Several weeks ago, I asked readers to share their recollections of the muggy months of June, July and August.
Growing up, how was the boredom of a long, hot South Carolina summer beaten?
When the only “air conditioning” was an attic fan pulling tepid air through opened bedroom windows at night. When fathers donned their felt fedoras and lit out for offices first thing in the morning. When mothers served cereal for breakfast and blithely reminded their barefooted children to “be careful” as they departed out the back door, bound for whatever adventures they could cook up.
Mothers. To my way of thinking, they – like the lack of air conditioning – had everything to do with the way old-school summers were. Not because they hovered over us. Nor because they felt the need to keep us occupied - organizing play dates or other activities meant to improve our chances on the sporting field or in the academic arena.
But, in fact, because many of them did just the opposite. Just ask Jim McLaurin, an old newspaper colleague of mine.
“My mama had the best plan for my summers: ‘Be home before dark.’ ”
And my mama rang a bell by the back door when she was ready for me to come home.
And later in the evening, Dale Bailes’ mama worked at a sewing machine while he lay on the cool linoleum floor. Bailes wrote a poem about those long, languid summers growing up in Aiken.
WHAT I DID THAT SUMMER
Licked blackberry juice
from my chin.
Looked at a cloud.
Heard the blackbird wing
whir. Walked rusty railroad tracks
home. Sprawled on cool
to my mother’s sleepy voice
and the flicking needle
of her sewing machine.
What did you do?
Well, Dale, growing up in the early 1960s in Columbia, my neighborhood buddies and I swam for hours and hours in a murky, green pond that spread out like a milk spill at the bottom of a hill in our backyard.
We rode our bicycles back and forth to the Forest Lake Shopping Center where we rifled through trash cans, looking for blue and red ICEE cups that had diamond-shaped coupons printed on them. Enough coupons got you a free ICEE.
We built forts, even creating one in the dank, dark crawl space of an unsuspecting neighbor’s home.
Like I say, we did a lot.
And so did so many other people.
Here are their stories. Enjoy.
Anne Stern Solomon: “I was 8 years old when my family moved to our home on Marion Street. Air conditioning was unheard of in the 1930s. The summers were different. In the evening, my sisters and our neighborhood friends would crowd onto and around our front porch swing. It was dark and quiet. Their favorite story, which I made up and was different every time, was titled, ‘The Lost Arm.’ A neighbor who worked for the railroad crushed his arm while trying to draw two box cars together. According to my story, he died. Every night he would walk back and forth in the street wailing, ‘I want my arm. Where is my arm? Bring back my arm.’ Their eyes were wide-eyed with fear and soon they all made excuses to run home as fast as their legs could carry them.”
Paul Banner: “As a young man raised in St. George, South Carolina, summer showers were always an exciting time for me and my friends. The afternoon showers were frequent. They came and went very quickly, leaving large amounts of water on the curbs, rushing to the nearest street drain. We would use small pieces of wood and drive a stick or nail in the center to support a sail made of paper for the final touches on our handmade boats. Launching the boats in the rushing water was fun, but you had to be alert because your boat would also be rushing to the nearest drain.”
Jackie Perrone: “When a putt-putt golf course opened up near our home in Forest Acres, for two weeks my children blew their entire allowances playing the game. The third week, they were pretty tired of being broke and decided there must be a better way. On a vacant lot nearby, they spent most of their summer building their own putt-putt course, using tin cans, piles of bricks, mud castles and other debris to create obstacles. A lot more fun than the expensive commercial course. They did not know they were building character as well.”
Carol James: “Taking our shoes off for the summer meant that we only had to wear them for church. We used any available stick to draw boxes in the dirt for games of hopscotch. Different colors of broken glass served as our markers. As you might guess, those same pieces of broken glass were stepped on later with bare feet, causing cuts that were seen as badges of honor … Spider webs were placed on the cuts to promote healing. We also played a jump rope game called ‘Hot Peas,’ where the rope was turned slowly at first, then turned really fast when the words ‘hot peas’ were yelled. Your bare feet would burn from the rope if you didn’t jump fast enough.”
Carl Shirley: “I refer you to Maya Angelou’s autobiography, ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.’ She writes, ‘Weekdays revolved on a sameness wheel. They turned into themselves so steadily and inevitably that each seemed to be the original of yesterday’s rough draft.’ She is writing about the 1930s, but the 1940s were not much different. We played. We invented games. Marbles in the dirt streets of Moss Avenue, croquet in the front yard, baseball in the lot by the Lutheran church nearby. We also played mumbly peg, something forbidden now. Back then, every young boy carried a pocket knife.”
Brenda Byrd: “I have so many stories of growing up on Glenhaven Drive. We often organized elaborate (in our minds) variety shows on our large front porch. We delivered handwritten invitations to the neighbors, rigged back drops and record players…We all had either treehouses or play houses or both, though the brothers went to great lengths to keep us out of the tree houses with large dead toads on the stairs, pine cone bombs and sometimes even hickory nuts. We caught and raced box turtles. The older boys made go carts that we raced down Whispering Pines Hill. We played kickball, football and dodge ball. We played sing-song type games, hand-slapping games, Blind Man’s Bluff and of course, Hide and Go Seek, Red Light-Green Light and Mother May I. We rode bikes and even made hobo picnics, our lunches all tied up in a bandanna on the end of a long stick.”
Carol Ragon: “Summertime in 1958 in Madison, North Carolina, when I was 10 years old, meant freedom to safely roam and play without too much supervision. The days were filled with friends coming to play and cousins visiting. I had a crush on one visiting cousin, who let me hold his June bug to tie a string on his leg and let him fly around … Exploring an abandoned house with a friend instilled in me a belief in ghosts, as we both swore we heard someone groan while we were exploring the house … The small town we lived in was like Mayberry and we lived right behind Main Street. On sweltering days we spent the day at the library, getting lost in reading books …We did not know what air conditioning was and the soothing drone of the attic fan kept us cool.”
Hastings Hensel: “I know there were swimming pools and backyard hoses and neighborhood creeks and nearby lakes in which we cooled off, but when I think about what I did when it got really hot, I think of that one summer when we went underground, into the storm drains. And I think about how the Columbia heat brings with it those sudden afternoon thunderstorms, and so I begin thinking about that August day when the five of us got washed underground all the way from the Carolina Arboretum to the Lizard’s Thicket on Beltline.”
Fairey Belle Logan: “As a child growing up in the little town of Elloree, South Carolina, our grandmother entertained us with something I will never forget … She took a shoe box and made it into a ‘trolley car.’ She cut several windows alongside each side of the box. Inside the box, under the large lid opening, she secured a candle. When darkness came, all of us had a ‘parade’ of lighted trolleys, pulling them down the dark sidewalks. It was a sight to behold. I can still hear the sound of sliding boxes on the cement sidewalks and see the glowing trolleys in my 73-year-old ‘mind’s eye’. And I smile.”
Blanche Bryan: “When I was a girl (I am 89 years old), my favorite summer pastime was playing with my paper dolls. Every Sunday the newspaper had a column entitled ‘TILLIE THE TOILER’ which was a new paper doll that I cut out and added to my collection. I drew and cut out bathing suits, Sunday church outfits and evening dresses to enhance their wardrobes. My best friend lived next door. Sometimes she brought her collection over and we dressed our paper dolls to go to a pretend wedding or birthday party. It was great fun.”
Beth Hook Bolton and Sallie Hook Boggs: “For the 25-plus children who lived on or near the 2900 block of Duncan Street from the 1940s through the 1960s, summers seemed to last forever, and outside play was de rigueur. There was always someone to play with, and always something to play. We spent hours skating (and skinning our knees) and riding our bikes, which were well-equipped with bulb horns, reflectors, ringer bells, baskets, lights and playing cards that made a distinctive clackety-clack against the spinning spokes. In our front yards, we played Red Rover, Kick the Can, Mother May I, and Four Corners. In the backyard, we played basketball, tether ball, and croquet. We staged plays by draping a blanket over our swing set and pretended to be little adults in our playhouse. Our driveway was perfect for hopscotch and marbles, and at night, we played tag and caught lightning bugs in jars.”
Anonymous: “When I was growing up in Laurel Bay, South Carolina, just outside of Beaufort, my brother and I bonded with a couple of kids down the street named Doolittle. We started a club called the Adventure Boys. We built a tree house in a rather large live oak tree near our house, as part of our organization’s meeting facilities. We also roamed a vast expanse of approximately 3,500 acres of undeveloped land behind our house. We caught and tamed a raccoon that we named Ricky. He and our pet collie, Missy, would follow us on our hikes through the woods. We had tests of courage, and we hunted poisonous snakes.”
Kathy Hawkins: “When I was growing up in Rock Hill, South Carolina in the 1950s, imagination was the big key to having fun. My girlfriends and I always loved to have a tea party. We would take two metal yard chairs, put them together just so, and put a sheet on top to make a house. We put down a bedspread underneath the chairs and placed our baby dolls in the middle alongside my pretty tea set. We talked to our dolls just like they were real … My mother worked so my grandmother lived with us. She would make ‘popeyes’ and bring them out for us to eat at our tea party. Popeyes were heated saltine crackers spread with peanut butter and melted marsh mellows on top. They were so good. We always used a small Coca-Cola in the green bottle as our tea.”
Rod Dalton: “I’m part of that generation that when you left the house in the morning, your mom had to holler for you to come home in the evening. We had a big ugly clay field behind our neighborhood. We found an old piece of metal fence and loaded rocks on top of it. We then pulled it to form a racetrack for our bikes. This could be an oval or a figure eight. We used model car paint to paint numbers on our bikes. Mine was 22. Fireball Roberts. After a race, if the back fender of your bike still had a reflector, you were a sissy because that’s the first thing that usually got knocked off the bike…We hiked the creeks looking for arrowheads and would discover a vine growing in a tree. We all carried pocketknives, so we’d cut the vine and play Tarzan …When we got real bored, we’d lay on the warm pavement under the streetlights at night and watch the bats. Every once in a while, somebody would stand up and throw a rock. We’d all laugh when the bat chased the stone, sensing it was a meal. And then, the fogger truck would round the corner spraying for mosquitoes, so we would race to our bikes and ride in the clouds of God only knows what, but we lived to fight another day!”
Anne Jameson: “During my childhood in the 1960s, the South was for me a dream. I grew up way north in a town called Binghamton, New York…Occasionally on a hot summer night, we were allowed to stay outside for an hour after dark, because without air conditioning, it was stifling on the second floor of a two-story home. It was on one of these nights when the oldest and more ‘worldly’ of our bunch had flashed a package of firecrackers! What would we do with them? We made them last the entire summer by lighting just one a week. First, the porch of the lady who disliked children, then the middle of the street by the bravest of the bunch who actually threw it from his bedroom window.”
Harriet Lancaster Hutto: “Growing up in Providence (a rural community near Holly Hill, South Carolina), my sister (Marilyn), my brother (Walter) and I were each other’s playmates…There were several Chinaberry trees in our backyard, but we all chose to climb the same one. However, the three of us had our own limb in the tree, and we did not cross to the other person’s perch without invitation … Our dad made stilts from tin cans for us. He would punch two holes in the bottom of each can, thread a long piece of twine from the inside of one hole, upward, measuring the length each child needed to hold on to the twine …then it went back down from there back through the bottom of the can. Both ends of the cord were knotted securely inside the can. We could put our feet on these cans, hold onto the cord and walk about the yard.”
Jim Kelly: “I have lived in Columbia all my life. Growing up in the 1940s, the war years werequite different. You couldn’t buy a bicycle. Bubble gum was not to be found. Cap guns were non-existent, much less the caps that caused them to fire. So, we had to make do … Because of the war, any kind of ball was hard to come by. We had to make our own. We would take bobbins that had been discarded from the spinning room at the (Grandby) mill when the thread got below a certain amount on the bobbin. Taking the thread from multiple bobbins, we would wind the thread around a small wad of paper until it was the size of a baseball, then wrap it in tape to keep the thread form from unraveling. That was our baseball. We also would make a ball about the size of a volleyball. This took days with lots of kids winding thread. Once finished, we would soak the ball in kerosene which we would steal from our mothers’ kerosene cook stoves. At night, we would set the ball on fire and play dodge ball with the flaming orb.”
Ruth Varner: “Memories of childhood summers were focused on keeping cool without air conditioning. Box fans whirred all over the house to keep the air moving. We ate on the screen porch and hoped for a breeze. A makeshift pool in the backyard consisted of a piece of canvas draped over a metal frame and filled with water from the garden hose. We loved our swimming pool! We strained our ears for the bell of the ice cream truck…At night, we tossed an old bedspread over a rope between two trees and made a sleeping tent. Fat June bugs crept in and shared our tents but we stoically held our ground.”
Zoe Ann Cerny: “Summertime in Columbia during the early 1950s was spent mostly playing outside or on covered porches … Somehow back then when we were in grade school, we never noticed the heat and no one had air conditioning. We scared ourselves silly throwing pine cones at bats when it got dark and then running home when ‘The Shadow Knows’ came on the radio. The rule was to be home by the time the street lights came on. Sometimes we went swimming at the lake at Fort Jackson.”
Sherry Fasano: “Grandmama and Grandaddy’s white frame house sprawled between two hay pastures bordered by thick pine woods in the Sandhills of South Carolina … My cousins and I spent most of our summers at that old house. And we never grew bored. Under shade trees in the backyard, we played the warm afternoons away, following our older cousin, Tim, as if he were the Pied Piper. He taught us how to doodle for doodle bugs in the ground under the eaves of Grandaddy’s garage, where little funnel-shaped holes dotted the powdery grey sand. We dug our bare toes into the sand and stuck broom straw into the holes, chanting: ‘Doodle bug, doodle bug, fly away home, your house is on fire and your children are alone.’ ”
Keith Bradsher: “I was bound and determined to be a major league baseball player … My development began in backyards, playgrounds and open fields…We would select teams and play all day. Sometimes that meant three on three, four on four, and if we had enough kids, we would expand to five on five. Games would go on forever. I cannot tell you the times I would leave my home in the morning and play baseball all day with the only break being a quick trip home for lunch. My mom never worried about where I was or what I was doing. That in itself describes how that time was different than the one we live in now.”
Bessie Clark: “Having grown up in the country in the 1940s and 1950s, it was summer time to pick butterbeans, tomatoes or any other vegetable Daddy had grown. It was time for Mama and her sister to can anything that didn’t move in that steamy hot kitchen. It was a time to visit aunts and uncles and to play outside until dark and then catch lightning bugs in a jar.”
Salley McAden McInerney is a local writer whose novel, Journey Proud, is based upon growing up in Columbia in the 1960s. Ms. McInerney may be reached by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.