Hot Days And Cool Rites Of Summers' Past

ALICE STEINBACH

July 08, 1991|By ALICE STEINBACH

TELL THE TRUTH NOW: AREN'T YOU sick and tired of hearing about how hot it is outside? Really, haven't you had it with all the talk about how it's only July and already we're into the dog days of summer?

Must be a hundred degrees in the shade, they say. Humidity so thick you can cut it with a knife. Can't remember a summer so hot, blah, blah, blah.

And tell the truth: Wouldn't you rather hear about some subject other than the current state of the weather? Some really fascinating story that is historical but timeless; universal but personal; a bit of Americana that has worldwide implications?

A story, say, about how hot it used to be when I was growing up, back before every home, public building and car had air conditioning.

The past, someone noted, is a foreign country; they do things differently there. And when we talk of hot, humid, pre-air-conditioned summer days in the city, we are talking not only of a foreign country but of a primitive society, one with its own customs and rituals.

In those days you never really needed to wait for some weather reporter's announcement that summer was official- ly here. In our house you knew it had arrived when the cats made their annual pilgrimage from the top of the radiator to the top of the basement freezer.

And you knew summer was a reality when Dad got out his blue-and-white seersucker suit, the one that looked good for about 10 minutes and then for the rest of the day looked like a crumpled, puckered sleeping bag.

And you knew it was summer when your nutrition-crazed Mom quit cooking lunch and started taking you to Lowe's drugstore ("It's cool inside!" read the sign at the door, the words dripping little icicles) for tuna fish sandwiches and root beer floats.

Summertime was green-and-white striped awnings that darkened every room of the house. It was carpetless, bare wood floors and cotton slipcovers over the dark green velvet chairs. It was a summer kitchen in the cellar where all the cooking was done in the early morning.

It was sun dresses and hair worn in pigtails and long, cool baths in the big, white porcelain tub. It was lying on the back porch, on NTC the green, canvas-covered glider reading Nancy Drew books and pretending to be Nancy Drew. One summer I solved four important neighborhood mysteries, most notably The Mystery of Mrs. Huey's Secret Visitor. (It was her stepson.)

But above all else, summertime meant ice cream and almost daily trips to the Arundel Ice Cream Parlor.

With its marble floor, marble-topped counters and little round marble tables -- all of which gave off the scent of freshly washed marble -- Arundel's was the coolest place in town. The short-stemmed silver ice cream dishes, the smell of maraschino cherries, the whooshing sound of whipped cream being swirled into poufs on top of a chocolate sundae, the bent wire chairs and rickety tables that moved up and down every time you dug your spoon into the ice cream -- what better place to be on a hot summer evening?

And in that foreign country of summers past, there were sounds, too, sounds you don't hear in a summer with air conditioning:

The slapping sound of a screen door. The shouts of children running back and forth through a stream of water from the garden hose. The smart snap of a flag in the wind. The sound of cicadas in the trees at high noon. A neighbor's radio playing at night, the melancholy sounds floating into your open bedroom window. The clicking and whirring of the water sprinklers on every lawn.

But no sound evokes summer with quite the same urgency as the jingling bells that foretold the arrival of the Good Humor Man. When you first heard them, usually after dinner, you knew he was about three blocks away. This gave you just enough time to race through the house looking for Mom's purse so she could fish out a dime, after which you raced, out of breath, down the porch steps and out into the street.

See, here he comes now, just rounding the corner near old Mr. Preston's house. He stops, the man in white with a smartly peaked cap, and opens the thick door, a move which cuts in half the big, Good Humor bar painted on the truck's side. He reaches into the cold, deep, mysterious box and lifts out a vanilla Popsicle, its paper covering coated with beads of ice. You bite into it; the cold stings your front teeth.

Ah, summer. It doesn't get much better than that.

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