Bobbi and I just completed our first summer in Tucson. Well, I can’t say we weren’t warned – Arizona gets HOT! in the summertime, an understatement if there ever was one. Nonetheless, with low humidity it hasn’t been unbearable, and like people in many places in the South and Southeast, we adjusted our summer lifestyle to the climate, i.e., Bobbi walks the dog earlier than she did when we lived in Vail and I’ve been riding my bike before 8:00 AM – and to be honest about it, it’s really not been that bad; besides, from now until next June we’ll be having our morning cup of coffee and our evening cocktail on our covered patio next to our new pool.
But whether here or in Vail, the summers that are most etched into my memory are those from when I grew up on Chicago’s West Side. To me summer meant, kids running through sprinklers, the guys on the corner wearing “Dago Ts”, mosquitoes big enough to refuel at O’Hare, sitting on the front steps in the early evening, chatting with our next-door neighbors, drinking real lemonade and heat still rising from the pavement at 8:00 PM. Those were the days of Sputnik, hula-hoops and 45 records.
Our family lived in a typical middle-class bungalow on 76th Avenue, in a typical middle-class neighborhood. The front door to our home led directly into our living room that opened to the dining room (used only on holidays) and then into the kitchen, which although small, was where we took our meals.
Every house had a back porch, for what purpose I’ll never know because they were too cold in the winter, and too hot in the summer to be of much use. Primarily back porches were used to store everything from canning jars to old sewing machines to broken bicycles. But it was a good place for kids to scrape the mud off their feet before entering the house from the outside.
The houses in the neighborhood were practically identical except for minor detail and façade variations. Most of the neighbors painted their eves and gutters in two colors allowing for individuality in houses that were stamped out by a cookie cutter. That type of vernacular identity has been lost today.
Most of the homes had a dormer with railroad-style bedrooms ‘upstairs’, which meant that one had to go through one room to get to another. Between each house was a gangway, and for those who don’t know what a gangway is, it’s the walkway between houses, usually about six or seven feet wide that led from the sidewalk in front of the house to the back yard, which led to the alley. Alleys by the way doubled as football stadiums, basketball courts (if one had a hoop attached to the garage) and baseball fields (center field only for obvious reasons.)
We had “supper” at 5:30 and don’t recall when it changed to “dinner,” perhaps around the time that political correctness began kicking in – I really don’t recall. After spending all day with my buddies I’d head home for that supper. Once inside I would take my Little League cap and put in on the spindle of the kitchen chair, open the refrigerator and yell, “Hey Mom, there’s nothing to eat.” At which time I would receive the millions of starving children in China lecture, grab my ballcap and retire to my bedroom.
By today’s standards, my room during the summer was oppressively hot; but I didn’t mind because it afforded privacy. My father never came upstairs because of the stifling heat and Mom came up only during the day to clean—and that was good.
This was my own magical land of baseball, model airplanes, and dreams. Superman comics, baseball cards and or course copies of Boy’s Life were strewn about the room. (If you were a Boy Scout in those days, you know what I’m talking about.) There I spent endless evening hours listening to White Sox games on the radio, drinking Pepsi out of a bottle and snacking on Jay’s potato chips.
My brother and I had twin beds and state-of-the-art out-cranking windows with a fan at each end up the ‘upstairs.’ No homes were air-conditioned, that was for “rich people.” Instead, we had one ten-inch fan in our room blowing hot air in and another ten-inch fan in my sister’s room sucking hot air out—we had to keep the bedroom doors open for cross-ventilation. Our parents told us this was as good as air conditioning.
On the bed-stand we had a cylindrical lamp with a train painted on it. It had a heat-rotating device on the inside, which gave the illusion that the train was moving – not quite the animation we see on today’s computer screens.
But when we closed your eyes and listened to the sound of the fans, we could imagine ourselves anywhere; maybe even inside one of the brand-new Boeing 707s. We didn’t know anyone who actually flew on airplanes, but we could dream. What we did know however was that like the Drifters singing, “Up On The Roof,” we could leave the world behind by just crawling out the window and while sitting on those still warm roof tiles we became masters of our universe.
Would I give up our lovely home here in Tucson to go back? Not a chance! Nevertheless, sometimes I think back about those sticky torpid nights and the roof on the west side of Chicago and can almost hear cacophony of street sounds and smell the old neighborhood, and for a moment I’m wistfully transported back in time wearing a nostalgic smile.
One of the nicest things about getting older is that while we can still create new dreams, we don’t have to forget about the past to do so.