The Fourth of July has come and gone, and I can almost hear my old river-rat friend sighing, “Well, boys, summer’s almost gone now.’’
I’ve known the guy for something like 45 years, and he’s been saying the same thing year after year. It isn’t really July until he says it. His saying is as dependable as the Fourth itself. It’s as dependable as the one my dad used. Whenever we’d see a dead cow in somebody’s pasture, Dad would tell the story about the farmer who saw his milk cow lying dead on the grass. “Funny,’’ the farmer said, “she never did that before.’’ I’d laugh every time my dad told the story, even though I knew what was coming.
But back to my friend. Way back when, it didn’t make much sense when he said that thing about the approaching end of summer. In those early, younger days, Fourth of July meant summer had just shifted into road gear. He and I and our families and another family still had two months of boating after the Fourth. In those days, with our kids still young, we’d be on the water for the first time in the spring no later than Mother’s Day, sometimes before. I’m not going to lie to you. The water still was pretty chilly some years when we hit the beaches early in May. We’d go, anyway. It was a tradition.
And we kept hitting the beaches nearly every weekend until well after Labor Day. Often we’d gather for a couple of hours in the evening after an early supper, because the first couple of weeks of September still offered bath-tub warm water and soft setting suns.
It was only in our later years that the first spring weekend on the water came later and later and the last summer beach weekend came sooner and sooner. This year I messed around, and so did the weather. I didn’t get my boat in the river until the middle of June. I’ll be mildly surprised – not shocked, mind you, but mildly surprised – if I’m still on the water when Labor Day arrives. I still enjoy the river. I just have less motivation to actually be out there. Some people would say I’m lazy. I prefer to think the memories I’ve already made are so incredible that I don’t need to keep trying to improve on them.
I recall years on the farm when, like my early years on the river, Fourth of July would come and go and I’d never once think summer was nearing its end. Gosh, when the Fourth arrived at our farm, we were just wrapping up the first cutting and stacking of alfalfa, getting in a round of cultivating the corn and going over the windrower and combines so they’d be ready for the harvest ahead. Far from the summer season winding down, in those days it was just getting to the heart of the matter.
Fourth of July back then didn’t measure the passing of summer. It was just a pause for an evening of sparklers and Roman candles and Black Cats and half a dozen rockets. My dad half buried a length of water pipe in the back lawn, stuck the rockets in the pipe one at a time, lit the fuses and moved away while the rocket blazed into the night sky. He never moved away quickly enough to suit my mom, who watched from inside the south door. For her, Fourth of July seemed never-ending, to say nothing of summer itself.
When I thought of summer’s end in those days, I thought of Labor Day weekend. School never started until after that holiday, so it truly was the end of summer. If I’d walked up to my dad the day after the Fourth in those days and said, “Well, sir, summer’s almost gone now,’’ he’d have given me that look he reserved for foolish children – his foolish children in particular.
If you’ve ever done something that made your father wonder what in the world you were thinking, you know the look. It was the one he saved for when he found me and my cousin chasing a badger instead of mowing alfalfa or when he found me and my big brother engaged in a grease-gun fight in the wheat field.
He’d have given the look and then he’d have said, “Summer is just getting started, son, which is what you should be doing right about now.’’