Remember that oldie by Nat King Cole from the summer of ’63? If you do, welcome to old age and childhood memories, some of them which still shine as bright as the late June sun for me and, I’m sure, many of you. We’re just a week past the Summer Solstice, the official first day of summer and the longest day of the year. So, saddle up and join me for a trip down the memory lane of summer.
My earliest summer recollection is of the time that my lifelong friend, Hollye Waters (Reid) and I got into a tussle over a beach ball I didn’t want to share with her. Her mom and dad, and my mom and dad, were vacationing together here in Fernandina Beach that summer. Despite Hollye’s demands and pleading, I wouldn’t let her play with the ball. So she took it from me and bit a hole in it. I bawled as it deflated. Hollye laughed maniacally. I think we were five.
Decades later, she gifted me with a new beach ball at a high school reunion.
Summers at my Granny Tanner’s house in Alma, Georgia also play into my summer recollections of childhood. In addition to being a great cook – she could make a dead man hungry with her biscuits and gravy – Granny Tanner also loved to fish. She had lots of friends around the county who had small ponds stocked with bream, blue gills, bass and catfish. I remember her in her fishing attire, which always featured a big, floppy straw hat, hauling me into the bait shop for worms or crickets.
We always fished from a small jonboat my Granddaddy made. I never went fishing with her when we didn’t come home with a mess of fish. Followed by a feast of fried fish and hushpuppies that evening. The patron saint of fishermen and women is St. Betty of Tanner. I frequently invoke her when the bite is off. She’s never let me down.
My fun Aunt Linda lived next door to Granny. Less than ten years older than me, she always seemed more like a big sister or cousin than an aunt. Never bossy or “adulty,” she was tons of fun to hang out with. I spent summers with her because I worked in the tobacco fields during the harvest when we carried green tobacco to be flue cured in the barns. Got big money for doing it, too – ten dollars a day! A king’s ransom for a 15-year-old boy back then.
Aunt Linda was divorced and sometimes wanted a night out with her friends so I babysat my two little cousins, David and Eric. I confess to my friends and I sampling the liquor in her cabinet and to swiping a few beers from the fridge. One night, we got drunk with purloined whiskey mixed with cold Gatorade. If Aunt Linda noticed, nothing was said.
A few of the best friends I ever had lived in Granny’s neighborhood. In the novel I’m writing now, I give them new names and vague them up a bit to tell a story about found and lost friendships. Our summers together were the things magic is made of and I frequently think about two of them, in particular. One of them died of Covid two years ago. I miss him.
Summertime also meant vacations to Fernandina Beach, where I live now. Back then, so many people from my hometown of Waycross, Georgia, owned beach cottages here that Fernandina was referred to as the Waycross Riviera and Waycross-by-the Sea. You could literally spend an entire summer here by couch surfing from one friend’s house to another whose moms and dads had cottages here.
In my mind, the long gone Pavilion with its Blue Seas diner, skating rink and trampoline park still exist, even though Hurricane Dora dealt them a deadly blow in 1964. Those were the salad days of this little beach town before it got “discovered” and all the resorts and snooty, demanding tourists came in to uglify the place and spoil its natural beauty and ambience.
Summers were for the special friendships you forged with other kids who were beach vacationing or staying with their own grandparents and aunties. A Columbia, South Carolina girl named Karen and I became besties for a week in the summer of 1969 when we were 15-years-old. On July 16, we sat in the living room of her auntie’s beach cottage, next door to the one we’d rented for the week, eating potato chips and drinking Coca-Cola watching, gobsmacked, in front of the black and white tv, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong walk on the moon.
Tommy James and the Shondells’ hit, Mony, Mony and Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline got the most airplay on the Big Ape out of Jacksonville that week. Before the week was halfway through, we’d memorized the lyrics to both. All these years later, Karen and I are still buddies.
Summer was mowing lawns for a dollar and coming home with your feet and legs stained green and a pocket full of candy you bought at the store with your pay. Summers were boiled peanuts, hand cranked ice cream and icy-cold watermelon. My Granddaddy once bought Granny an electric ice cream churn and she made him take it back to the store. Back then, at least, an electric churn couldn’t beat a churn full of hand cranked ice cream. Granny added the blackberries we picked in the fields or strawberries from the garden to hers. One day, she added a heaping helping of huckleberries we picked in the pine-scented woods.
Summer was playing outdoors after the street lights came on. We caught the June bugs and mole crickets attracted to the lights and went fishing with them the next day. A big blue gill cannot say no to a properly presented mole cricket. We went swimming in the tannin-stained black water of the Satilla River – sometimes sans clothing.
We fashioned rope swings overhanging the river in fragrant cypress trees and cannonballed into the water when the swing, pushed by our buddies, reached its zenith above the chilly water. We camped out on sugar-white sandbars in the middle of the river and stayed up all night gorging on hotdogs grilled over pieces of wood we gathered along the riverbanks, and telling tall tales and ghost stories. And in the morning, awoke with faces blackened by the soot from the campfire.
Come August, we reluctantly began going to the department stores with our moms to stock up on school supplies and clothing for the new school year that started after Labor Day. But summer was never far from our thoughts and, throughout the doldrums of winter and the pedantic lecturing by our teachers, we kept our minds focused on the most important thing – the carefree days of the next summer.
Those lazy, hazy, crazy days where we were the masters of our own fate and impending adulthood was only some vague concept, never to be taken at face value.