On the Road Again
Many summers when we were little, Mom and Dad would pack my sisters and me into the back of our golden-brown four-door '72 Chevy Impala for trips to visit our grandparents in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Armed with Shasta root beer and Pillsbury food sticks, we departed our sleepy Los Angeles suburb at sunrise, destined to make it to Las Vegas for breakfast. Dad always loved the bargain breakfast buffet at the Golden Nugget hotel (and maybe a quick stop at the blackjack table).
Kim, Maureen and I sat for hours in the back of that car -- sweaty, bare legs sticking to the brown faux-leather seats. We passed hours and hours attempting to harmonize on silly songs our mom had taught us ("Rose, Ro-ose, Rose, Rose, will I ever see thee wed?") as Dad guided the Impala along thousands of miles of interstate. We stayed at Howard Johnson's, ate hot dogs at Friendly's, swam in hotel pools, bought sterling silver spoons and wooden nickel boxes, and learned all about America.
We usually arrived at Grandma Norris's house in Grafton, Mass., on the fifth day of driving. I will always remember the smell of the summer nights after the evening thunderstorm had passed through and washed the grass clean. It was especially luxurious at Grandma's house -- she baked us gigantic molasses cookies, and we were each treated to our own cans of ginger ale. I would climb up on my grandpa's lap and fall asleep on his big round tummy as he lounged in his pillowy soft king-size green lounging chair.
We played dress-up in Grandma's old gowns, frolicked by the stream in the back yard, got eaten alive by bloodthirsty mosquitoes, walked to Dairy Queen for soft-serve ice cream, sorted through my grandpa's old book collections and put on nightly dramatic performances for our live audience. Arriving in Connecticut to visit my dad's parents, we were welcomed by a brigade of Slovak American aunts, uncles, cousins and friends. My dad has six sisters and brothers, all of whom have gobs of children. We went swimming at Aunt Agnes's house, played pool at Aunt Rosemary's house, went on motorcycle rides with Uncle Nicky, ate Kentucky Fried Chicken, bought Juicy Fruit gum, concocted a zillion combinations of fruit-flavored soda, and stayed up late listening to the grown-ups play poker while sipping on Slivovica and bottles of beer.
After two weeks of nonstop craziness, we loaded up our trusty steed for the four-day drive-athon back to Los Angeles. Tears streaming down our faces, we fussed and kicked as Mom and Dad stowed the last suitcase in that mammoth trunk. We made that trip across country four or five times in that great American gas guzzler.
The Impala showed us the world when we were small, and in it we shared some of our finest summertime adventures.
Working at Wildwood
My summer memory goes back to 1948. I had just graduated from high school and went to Wildwood, N.J., to work in a boardinghouse operated by a gentleman named Jack Bowen. My grandparents and I had spent the last two weeks in August at his boardinghouse every year for 18 years. I had jokingly told Mr. Bowen that I would come down after graduation and work for him during the summer.
To my surprise, I received a postcard from Mr. Bowen in January advising me that I should come down in June when I was out of school and he would pay me room, board and $10 per week, plus all the tips I could earn from helping customers in and out of the rooming house with their luggage. During the first week and a half, we painted all the rooms. After the season started it was my job to sweep the hallways every morning to remove the sand carried in by roomers after their visits to Wildwood's magnificent beach.
Every Tuesday morning we would gather all the bed linen that had been rented to the roomers and do the laundry. This was an interesting procedure as we used a very large galvanized tub, cold water, lots of Clorox bleach and plenty of elbow grease with a plunger. We then hung the dripping sheets on an outdoor line to dry. We then did our personal laundry the same way.
At night I would stroll along the beach at the water line. Unfortunately, this is no longer permitted because the beach is closed after sundown. This tactic saved me money because it kept me off the boardwalk and away from the rides and shops visited by tourists. Saturdays were the busiest times, what with helping our customers in and out with their bags. It was also the time that I earned the most tips. Sundays were rather slow -- I was usually through about noon and was free to do what I wanted the rest of the day. Most Sundays, weather permitting, I walked under the boardwalk next to the stores. It was amazing the amount of coins I found in the sand, coins that had fallen through the cracks in the boardwalk.
The summer of 1948 taught me several things. I learned to accept responsibility through my job of helping others. I learned to live away from home without being frightened of strange surroundings. I also learned to save money as I saved my $10 per week and lived off my tips and what I found under the boardwalk. I also learned that I had parents who loved and trusted me enough to permit me to undertake such a summer. I would not trade these memories for anything.
Carl F. Banks
The Power of One
In the summer of 1970, the Temptations' "Ball of Confusion" was my anthem.
Having turned 13 the day of the Kent State massacre, it seemed my body and my world were changing too quickly for my mind to keep pace.
Suddenly adults forgot to lower their voices when discussing Vietnam in front of children. Television images grew bloodier. To get us out of the house, my mother decided to enroll me and my younger siblings in swim lessons.
I hated it all, from the early rising (on my vacation!), to the chill of the early morning pool water, to the snappy rubber swim cap anyone with hair past their ears, including hippies, had to wear. I especially hated having to learn with much-younger classmates, who made me feel like an overgrown freak. I'd come home soaked and sullen and stare at the television through the afternoon until it was time for Walter Cronkite to announce the day's body count in Vietnam.
One day my mother suggested that I pack a lunch and stay at the pool after lessons with my younger brother and sister -- just to swim for fun.
Though the prospect of baby-sitting didn't thrill me, the pool did have a snack bar that sold candy and played Top 40 radio loud enough to be heard in the water. In water warmed by the afternoon sun, and without my instructor or classmates around to make me feel self-conscious, I actually began to enjoy swimming. When the lifeguard blew the whistle for adult swim, we left the water reluctantly and turned red eyes on the adults swimming laps while we drip-dried on deck chairs. That's when we first saw him. Even if his build didn't make him stand out, he had a presence that demanded attention. When he swam butterfly the waves he created sent ripples all the way to the pool walls. His breaststroke pulled him out of the water to his waist, revealing his broad chest, and while swimming freestyle his powerful arms cut air and water until the music from the speakers seemed to hiccup into an echo.
But his real strength was diving, and he'd hurl himself from the high dive with a deftness and precision none of us had ever seen, even though only a single leg followed the powerful arms and torso into the water. Though he had to hobble his way up the stairs of the high dive a single step at a time and hop-hop-hop to its edge without the benefit of a running start, I'd never seen more grace in my life. Sometimes the deck would burst into applause, a note of harmony in the midst of all the discord.
Lost somewhere in Vietnam was his other leg and the innocence of a generation. Yet by watching this one-legged diver push limits, I felt at last that maybe, at least in a small pool in Wheaton, it was possible to impose some kind of order on our Ball of Confusion.
My special summer memories are not from a trip to a faraway land, nor are they from a week spent baking on a nearby beach. For me the best part of summer is visiting familiar places and watching nature unfold in a predictable pattern with enticingly random details. By early summer the rough brown textures of the winter forest have transformed into a soft green palette, and the understory begins to fill with a riot of flowers, seeds and berries. Winter's silence is replaced with a cacophony of tweets, twitters, trills and other sounds of the prodigal summer.
Each year, the Carolina wrens nest in the same spot under my deck where they have nested for all the years that I have lived here. When I replaced the old deck, I created a special place for them, built to the specifications of their old nesting site. They repay my efforts with their lively antics, their songs and the two or three broods of young that they raise each year.
Eastern phoebes make a home in the eaves of my carport just as they have done since before it was mine. If phoebes knew about folklore, they would tell the story about how I saved a nest full of their ancestors 15 years ago by pulling a hungry four-foot black snake from the wooden beam next to their nest. Perhaps one of this year's adults traces its family tree back to one of those fledglings.
On my summer walks I see jack-in-the-pulpit fruit, looking like miniature stacks of cannonballs, turn from dark green to bright red as they mature. Invasive plants also come back, encroaching on our native plants in a relentless struggle to stake out turf. English ivy, escaped from neighboring gardens, joins garlic mustard, Oriental bittersweet, mile-a-minute weed and dozens of others that compete with our native species. The invasives usually win because they have no natural enemies to control them. I, though, am their enemy, and part of my annual cycle is to spend hours along the stream near my house pulling and tearing at these unwelcome visitors. I suspect I can't win, but I also can't stop trying.
This year the cicadas dropped in for a visit, proving that the cycles of nature aren't always annual. For several weeks they treated us to their songs -- silent at night, a low murmur in the morning, building to an earsplitting roar by mid-afternoon and tapering back to silence by dark. They are gone now, having had the summer fling that they anticipated for 17 years.
Maybe I'm just a cheap date, but I don't have to go far to enjoy the special moments of my summer.
A Cub Reporter's Star Turn
Washington, D.C., the summer of 1951: I was days away from my 15th birthday, getting ready to enter Calvin Coolidge Senior High School. We lived at 1379 Tewkesbury Pl. NW. "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening" was the hit song. But it wasn't cool in D.C.
On one of those long, hot and humid days when there was nothing to do, I called the Times-Herald, an evening paper that ran a Sunday "Student Page" written by, about and for high school students.
"Well," a masculine voice replied, "I'll be glad to talk to you. My name is Marvin Perper. Come tomorrow at 1. We're at 13th and H streets Northwest."
He didn't have to ask me twice. Going downtown by myself and finding my way to a city newspaper was a big adventure for me. I remember getting to a massive press room, typewriters clacking, telephones ringing, grown-ups walking about and shouting to one another across the room.
The city newsroom was so alive. And so was Mr. Perper, an "older" man (19 years old at the time). I gave him a couple of writing samples from the "Paul Pry," my junior high school paper.
"We have coverage for Coolidge," Mr. Perper said. "But we might be able to use you. We'll call you."
Young and inexperienced as I was, I had already learned that "if they tell you they'll call you, you can forget it."
But two days later, early in the morning, Mr. Perper did call. "Would you like to interview a movie star?" he asked, "Sally Forrest is available this afternoon. Can you be at the Willard Hotel at 2?"
"Of course," I said. I knew Sally Forrest. I had seen her star in "Not Wanted," the story of a young, unmarried mother. Miss Forrest was a protege of one of my mother's favorites, Ida Lupino.
Miss Forrest was more petite in person than she appeared on the screen. She was warm and gracious and treated me as if I were a seasoned professional. I had prepared some questions for her and she responded thoughtfully as I jotted my notes in a steno book.
As soon as I returned home, I went right to work, writing in longhand. The next day, I turned in my story. By this time, Mr. Perper was "Marv." "This is good," he said, and put the story on top of a pile of papers.
The article appeared Sunday, July 8, 1951. My first byline. And with a photo. (I was so excited during the interview that I didn't even remember that someone had taken a picture.) I have saved a copy of the photo and the article in a scrapbook all these years, and Miss Forrest's last comment is as apt today, 53 years later, as it was then.
When asked what advice she would give a movie-struck teen, she replied, "Join amateur groups and work to learn."
Frances Bran Feldman
Discovering Her Roots
My wife, Lida, who grew up in Poland, decided to return and visit her cousins, whom she had last seen 41 years ago. Our son, Andrew, and I accompanied her in May to the small town of Kietrz (pronounced "catch") in Silesia near the border with the Czech Republic. It was wonderful to relax in a small town and the slower-paced countryside after touring the churches and museums of the major cities.
The town of Kietrz, with about 1,000 people, seems to have remained in a time capsule over the past four decades. Although there are cars and tractors instead of horse-drawn wagons and plows, daily life in Kietrz retains the feel of a bygone era. People walk everywhere and buy fresh bread each day. On Sundays, after church, they visit the cemetery to place new candles and fresh flowers on the ornate graves of their loved ones. A short walk in any direction leads to cultivated fields enhanced by the glorious sight of golden canola-seed plants blooming in the summer sun.
My wife's cousins still live in the same house in which she grew up. They now use propane instead of coal for cooking, have a television and recently got a telephone. But they still rely on a bicycle for transportation and utilize an outhouse in the back yard. The outhouse was an interesting experience for our son, who grew up in the Washington suburbs.
We were feted at a combination welcoming/birthday party. My wife and one of her cousins were born just a month apart. There was good food, a cake and lots of vodka. After a half-dozen toasts of "na zdrowie!" ("to your health"), followed by a shot of vodka each time, our hosts took pity on my son and me and let us withdraw from the liquid celebration.
Another evening we had a very good pizza and beer for dinner. It's best to stick with basic Polish foods, though, such as pirogi and kielbasa. I ordered a hamburger at a rest stop on the highway, and it came with red cabbage and mayonnaise on top.
Each evening and morning we walked a mile to and from our hotel to the cousins' house. The hotel had no desk clerk; actually there was no staff. We had a key to the front door and locked ourselves in for the night.
The Poles are a rather somber people, not given to smiling in public and rather fatalistic. My wife's cousin said that with his luck, if he went into a wooden church, a brick would probably fall on his head. As for Polish humor, we were told because of car thefts, German tourists are urged to visit Poland -- because their cars are already there.
We loved visiting Warsaw, Czestochowa and Krakow, but Kietrz made our visit to Poland truly come alive. My wife renewed her connection with her cousins and childhood friends, and my son and I gained an appreciation of the early years in her life.
Donald G. Miller
The year was 1939. To be specific, it was the magical summer of 1939.
I recently came across a precious memento that brought to mind a flood of memories associated with my childhood. It was a little green "Heinz pickle" pin.
Anyone looking at it would just see a pin in the shape of a pickle. I can visualize the summer of the World's Fair in New York. Two structures were erected, the Trylon (a tall, three-sided spire) and the Perisphere (a huge globe). The theme was the "World of Tomorrow." The very first television sets with five-inch screens were displayed. What a miracle this was to all of us! A magical door to our future had opened that summer.
I also shared a very special moment with my dad, watching the breathtaking fireworks display perched on his shoulders. Just thinking about that summer takes me on a mystical walk down memory lane. I'm sure it does the same for all my "young-at-heart" friends and family.
Taking a Stand
Like many native Washingtonians, my early summers did not include blessed air conditioning. Our Bethesda home and family car -- there was only one -- were mini-ovens fueled by the temperatures and famous humidity of a D.C. summer. We flung open all the windows and even put light-colored covers on the furniture to make us feel cooler, but who were we kidding? It was hot.
The only respite for my brother and me was an occasional dip at the public swimming pool at Chevy Chase Lake, and one summer day our mother drove up East West Highway, made a left on Connecticut Avenue and dropped us at the pool. My brother was three years older, so he was entrusted with the admission fee and instructions that she would return several hours later. Mom drove off and, as a dutiful little sister, I tagged along as he got in line to pay.
I paid little attention as we inched forward and finally were next in line. Just when I expected him to hand over the money, my brother turned, grabbed my arm and walked me away from the pool. I asked if we were going to go swimming and he said, "No."
Now I was little, but even I demanded an explanation of why we were going to fry on the corner for three hours even though we were in reach of cool, clear heaven. My brother explained that the manager had denied entry to the kids directly in front of us in line because they were "Negroes." He said it was unfair, and if they were not allowed to swim then we were not going to give the pool our money.
Sometimes we do not recognize our life-altering moments until much later. That day I was hot and mostly wondering what Mom would say about us not following her directions. The civil rights movement developed throughout the decade, but our introduction to equality actually occurred on one significant summer day when my brother had the courage to say no.
A Family Affair
A school-closing snowstorm in January 1996 created the opportunity to plan a wondrous, memorable cross-country trek in August of that year for five neighborhood families. Ten adults and 11 kids spent almost two weeks together on the north rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona and in Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks in Utah, and we returned enriched by our friendships. We still marvel at that high point in our lives where we made the commitment to each other to share our summer vacation, share our children, share the beauty of our national parks and forever share our memories.
In all the years since our trip, I have never met another family that could imagine getting along well enough with four other families for such a long time -- and thoroughly enjoy every moment. We were so successful because we initially established two rules:
* Each family would make its own travel, cabin and car-rental arrangements, with the rendezvous being the lobby of the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas.
* No child swapping -- each family traveled in its own car, slept in its own cabin and ate dinner at its own table (in actuality, we traveled together everywhere, ate at the same restaurant lodges and slept in nearby cabins).
We quickly went food shopping on the first day and traveled with coolers so we could make our own breakfasts and lunches and have plenty of available drinks and snacks.
The kids played tag, cards, hide-and-seek and many other old-fashioned games from morning till night while the adults relaxed. Together, we hiked the Grand Canyon, tubed and swam in the Colorado River, rafted along Zion's Virgin River, rode trail horses down Bryce's very narrow canyon path, learned from park-ranger programs, marveled at the evening stars, celebrated two kids' birthdays and had a "paper plate" award ceremony created by the teenagers on one of our last nights ("Most Inappropriate Footwear" was awarded to my daughter).
To this day, each family laughs at its own funniest story, and each family proudly hangs its favorite group picture in an honored spot in its home. We still try to eke out time to gather together, but one family moved away, some of the kids are now in college, and some of us are just too busy to carve out 12 days in August.
Now, every time it snows and schools are closed, I think of the evening in 1996 when one of us (no one can remember who) said, "How about it?" And we did.
Seeing the Light
My oldest daughter, Heidi, took me to Europe last August because she knew I wanted to go and because I have cancer. Her young sons went with us.
We were staying overnight in a Belgian inn built in 1654. My roommate for the night was my oldest grandson, Alex. About 4 a.m., we both woke and were cold. I said, "Alex, you close the skylight [probably added after 1654], and I'll look for an extra blanket." Alex climbed up on the desk to close the skylight, looked out and said, "Oh neat, Granny Di!"
"What?" I asked.
"A flashing light shaped like a U," answered Alex.
"Oh, Alex, you're seeing the aurora borealis!" I guessed from the description. There was no way I was going to climb on the desk. I'm 66 and he's 10. And, although I've lost some weight thanks to cancer, I still outweigh him considerably.
Of course he asked, "What's the aurora borealis?"
The best I could do was to say, "It has something to do with the sun and the atmosphere, but we'll ask Grandpa Mark [who teaches science] when we get home."
I will always remember fondly the awe and surprise in his voice.
There's working hard and then there's working smart. When you're between academic years in college, you work hard. At least that was my experience in the summer of '78. My parents had taken out a second mortgage to finance my college education. The least I could do was work that summer. The goal was to acquire as much cash as possible so I could help pay expenses in the fall. And work I did.
From 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, I worked as a camp counselor for a day camp in Vienna. The job was ideal in one important way -- I drove a bus route on the way to and from camp so I didn't need a ride to work. Since I had to compete with two parents and an older brother for the use of two cars that summer, this was a major job benefit. In addition, I scoured the Northern Virginia suburbs for a nighttime waitressing job. I found one at Farrell's Ice Cream Parlor at Springfield Mall. I worked there three nights a week.
There were days when I felt pretty tired after dropping off the kids on my route (one child literally bounced up and down on his seat the entire ride home every day). After all, running around with a co-counselor and 25 10-year-old boys for eight hours could be taxing. If I was waitressing that night, I'd come home, shower, change and head to Farrell's for the evening shift (6-10 p.m.). I'd actually use the family car for this, which wasn't difficult since most of my family worked days only. These were the smart workers of the family.
At Farrell's, there was plenty of noise, mayhem and customer traffic. People came in for extraordinary ice cream creations. However, it wasn't just a waitressing job -- it was a performance waitressing job. This means that when someone ordered an extraordinary dessert, the waitstaff would ring a bell and spout out a description of what the dessert was to the entire restaurant, then deliver it to the customer's table. I remember memorizing 15 dessert descriptions and then feeling slightly nauseous at first when someone would actually order one. "Yes, ma'am, a Gibson Girl." "Yes, sir, a Pig's Trough on the way." Ugh.
Of course, it got easier. The adventure part of this story is that I learned a lot about character that summer. I learned about kids, driving a bus route, showering quickly, ignoring foot and leg pain, performance waitressing and accepting lousy tips gracefully (ice cream orders don't add up to much). I saved $900 that summer.
When I thought of returning to college that fall, I was motivated to get that degree. I knew I could do the hard work, but could I do the "smart" work? Twenty-six years later, I can look back and say, "Yes! It can be done -- separately and at the same time!" [Atkin is now vice president of Van Cleave and Associates, an environmental and crisis management company.]