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Summertime in days past


While growing up in the suburbs of Chicago in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, the last place in the world you wanted to be on a hot summer’s day was in the house because there was no air conditioning, much less video games. Besides, if you were around, Mom might find a chore for you.
We did have one fan, a hassock fan, and a quick look on the internet leads me to believe they don’t make them like that anymore. It was short and squat and cylindrical shaped. The blade was in the middle pointing up. It drew air from the base and shot it out in all directions from the top. I suspect my parents got it because they knew there’d be arguments over who got to sit in front if it was a more traditional one-direction fan. With the hassock, everyone in its 360-degree radius got an equal, if not somewhat tepid, breeze. And Dad, in the rare moments he actually sat down, could get his feet up and cooled at the same time.
But the hassock only came out in the late evening. We played outside the entire day and into the evening, returning home only for meals. It was in the midst of the post-World War II baby boom and there was rarely a lack of playmates.
In the morning, we’d typically ride bikes the miles or so to the municipal swimming pool. We had a family pass and were encouraged to go as much as we liked. Sometimes our mothers would pack a sack lunch for us and we’d make a day of it, coming home shriveled from hours in the water. Going in groups was encouraged, as there was safety in numbers, although I’m not sure what dangers lurked back then compared to today’s list of known hazards. There might be a dozen kids in the caravan, but there were only a handful of bikes, so we’d double- and sometimes even triple-up on a bike, towels dangling everywhere. Few would wear shoes, and no one had a helmet.
To get into the pool, you had to take a full body shower and pass the toe inspection. Mr. Nelson, our school’s gym teacher, did the job. He’d sit by the door leading to the pool with a small stool in front of him. Each kid had to put each foot up on the stool and spread every toe. Then, old man Nelson gave them the once over. I never knew exactly what he was looking for or why, it was just something he did.
In the afternoon, a pick-up-game of softball broke out on the street in front of our house. Just from our block alone, two full baseball teams could be fielded. The sewer drains on either side of the street were first and third, and some scraps of carpet made up home plate or second.
Multi-car families were the exception back then, and typically the Dads had the only auto at work, so there’d be little traffic. If a vehicle did appear, the first to see it would yell “car” and we’d all dutifully stand along the curb until it passed.
If not at the pool or in a baseball game, I’d often spend the afternoon with my best friends Dave (Buzz) Buzzello and Tim Gallagher playing catch or running bases while listening to the Cubs on the radio. Does anyone play running bases anymore? Two guys toss a ball while the third tries to steal a base. We’d play it for hours, pausing only if the Cubs were about to score or, more likely, be scored upon.
Or we’d just go exploring.
Sauk Creek, about a mile from our house, was one exotic destination. Unkempt and a little trashy, the little stream offered an endless series of activities. More than a few crayfish came home in coffee cans, and at least one time I caught a foot-long carp. The hook stuck in the hapless fish’s mouth, and it came home ripening in the heat while dangling from the front of my bike, still at the end of my pole. I took the long way home, so more people could see it. Mom admired my catch, cut the line and promptly buried it in the garden. To this day, I think the tomatoes in that part of the patch grow extra tall.
In the evening, we played guns.
We’d divide into two armies. One would hide in the back yard while the other sat in the front and counted to 100. Then, using some kind of algorithm that only made sense to us, we’d determine who got shot and who didn’t, who won and who lost. Of course no actual guns were in use, just your fingers and your mouth yelling, “Dow! Dow! Dow! You’re dead.” Then the “shoot-ee” would yell, “No you didn’t! You missed!”
How we ever worked it all out, I can’t recall or imagine. And, I never did figure out what they were looking for between our toes.