others and swam in the clear water.  Beyond the parking area there was little to show if it was 1959 or 1999. The lake and the concession stand, the children playing with buckets and shovels at the water's edge, the shrieking of grade school kids playing games in the chest-high water, might have been Bayfront Park near Homestead, Florida, a July day in the late 1950s.

This summer the children will walk the quarter mile to Pickle's country store for a cold soda and a candy bar just as I walked a country mile to Anderson's grocery, barefoot and chewing on a long stem of grass in the summer of childhood, now gone but never forgotten in the endlessly renewing pool of memory.

This year the rains will come at last, if not this week then the next, and the heat will break and the grass will grow green again.  The garden will bloom and a breeze will blow through the bedroom windows in the night, if we wait with patience and hope.

(Reprinted by permission.  The above column originally appeared in the Centre Daily Times and is copyright © 2003 by Walter Mills. All rights reserved worldwide. To contact Walt, see  .)

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