Long ago and far away, when metal feed-store thermometers dangled next to mops and buckets on the back stoop, heat indices weren’t yet in fashion.
In those far-away times, summer began with mirages: pools of imaginary water shimmering above the asphalt — swirling, receding, and evaporating before our eyes as we traveled.
In summer, heavy, breathless nights made sleep impossible. Even the heat-heavy trees murmured and complained as we dragged cots from the house and lay beneath the stars, surrounded and lured toward dreams by the chirring of unseen crickets.
When feathery blades of grass began crispening beneath an unbearable sun, sprinklers appeared: most commonly, four revolving metal arms that whirled ribbons of water across lawns with a soft, rhythmic shush.
We delighted in running and sliding through the water, collapsing into giggles when we miscalculated and collided with a friend. As our play grew more exuberant, knees began to skin, and occasional howls of protest rose over delighted screams. At that point, doors flew open and a mother, grandparent, or neighbor would yell, “You kids dry off! Go find something else to do!”
And so we did. Sometimes, we hopped on our bikes and headed for the corner gas station, where a glass case overflowed with root beer barrels, orange slices, and soft, pliable circus peanuts. We bought candy necklaces, candy cigarettes with tiny pink flames, and Necco wafers: bargaining for our favorite flavors with the sort of savvy, ruthless determination a commodities trader might envy.
Twice each week, the Bookmobile parked in front of the grade school. One week we attended Vacation Bible School; another saw us transported off to camp, to enjoy hikes in the woods and tin-foil dinners. During half-day craft camps, we transformed popsicle sticks and plastic laces into mysterious, inexplicable treasures.
In short, summer was our time to explore, and to try new things. We learned to throw a ball, to ride a bicycle, to run a lawn mower. As the years passed, we set ourselves larger goals: walking with a friend to an uptown movie; daring the high dive: or navigating the town’s library stacks on our own.
If we hesitated from time to time, it was our own timidity that held us back, not the over-protectiveness of parents or caretakers. The rules were general, and common sense prevailed. Wear shoes on a bicycle. Be home by dark. Don’t eat all your candy at once. Never swim alone. Don’t fight. When you do fight, don’t hurt each other. Beyond that, we were on our own.
The pinnacle of summer was July 4th. After a morning parade, everyone set aside ball-playing and hopscotch to fold napkins, or put silverware and plates on the table. When the time for the picnic arrived, the traditional menu never varied. There were hot dogs and hamburgers on white buns, sweet corn, thick-sliced, vine-ripened tomatoes, potato salad, baked beans, brownies and pies. We ate our fill, then left the rest on the table for late-comers, or snackers who needed just one more spoonful.
If there was risk associated with leaving potato salad on the table for a few hot hours, we didn’t think much about it, and no one ever suffered. For that matter, we didn’t give much thought to dangers associated with our evening’s entertainment: boxes of red, white and blue sparklers we’d burn on the front lawn before heading to the park to watch the town’s fireworks display.
Over the past decade, I’ve thought about those fireworks from time to time. When a representative of a local hospital urged the usual caution about July 4th fireworks, she commented, rather off-handedly, that no child ever should be allowed to hold a sparkler. By the time she finished listing the possible consequences — a blinded eye, a burned hand, a torched neighborhood — it was possible to imagine allowing a child a sparkler might bring down the whole of Western civilization.
Listening to her, I was astonished, and then appalled. I have no quarrel with restrictions on fireworks, or even their ban, in areas of drought or high population. 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 or the presence of crowds was not her concern. She meant to discourage every parent, in every circumstance, from allowing their child a traditional pleasure of Independence Day celebrations.
Certainly, those of us who grew up in the 1950s arrange our lives differently these days. Some changes are a direct result of increased knowledge, better judgment, and a desire for healthier, happier lives.
But other changes seem little more than grudging response to what’s been called the nannie factor in our society: the desire of self-appointed experts or general busy-bodies to control the behavior of people around them. As C.S. Lewis famously wrote:
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’s “omnipotent moral busy-bodies” also appear in Ian Chadwick’s essay on conformity. As Chadwick 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.
Such concerns may seem far removed from sparklers, sprinklers, and over-the-hill potato salad. On the other hand, as warnings against products and activities multiply daily, I find myself asking: are we in fact becoming a nation of nannies — Lawrence Durrell’s “old women of both sexes” determined to warn 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.
In a world that dares to allow 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? Certainly. Can the sun or the sparklers burn; the bicycle tip; the bone break; the puppy nip? Yes, of course; yes to everything that can happen in a world where nothing is guaranteed.
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 thinly-disguised fear. For those living in fear of what “might” happen, for those hungering to control what cannot be controlled, or for those who prefer to deny that brokenness, contingency, and pain always will be a part of life, there never can be enough care.
“Don’t you care about your children?” ask the experts. “Don’t you care about your health?” “Don’t you care about physical security, or the acceptance and approval of others?” Certainly, we care. But we care even more for life and freedom; for speaking with dignity and hearing truth; for celebrating and enjoying the gifts freely offered by the world.
In simple fact, those who choose to worry less and participate more often find that, most of the time, nothing happens at all. We run through the sprinkler without slipping. The sparklers light up the night, and the last bit of warm, wilty potato salad gets eaten, just because it’s there.
The children fall asleep, and as we tend to them in the darkness, the world sighs everyone home: safe, sound, and free as a bird crying through the deep summer night, careless and carefree at once.