Long ago and far away, when temperatures were measured with metal feed-store thermometers hung next to mops and buckets on the back stoop and heat indices weren’t yet popular, we had our own ways of calculating summer heat. Summer meant mirages shimmering above the black-topped roads, imaginary pools of water swirling, receding and evaporating before our eyes as we traveled. In the heavy, breathless night, sleep became impossible. As trees murmured and complained, cots were dragged from houses and we lay beneath the stars, lulled into dozing and then on to dreams by the comfortable chirring of crickets.
Eventually the grass – soft, feathery blades that tickled our feet and stained our clothing – began to crispen in the fullness of summer heat. Here and there, sprinklers appeared, four revolving metal arms that whirled ribbons of life-giving water across lawns with a soft, rhythmic schlush. We ran through them, slid past them, then collapsed giggling into them when we miscalculated and collided with a friend. As the play grew more exhuberant, knees began to skin and the occasional howl of protest rose over our delighted screams. Just as protests began to overtake delight, doors flew open and a mother, grandparent or neighbor would yell, “You kids dry off and go find something else to do!”
There always was something more to do. Sometimes we hopped on our bikes and headed for the little gas station where glass cases overflowed with penny candy: root beer barrels, tiny wax bottles filled with ghastly syrups, orange slices and soft, pliable circus peanuts. No one liked the licorice bits with hard pink and white coatings, but we always bought candy necklaces, candy cigarettes with tiny pink “flames” and Necco wafers, bargaining for our favorite flavors with all the savvy and ruthless determination of commodities traders.
Twice each week the BookMobile parked in front of the grade school, and we chose new books to read. One week was set aside for Vacation Bible School (grape Koolaid and graham crackers with chocolate frosting), another was devoted to Camp Hantesha (night-time raids on other cabins and tin-foil dinners) while a third was reserved for Craft Camp, otherwise known as Popsicle Sticks Run Amok.
In short, summer was a time to explore and try new things. During the summer, we learned to throw a ball, ride a bicycle or roller skate. As we grew older, the challenges of summer became tinged with excitement and anxiety as we set ourselves larger goals: walking with a friend to an uptown movie, daring the high dive, or navigating the stacks of the “big” library on our own.
If we hesitated, it was our own timidity which held us back, and not that of our parents or caretakers. The rules were general, and common sense prevailed. Wear your shoes on a bicycle. Be home by dark. Don’t eat all your candy at once. Never swim alone. Don’t fight. Beyond that, we were on our own.
The pinnacle of summer was July 4th. It was the High Holy Day of Play, and everyone took part. In the morning, the community parade circled the town square. Afterwards, parents lolled about on porches or busied themselves in kitchens while we ran to the schoolyard to swing or hopscotched our way around the block. Boys tossed balls to one another while the girls played jacks or helped set the table for the yearly feast.
When the time for the picnic arrived, no one was picking at arugala or chicken grilled with a nice lemon-tarragon glaze. The traditional menu never varied: hot dogs and hamburgers on white buns, sweet corn, thick-sliced tomatoes, potato salad with celery, egg and mayonnaise, baked beans, brownies and pies. We ate our fill, and left the rest for late-comers, snackers or Aunt Janet, notorious for needing “just one more spoonful” of beans or potato salad. After sitting around on an outdoor table for six hours, there probably was a risk attached to the mayonnaise-laden salads, but we didn’t think of that any more than we thought about the dangers of our evening’s entertainment - boxes of red, white and blue sparklers that we’d burn before we headed off to watch the town’s display of aerial fireworks.
It was a news spot on a local radio station that released this flood of memories. A representative of a local hospital was urging the usual pre-Fourth of July caution about fireworks. In the course of her remarks, she commented that no child ever should be allowed to hold a sparkler. As she said, a sparkler could damage an eye, or burn a hand. As she didn’t say, but perhaps believes and certainly implied, the thoughtlessness of allowing a child a sparkler might well bring down the whole of Western Civilization.
Listening to her, I was astonished first, and then appalled. Living in an area of serious drought, I have no quarrel with restrictions on fireworks, or even their ban. However accidental, burning down an apartment complex or half a subdivision doesn’t fall into the category of celebration. But fireworks safety in the absence of rain was not her concern. Her intent was to discourage every parent, in every circumstance, from allowing their child a traditional pleasure of Independence Day celebrations.
Certainly, we live our lives differently than we did in the 1950s. Many of the changes are a direct result of increased knowledge, better judgement and the desire for healthier and happier lives. Other changes seem to be no more than an expression of the “Nannie factor” in our society – the desire of self-appointed experts or general busybodies to control the behavior of those around them. As C.S. Lewis wrote “In Freedom”,
“Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busy-bodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated, but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”
Lewis’ “omnipotent moral busy-bodies,” kind, well-meaning, benevolent folk who would control and repress us “for our own good” are nicely pondered by Ian Chadwick in his essay on Conformity. As he puts it,
Personal agendae do not benefit liberty: they hinder it. Pretty soon it’s dictatorship by committee – committees peopled with well-meaning, dedicated but unelected members whose goals are to enforce their own personal vision of utopia. They erect increasingly restrictive rules that slowly squeeze the life out of a community and bleed it until it is colourless.
Those laws and bylaws that hamper and constrict businesses, clamp down on dissent, free speech and free expression are often created to further some publicly stated goal like “beautification.” But they really mean “uniformity.” They strip the living skin off democracy in order to pound all the square pegs in the community into the committee’s round holes.
Such concerns may seem far removed from sparklers, sprinklers and over-the-hill potato salad. On the other hand, as warnings against “this” product or “that” activity increase on a daily basis, I wonder: are we in fact becoming a nation of Nannies, Lawrence Durrell’s “old women of both sexes” warning one another away not only from legitimate risk but even from the richness of life? The nation I love always has been a nation willing to allow its citizens to celebrate and live as they will – worshipping, parading, remembering, reciting and above all participating in rituals that sparkle and sting like the reality of freedom itself.
As the practical philosopher Erma Bombeck said, “You have to love a nation that celebrates its independence every July 4 not with a parade of guns, tanks and soldiers who pass by the White House in a show of strength and muscle, but with family picnics where kids throw frisbees, the potato salad gets iffy, and the flies die of happiness.”
In a world of sprinklers, sparklers and unrefrigerated mayo, can we slip and fall on the water-slicked grass that bends beneath our feet? Of course. Can we over-indulge in over-exposed foods and suffer the consequences? Of course. Can the sun or the sparklers burn, the bicycle tip, the bone break, the puppy nip or the cat scratch? Yes, and yes, and yes again to everything that “can” happen in a world that doesn’t take “care”.
But too much of the wrong kind of care can lead to paralysis and disengagement, particularly when what passes for care is little more than fear. For those who fear what “might happen”, for those who hunger to control what cannot be controlled and prefer to deny that brokenness, contingency and pain of various sorts always will be a part of life, there never can be enough care.
“Don’t you care about your children?”, they ask. “Don’t you care about your health?” “Don’t you care about security and acceptance and the approval of others?” Yes, yes, and yes again we say - we do care. But we care as much for life and freedom, for speaking our own word and celebrating the gifts the world holds for those who love her.
In simple fact, some of us choose to worry less and participate more and most of the time, for most of us, nothing happens at all. We run through the sprinkler without slipping. The sparklers light up the night and the last bit of potato salad gets eaten, just because it’s there. The children fall asleep, and we tend to them in the darkness while the world sighs everyone home: safe, and sound, and free as the birds that cry through the deep summer night, careless and carefree at once.