My Best Summer Ever
Metroland writers reach back into the grab-bag of memories and recount their seasons of a lifetime
Letters From a Soldier
In the spring of 1968, my older sister met a young man at a party in Virginia on a visit to our cousin’s. My sister was 16, gorgeous and easily the most popular girl in her suburban New Jersey high school. Jesse David Dillow was 18 or 19; quiet, polite and Southern; and about to enter the Marines.
By the end of the party, David, as he liked to be called, asked my sister if he might write to her during his upcoming tour in Vietnam. My sister probably never expected to hear from him again, but she gave him her address. David’s letters started to arrive before he left the United States, and continued at a brisk pace once he got to Vietnam.
My sister knew almost nothing about him; what little she did know, she had learned from his handwritten letters. Sometime that summer, two boxes of roses arrived at our home in Cherry Hill, N.J.—one for my sister and one for my mother, whom David had never met. He had ordered them from halfway around the world, as an apparent gesture of thanks for the connection our family gave him to his life before Vietnam.
That year had marked the beginning of a period of horrific turmoil in the country. Martin Luther King Jr. had been gunned down in April. Then one morning in June, I saw my mother burst into tears as a broadcast of Senator Bobby Kennedy’s victory speech in the California presidential primary segued into the announcement that he had been shot. A year later, Life magazine would publish the names and photographs of all 242 servicemen killed in one week in Vietnam, an act that would coincide with a turning point in the public’s perception of the war. College campuses would soon erupt in violent protests that would culminate, in May 1970, with the Ohio National Guard killing four students at Kent State University. But in that summer of 1968, the war came to my family through David’s letters, even though none of us really knew him.
My sister sometimes shared parts of the letters with us. I was 10 years old, but I remember her reading his passage about how unsafe it was to sit in a Jeep at intersections in Saigon traffic, because the Vietnamese kids had been known to lob grenades into the open vehicles. But I also knew that my sister was selective as she read David’s letters out loud, even though I was not the kind of child to go through her drawers and read the parts she had omitted from the family’s general consumption.
The letters kept coming—as many as three or four a week—until my sister had about 60 in her dresser drawer. I overheard her telling my mother that the tone of David’s letters had changed, and she worried that he placed more importance on their correspondence than she could return. Her social life that summer revolved around a different boyfriend every week, pool parties and nighttime gatherings in a field where kids listened to music and drank beer that someone had snuck out of their parents’ refrigerator.
And then, toward the end of the summer, right around the time that you couldn’t change the dial on your radio without hearing the Beatle’s “Hey Jude,” the letters stopped. None of us thought that David had simply decided to stop writing, but my sister didn’t even know how to contact his family. One night at dinner, my father said what all of us were thinking: You could find out if he was killed. No, my sister replied, she didn’t want to know. She was not unfeeling, but she was very young, and she could not bear the thought that this sweet kid she had met once might be dead.
Some 25 years later, on a visit to Washington, D.C., a friend took me on a midnight tour of the monuments on the Capitol Mall. At the Vietnam Wall, I found the book of names and turned to the “D’s.”
When I got home, my sister unexpectedly asked if I had visited the Vietnam memorial. And before she could frame the question that I knew was coming, I told her: “I looked, and he’s not there.” That was the first time I had heard her mention David’s name since that long-ago summer.
We never learned what happened to him, but we thought the most likely explanation was an injury that either incapacitated him or made it too difficult for him to resume certain connections in his life once he recovered. I don’t know what my sister did with all those letters; I’ve never asked.
Could we still find out what happened to David? Perhaps, but I think the time to do that is long past, and learning his fate now would probably make us feel no better than it would have in 1968. But my sister and I think about him still, with the hope that whatever made him stop writing, and wherever he is, he is safe.
My best summer ever was the year I was 13. June, July and August 1980 seemed as big as infinity. Though June was swallowed mostly by school, before the year ended I was on my ten-speed and riding. Some days I rode six miles to school, catching a ride home with my dad, who taught there. When the school year was done I rode through the country, past the Tomhannock Reservoir, to my best friend’s.
Riding my ten-speed on country roads that were poorly paved or not paved at all, I never once minded the heat. I had a Columbia Pepsi Spirit I bought at the bottling plant in Menands when I didn’t win the contest. Another girl on my tiny street won, and I was so jealous of her luck. I thought it meant something giant, like I could wish and wish and always be disappointed. That the gods would smile near me but not on me.
My own soda-branded ten-speed felt like a consolation prize, a purchased consolation prize. I picked a boy’s bike because I understood the frames were stronger. By the summer of 1980, I’d had the bike at least a year, maybe two. I was more attached to the freedom it gave me than the lingering sense of failure I felt when I saw the bike’s brand.
That summer, I ditched my family in favor of teenaged wilding. I rode to my friend’s house and met her everywhere in between—at the reservoir, at houses where parents weren’t home. Everything was daytime but cloaked with the sense of escape, because I rarely went exactly where I said I went. If I went to her house we soon left, walking and riding in search of adventure.
What we did was dumb. Almost kissing, almost taking over-the-counter allergy medicine with diet soda—a combo promised to get us high. But none of it felt dumb. I felt strong and secret, all my own. This was what I wanted to do, I told myself as I braved the ride past farms where dogs chased me uphill.
I even loved the fights I had with my sister and my parents. My younger sister and I shared an attic; I had the front half and she had the back. That year I cut her off. She screamed at me once at the top of the stairs, accusing me of a litany of wrongs. “You stink like pot!” she bellowed, but I did not. I stank of independence.
Everything I did was beginning to be mine. Maybe it always had been, but the sense of ownership was new and huge. Eighteen months younger than me, she had always been my pal, but I didn’t want her along anymore. I wanted to fly solo and I glued myself to my friend the way I used to be glued to my sister.
The folly of my choices started to become apparent only at the end of the summer. Labor Day weekend was the Schaghticoke Fair. My friend wanted to browse the men that came to town to run the rides. Think about pawing at them, being pawed, under the metal skeletons of the machines at the midway. I pretended to feel put out by my parents’ limits—I couldn’t stay at the fair after dark. But really, I was relieved. There’s only so much freedom a body can take.
The water was hardly deeper than we were tall, but that didn’t keep us from leaping off the pedestrian bridge over the Turkey River every opportunity we got, which was most evenings during the summer I was 16. The trick was to curl into a ball as soon as you felt your feet hit the water, collapsing into the spongy riverbed and nearly lying flat on the floor before kicking up to the surface. More skill came in deciding when to jump. The bridge ran parallel to a highway overpass, the hum and clatter of traffic momentarily falling silent when you breached the water’s surface, and it wasn’t uncommon for motorists to honk their horns or threaten to call the cops when they saw one of us mounting the railing. So we’d walk to the apex nonchalantly, Noah and Eric and I, just shooting the shit about the summer jobs that had come to fill a season we used to spend at soccer camp, playing video games, and riding our bikes to places we didn’t hesitate to tell our parents about later—suddenly hurdling the railing and stepping out into the air above the river as soon we heard a lull in traffic.
This was the first of many seasons I spent changing the color of walls. I was hired to the townie paint crew at St. Paul’s School, the elite preparatory academy that sat on the rural outskirts of Concord, N.H., and tended to cloister its students from any interaction with the local public school I attended. I’d never been all that conscious of class until my first day on the job, when my slouching team of degenerates, led by our adult supervisors, Tom, a stocky man who spent his free time fusing the front end of Harley Davidsons to the back end of Volkswagen Beetles, and Dick, who was little more than his namesake, sprinted from dorm to dorm with the giddy possession of game-show contestants, scooping up all the high-value artifacts the students had neglected to ship back to the Hamptons, Nantucket or some Arab emirate. Under a bed, I discovered a ’70s sunburst Fender P-Bass with flat-wound strings. All the frets had been filed off the fretboard and I spent the summer teaching myself to play it, believing this was Jaco Pastorious’ original instrument, wondering why anyone would simply cast it aside.
After work, it was just a short bike ride to the bridge, where I’d regale my friends with stories of the day as we kicked off our shoes and started across the bridge for the day’s first jump: Dick ate seven ice cream cones on a dare; Tom showed us how we could clock in nine minutes late and out nine minutes early while still getting paid for a full day’s work; I found a copy of a book called Dharma Bums behind a radiator; John passed out in a dorm room after huffing turpentine and we only discovered him woozy and incoherent because we’d forgotten a ladder and had to turn the van around. At the end of August, a week or so after I’d quit to go on vacation with my family before starting junior year, I ran into John, a college sophomore who played in a progressive metal band, checking Orgazmo out from the Ultimate Video. You’re so lucky you got out when you did, he told me. Everyone was fired the following week. Turns out the anatomically exaggerated thumb-tack mosaics we’d left on one dorm’s bulletin board weren’t appreciated by the maintenance supervisor. I’d come that close to being sacked from the first job I’d ever worked.
I told Noah and Eric all about it at the bridge that evening. And then we jumped.
There’s Always Free Lemonade in Philadelphia
It was the summer of 2008, my last summer as an employee at Metroland. Ask anyone in the editorial room and they will recall my beaming description of that final writers’ conference in Philadelphia. The sun was shining, the people were happy, the booze was free, and most importantly, there were free lemonade stands on ever corner. That lemonade bit might be a slight exaggeration, but only slight: Conveniently placed on the nearest street corner to our hotel and convention center, they were giving out glasses of Alex’s Lemonade and asking for donations to raise money to fight cancer. And in my mind, that was close enough to free lemonade on every corner. You see, it was a mystical summer; I met my wife-to-be earlier that spring and our romance had blossomed. I’d been named Writer of the Year by the New York Press Association. I felt that I was hitting my stride as a writer, and I felt magnificently comfortable in my own skin—i.e., my neuroses were suspiciously missing.
All of this feeling of accomplishment and stability came to a head that summer during the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies Conference in Philadelphia. It was like my last summer camp, the final frat party before graduation, the corporate retreat after a major business success. (I make these comparisons without having experienced any of them.) My companion for this one last hurrah was Chet Hardin, my editor at the time, good friend, accomplice in the news department’s crimes against Albany’s old guard, and general bon vivant.
We arrived at our hotel on a Thursday and inspected our room like two hobos who had just stumbled upon a boxcar full of luxuries. As Chet gazed out the window at the Philly skyline, I initiated my subversive plot. “So we aren’t going to any of this stuff . . . are we?” I asked nonchalantly. This was one of Chet’s first conferences, he was awed, ready to learn. I had been out of town to these AAN gigs a number of times. This felt to me like a chance to unwind. The hotel was swanky, the sun bright and the lemonade ample, and this time I had a possible partner in crime.
But Chet didn’t immediately buy into my plan. “I want to check this out,” he insisted. So I played along. We loped through the halls of the convention center, Chet in his Hawaian shirt and shorts, me in Batman/hobo chic. We hit a seminar on using the freedom of information law. The lecturer built up to his big reveal: “You can FOIL information on dead people,” he said proudly. I snickered. We passed notes. It was done. Chet had been convinced. Now it was time to kick back and enjoy the city. We took a trip to Mixtu for a fine Brazilian brunch, mulled through Macy’s, strolled about sipping lemonade, hit the hotel gym for 15 minutes of grueling cardio and then the sauna.
That night AAN held a welcome party. There was free booze. There were vendors from all over the city letting us sample their culinary delights. Pig on a spit, mussels, lobster, you name it. Drunk and full, we stumbled out to catch one of the double-decker buses to the afterparty.
The next morning we awoke hungover but happy, and headed straight back to the sauna. But we made sure to hurry to lunch, where Seymour Hersh was scheduled to speak.
I waited at a table—we were a little early—and out of nowhere an older gentleman approached me and asked where he should sit. “I’m not really sure,” I said, “I’m not in charge here.” Then I recognized him: It was Hersh. “You look like you are in charge,” he said. I blushed and giggled. What a terrible response. He sat for a few minutes and we made small talk. A completely wasted conversation. But it felt good.
On the train ride back I knew somehow that an era was over. Having been a Metrolander since I graduated college in 2004, I knew it was time to move on. But I had my last hurrah—in some senses my first hurrah, since being a reclusive neurotic does not lend itself to partying. That winter I would take a job with the Gotham Gazette and bid Metroland farewell. It was, obviously, a clean break. And to this day if you visit Philadelphia in the summer, you will find free lemonade stands on every corner.
What’s That Sound?
At the family picnic on Memorial Day, my 5-year-old son, Farrell, suddenly looked up at the sky. He didn’t actually see his proof there, but a smile came to his lips because he was sure he knew what his ears were telling him.
“Daddy, I hear an airplane!”
We were in Chatham, less than a mile from the center of town, where trains still rumble past but never stop at the now-converted station. I had reminded the kids to listen for the sounds of train whistles and metal wheels clattering across the tracks, but the first indication that heavy transportation was passing through was the far-off hum of airplane engines.
Or was it?
A few of us listened with Farrell to the passing airplane. Except the airplane didn’t pass. The hum continued without any perceptible change for longer than it would take an airplane to fly past Chatham into the next county.
Somebody broke it to Farrell. “I think it’s a lawn mower.”
I remember lying on my bed in Pittsfield, Mass., closing my eyes as I listened to neighborhood lawn mowers and imagining I was on Lake George among the motorboats. For several Julys in a row, on the cusp of my teen years, my family vacationed for a week at Lake George, which was, to me, the Best Place on Earth. If I was listening to the lawn-motor serenade in June, it would fill me with anticipation for the coming vacation; if it was August, it would fill me with wistful memories, but also the hope that the seasons would pass quickly and it would be almost July again.
My best summer ever was really about three or four summers that are now forever jumbled in my mind; I couldn’t tell you if any one thing happened at age 11, or 12, or 13, or maybe all three. They were the summers when I was old enough to go off on my own, but young enough that I still liked going to the pool with my mother. Old enough to have given up childish games for more grown-up adventures, but not yet burdened with the social anxieties of an advanced teenager. Thinking about those summers now conjures a feeling of being suspended in time, in a blissful in-between where new discoveries were many and responsibilities were few.
But it also brings back something else, a memory of having a more intense and imaginative relationship with what the world sounded like. Lawn-mower noise buzzing from yard to yard and filtering into my window on a summer day not only marked the ebb and flow of neighborhood activity, but fired my imagination and transported it to a distant lake. When my mother drove us to the pool, if I laid back in the seat and closed my eyes, the sounds I heard divided the trip into its component districts: the mostly quiet residential neighborhoods; the louder hum of commercial traffic; the more industrial sounds of the General Electric plant that flanked the railroad tracks, where you might also hear a passing train; and the approach to the pool itself. This was my favorite aural moment of the trip: As we ascended the final hill to the pool, first the world became very still, then I might hear the sound of a golfer hitting his ball off the tee, then perhaps voices from the parking lot, then, suddenly, the joyful sounds of frolicking and splashing from the pool itself.
Of the many sounds of summer, a few others stand out. I always loved the sound of water: I sometimes biked to a place in the woods where the only sound was a quietly gurgling stream, and on really hot days we sometimes went to swim at a falls where you could hear the water crashing over the rocks before you could see it. The GE whistle at noon not only reminded me to go home for lunch, but also reminded everyone what institution, for better or for worse, dominated the life of the city. And on hot days when the lawn mowers were all in their garages and everyone else in the neighborhood seemed to have gone off someplace else, the thick, humid silence seemed almost like a sinister, unseen force.
Early evenings were always noisy; I remember being able to tell from my bedroom which neighbors were gossiping on the sidewalk or over their backyard fences, and which kids were out playing. If there was a baseball game at the nearby schoolyard, a crescendo of voices accompanied every long hit or close play. Sometimes I was part of these activities, but for some reason, what I remember more clearly is what they sounded like from my bedroom window.
These sounds would die out at nightfall, and soon the other sounds of the city would fade to almost nothing, leaving a quiet space for the day’s final act. Unlike my sister’s house in Chatham, our house in Pittsfield was too far from the tracks to really notice trains during the day. But late at night, the sound of the whistle and the rumble of the locomotive could be heard through the stillness from miles away. It was a lonesome sound, befitting the time of night, but to a young boy who hadn’t traveled much farther than Lake George, it was also a romantic one, assuring me that the world was always in motion and there would always be new places to explore.
The Best Is Yet to Come
It’s about as simple a writing assignment as you can get: My Best Summer Ever in 600 words or less, akin to the old “What I Did on My Summer Vacation” routine to kick off first grade, or fourth, or sixth. We’ve been conditioned to bask in summer memories, trained to summon reminiscent rays against winter’s doldrums, to anticipate adventure with the bloom of spring. So when “My Best Summer Ever” landed in my virtual to-do box, decades of summers unfurled easily in my memory.
I mused through childhood: the first cold rush of ocean against my feet, the suck of sand as waves withdrew, a handful of shells, awe at the incomprehensible vastness. Running barefoot through dewy grass to gather tomatoes in the skirt of my nightgown. Trekking through the dusky woods to find the perfect marshmallow spear, the burn of campfire against my cheeks, zipping into a crooked orange pup tent armed with flashlight and imagination. Pressing myself, too hot to sleep, against the box fan in my window, singing into its blades. Gasping at night lightning. Sipping the cool, metallic tang of water fountains. Catching fireflies.
I basked in adolescence: waves crashing over the bow, drenching me waist down as my father squints into the sun, trimming a taught sail against a heavy gust, laughing and lifting a ragged chantey into the wind. Family road trips, $20 motels when we grew too tired to surge on, forgoing restaurants with tablecloths, sleeping four in a broken-down Buick. Plunging into the azure mirror of the Caribbean Sea, a brilliant kaleidoscope of life exploding around me. A midnight rapping on my bedroom window, long walks in the heavy air, poetry, stargazing, guitars by a bonfire. A small twist with chocolate sprinkles.
I considered young adulthood: cramming a mishmash of necessities into a compact car, backing down the driveway, waving goodbye with tears on all sides, kicking up the radio and driving away, beyond the familiar, through the wide, flat miles of corn and wheat and sunsets, over the Rockies, into the Northwest corner by the sea. Watching whales from my breakfast window. Paddling up the headwaters of the Amazon in a dugout canoe, birds darting through the soaring canopy, no electricity for miles, monkeys on the open sill. Hitchhiking through Killarney, bracing against the wind behind the stone walls of Inishmore, pubs echoing with bodhrans and fiddles and stout. A hammock by the shore.
And my freshest summers: barbecues and squirt-gun fights, kites and fresh sweet corn. Hot porch nights with music wafting through the screens. Tennis balls and tumbling hounds. Road trips in search of the kitschy and nostalgic and absurd, the world’s biggest kaleidoscope, a barn full of books, antique stores, garage sales. Planning our wedding. Pool parties. Theater, museums, farms and county fairs. Noshing falafel in the park. The heavy, sweet arc of peonies.
It may be something about the haze of summer, or of memory, or taking the sum of a life, that sifts the gems from the sands of time, but laid out before me, the summers are laden with wonder and joy. And still, weighing the contenders, I know that not one can boast the honor of best summer ever. Not even close.
Because this summer, our daughter is here, running wildly into the world of my memories and revealing it anew. All the wonder of swings and lawnmowers and ant bugs and ice cream. She laughs and laughs and learns the names of “slide” and “dance” and “bubbles” and “mama.” Her daddy sings her ragged chanties. We forgo restaurants with tablecloths. We gasp at night lightning. We press ourselves, too hot to sleep, against the box fan in the window. This summer I am home.