The past came alive over the weekend when I spent a couple of hours on the porch with a novel that releases in mid-June. It’s been ages since a book tweaked the strings of my memory like “Heading Out to Wonderful” by Robert Goolrick.
Set in Virginia in 1948, at the end of World War II, a veteran arrives in the hamlet of Brownville with two suitcases — one full of knives he uses as a meat cutter, the other stuffed with money.
We don’t know why Charlie Beale is flush with cash, but realize he’s headed for trouble when he becomes involved with a pretty young woman married to the town’s big spender, an overweight oaf who claims her as yet another possession.
The author’s ability to create a cast of unique, small town characters makes this book a personal favorite. I also identified with the 1950s, the “back then” of Hula-Hoops, Eisenhower and “I Love Lucy,” when mad men were angry guys and not high-powered advertising execs on a popular television series.
Because Memorial Day ushers in the start of summer, my recollections turned to the summer months, all because of a novel that made literature come to life for me.
I recalled lying in a clover dotted yard on Dad’s old Army blanket, a copy of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” open at my fingertips. That weathered Army blanket could have told some stories of its own.
My cousin and I smoked a pilfered Lucky Strike under its weight, holding the heavy fabric aloft as smoke billowed out in our backyard, the locust trees heavy with blossoms and bees. Just days before, another cousin and I carved our shins to ribbons shaving our legs, feet up on the toilet seat at my aunt’s house.
Back then, as now, summer meant freedom from ringing bells and schedules — dashing out of the classroom the remnants of academia stuffed in our ragged plaid satchels. Released like wild animals our minds turned to swimming holes and picnics, fast pitches at pickup games across the street in the empty lot bordered by the tracks where the Rock Island ran, its whistle sounding in the night, a reminder that I wasn’t the only one awake, though my little sister Jackie in the white French provincial twin bed already was, and my brother down the hall and my parents in the back bedroom next to the breezeway with the knotty pine walls.
On summer days we made our own fun, swinging from a gnarly apple tree out back that only offered fruit too hard and green to eat, sitting on the board sides of a sandbox Dad made, careful not to get splinters, then walking up the block to Kamper’s store for penny candy in glass jars with twist lids. The palm-sized peppermints with red stripes were our favorites, melted in your mouth when you sucked the air out of them.
Of course you’d have to dodge the red-winged blackbird that would dive bomb when you walked the block to Kamper’s, and stop to pop tar bubbles, knowing full well you’d get in trouble and Dad would have to dob you with turpentine to rid your fingers of the sticky black.
The smell of the tar returns with just the mention, as does the scent of fried fish sandwiches on square white bread at the V.F.W. picnic, one of the highlights of the summer, held at the American Legion, where you’d dance with your best friend on a wood floor that needed a good polish to a country band belting out Brenda Lee songs you could sing in your sleep.
Summer was picking blackberries from the back of one of Grandpa’s ponies and getting chiggers anyway, eating warm peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at the creek with your mom, aunt and cousins, minnows abundant, and searching for fossils, sure you’d locate a rock with the imprint of a prehistoric reptilian claw.
I wonder what memories my grandchildren will make as summer extends into fall — what activities will make this time special for them? What will imprint on their minds, leave memories to be recalled when they’re grown, and they recall the sweet days of their “back then.”