It’s summer in Georgia, where saunas are free. All you have to do is step outside to learn the true definition of “sweltering.”
Yes, you know it’s summertime in the Southland when the heat, humidity, and mosquitos rise to unbearable levels. Thank God for Willis Carrier! (Inventor of the first electrical air conditioner in 1902.)
Yet, growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, when air-conditioned homes were not the norm, I recall long, hot summers as times of play, family reunions, and spending weeks at my grandmother’s house.
The summer of 1961 found me joining my cousin John for a week at our grandmother Dado’s house. Her name was Anita, but her family called her Dado (pronounced Day-doe). Nicknames were common in my family. My dad, Stewart, was called Uncle June by my cousins — but that’s another story.
I was ten years old in 1961, having just finished the fourth grade at Toney Elementary School in Decatur, Georgia. Though my primary adolescent concerns centered on my baseball card collection and playing shortstop for the Longdale Little League Yankees, I was keenly aware of world events. A President named Kennedy was in his first year of office, and Americans were all in a tither that the Russians had put the first man in space. More importantly to this ten-year-old, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris were locked into a battle to break Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record of 60, set back in 1927. Ten-year-olds had their priorities.
And there was my summer vacation. My family was decidedly middle-class, though, in hindsight, lower middle-class might be a better description. We lived in a two-bedroom house without air-conditioning in an Atlanta suburb. We took few family vacations, so for this first-born son, a week at grandma’s house was an adventure. For seven hot days of summer, cousin John and I played and explored the country home and grounds of our beloved family matriarch. We tasted the sweet nectar of honeysuckle from the flowers around her 19th-century home. We grabbed a few scuppernongs from her muscadine arbor, and explored the acreage for maypops to stomp and hear them “pop.” We climbed up the big tree in her backyard until she yelled at us to get down before we killed ourselves.
At night, all windows were left open. Screens kept the “skeeters” outside, allowing the cool morning breezes inside. Summers in the South had their own musical backdrop. The relentless, high-pitched buzzing sounds of cicadas call to mind summers of sizzle where the boredom of adolescent boys prompted creative ways to spend our time.
We loved to explore the old chicken coop behind Dado’s house. The structure’s gray weathered wood frame, corroded hinges, and leaky roof gave witness to it having long been abandoned as a home for chickens. A quick peek inside revealed its current function as a repository for discarded dishes, rusty tools, and broken never-to-be-mended household items. Each time we stepped inside the dimly-lit cluttered, cobwebbed interior, we spotted some new piece of a bygone time. Ironically, ten years later, I would bring my girlfriend to meet my grandmother, and in that same old woodshed, we found a broken-down rocker that Dado allowed us to take home. That rocker would become the throne of a mother’s grace as we rocked all five of our children in that chicken-coop rocking chair.
Precious memories, how they linger.
When our boredom became too obvious, or maybe, just to get us out of her hair for an hour, Dado would give John and me a couple of dimes and tell us to walk down the road to a local store and get a soft drink and a candy bar. Dado lived on Highway 11, which connected Winder to Jefferson. This lonely stretch of roadway was still decades away from any subdivision growth. In 1961, it was but a ribbon of asphalt through Georgia farmland. The nearest store was a mile away. Hey, it was 1961. Grandmas let ten-year-olds do things that might shock modern-day matriarchs. Walking a mile down a highway on a hot July day was just another adventure for John and me.
With sidewalks non-existent on country roads, John and I did what any other ten-year-olds would do — we walked down the middle of the road, treating the white centerline as if it was a mile-long tightrope to be traversed. The droning whine of the cicadas served as background noise for an otherwise quiet, steamy stroll down the centerline of a Georgia road. We were mesmerized by the shimmering mirage of heat hovering over the asphalt. Traffic was so infrequent that we could hear the roar of an approaching vehicle from a mile away, giving us ample time to scramble to the grassy right-of-way.
Once we arrived at our destination, having worked up a powerful thirst, we first opened the top of a giant cooler where you had to slide the glass bottle from the rack inside, then use the opener on the front of the cooler to remove the metal cap. Coca-Cola was the drink of choice though occasionally, I’d sip on a Nehi Orange or Grape soda.
Once our treats had been devoured, we placed our empty glass bottles in a wooden crate and made the mile-long trek back to Dado’s house. Any sugar highs quickly dissipated through our sweat-drenched clothes. By the time we got back to Dado’s house, we were ready for a nap — which I now suspect was Dado’s plan all along.
Grandmothers can be sneaky, especially on hot summer days.