What Summer Lives In You?
May 3, 2013
Something about summer burns its way into our memory, and it’s not the summer sun. Summer just seems to be a time for remembering and taking account of things. Remembering special moments, friends, those no longer with us, and moments when some crystallizing event rendered memory photographic. Times when you see the past as clearly as a crackling yellow-blue lightning bolt.
For me, and you, too, I bet, there’s one summer you keep going back to. We all have a summer that stands out from the rest. The other day I asked a friend if any of her summers were special. She was quick to say, No. Then she paused and a shadow crossed her face. Yes, she said, the day daddy told us he was leaving and never coming back, and he never did.
With the passing of time and friends comes reflection. I spend a lot of time looking backwards these days. Maybe you do too. I think a lot about the people I knew back when more so than those I know today. Sometimes life really does seem like a journey … we’re just passing through. Friends come and go … places come and go … the only constant is self. Maybe you feel that way too. In the journey that has been my life I keep going back to the one summer that stands out above the rest, the summer of 1967.
It was my last summer of being free and irresponsible. I had graduated from high school and college was four months away. It was, in a real way, my last summer to be what I had always been, a nobody.
College and a whole new world awaited me that fall. I worked that summer at a plastic rainwear plant, trying to make money to spend in Athens, Georgia, come autumn. I carpooled to the plant with a fellow high school graduate, Dawkins Holloway. We worked in shipping, packing boxes of bright yellow plastic rain suits. The heat-sealed suits would come apart as soon as you put them on.
My plans to room at Georgia with Dawkins that fall came apart too. He eloped with the high school beauty queen and that sent me to college with random roommates my freshman year, a year that should have been fun but wasn’t.
That summer stands out for other reasons. People were talking a lot about a place called Vietnam. A friend I played football with, Stanley Scott, had been killed on August 12. The war had seemed far away until Stanley died. We had to wait all summer for his body to arrive. I remember the mournful trumpet solo at his service. Later that summer a member of my church, Benny Myers, got shot up bad in Nam, a burst from a machine gun. He survived but would die from a fall from a tree stand deer hunting.
I had been accepted at the University of Georgia, but I felt anything but safe. The war seemed closer than ever, and the new life awaiting me was one big question mark. I felt a sort of dread that summer, harboring a sort of emotional seasickness or homesickness. Leaving home for a long time was something I’d never done. The feeling I harbored that summer was a troubling presence that never took leave.
And then late one afternoon, some buddies, Mike Blackmon, Dawkins Holloway, Charles Lewis, and I were down at Clark Hill Lake listening to a radio blaring from a car with wide-open doors. Across the water was South Carolina, a place I knew little about except that you could cross the bridge and buy a beer over there and nobody cared. We skipped rocks across the water.
As we looked for flat rocks and talked much about nothing, a new song came over the radio, a haunting dirge-like melody that captured the isolation, uncertainty, and fear within me. From the first mournful note of Procul Harem’s, A Whiter Shade Of Pale Mike, Dawkins, Charles, and I shut up and drifted dreamlike toward the radio.
The melancholy music and mysterious lyrics mesmerize me to this day. We skipped the light fandango, turned cartwheels ‘cross the floor, I was feeling kinda seasick, but the crowd called out for more, The room was humming harder as the ceiling flew away …
Despite the non-sensible lyrics, to this day that requiem-like song dredges up that afternoon by the lake. A whiter shade of pale was a reference to death, literally turning whiter as in a corpse. It was, in a way, prophetic.
Dawkins is gone—car wreck. Mike is gone—heart attack. Charles is gone—car wreck. I, alone, live to hold onto that moment.
The summer of 1967 would be known as the summer of love, but that didn’t apply to me. I didn’t know anything about hippies, flower power, hashish, and I didn’t protest anything. I just think of that summer as my last spurt of youthful abandon. After it, life was never the same. Life wouldn’t change dramatically, but a series of small changes and new directions, step by step by misstep, accumulated and in the long run made for dramatic change.
Music surely made that summer memorable. Earlier in June, just a few days after I had graduated from high school, an afternoon occurred that lives in me still. It’s like a surreal scene from an old movie, sepia-toned with splashes of color here and there, a wavering scratch line running its length. I was working on my first car, a 1961 Corvair, a white four-door car that ran some days and some days didn’t. On this day it didn’t.
Hearing a car slow down on the Augusta Highway, I turned from the rear engine compartment where I was working, and down the driveway came two angels: Cheryl Stewart and Margaret Harper, two of the most beautiful girls I remember from my youth. Dashing from the car, Cheryl held an album; Margaret shouted, You have got to hear this now.
We played it all afternoon. The British Invasion had turned American music on its ear, but Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was about to change the world. The Beatles, weary of live performances, abandoned the stage for the studio and this masterpiece came from Abbey Road Studios to storm the world. Clothes, value shifts, hairstyles, the way albums would be recorded, the drug culture, protests, all of that seemed to burst across the sky when Sergeant Pepper hit the airways.
Mom remarked that just when I was to go to college and look my best in preppy clothes, the era of long hair, bell-bottoms, and Navy-issue work shirts and tie-dyed T-shirts took over. You didn’t wear shoes; you wore sandals made from truck tires. But you can’t wear stuff like that forever. Thus began for me that summer, a long road of searching for an identity. You can’t be a nobody all your life. For me the loss of innocence and pivotal life changes all came together that summer.
In life we come across moments we can’t forget; we can’t exactly say why those moments matter but they do. Deep inside, we sense that we took a step in a new direction, that of becoming who we would ultimately be. For me, it was the summer of 1967. War, death, music, youth, the loss of friends, self-identity, and more bubbled and boiled in a broth where somewhere the person I was to be was cooking up. It took a lot of time to make sense of it all.
I’m sure that you, too, can point to one summer as more memorable, more meaningful than any other. Where were you that summer and who were you? How did that one summer put its stamp on you? And who and what did you become?
Tom Poland is the author of six books and more than 700 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. The University of South Carolina Press just released his book on how the blues became the shag, Save The Last Dance For Me. He writes a weekly column for newspapers in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture.
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