Long before the advent of The Weather Channel, weather existed. Metal feed-store thermometers dangling next to mops and buckets on the back stoop recorded summer’s rising temperatures, while pools of imaginary water shimmered above the asphalt: swirling, receding, and evaporating mirages that marked the beginning of summer as surely as any column of mercury.
In midsummer, heavy, breathless nights made sleep impossible. Even the heat-laden trees seemed to murmur and complain as we dragged cots from the house to lay beneath the stars, lured toward dreams by the chirring of unseen crickets.
When the feathery blades of grass began to crispen and brown beneath an unbearable sun, sprinklers appeared: four revolving metal arms whirling ribbons of water across the lawn with a soft, rhythmic susurration.
We delighted in running and sliding through the water, collapsing into giggles when we miscalculated and collided with a friend. As play grew more exuberant, knees began to skin and occasional howls of protest drowned out our delighted screams. At that point, doors flew open and an adult — a mother, a grandparent, a neighbor — would yell, “You kids stop it now! Go find something else to do.”
Always, there was something to do. We might hop on our bikes and pedal to the corner gas station, where the small glass case overflowed with root beer barrels, Walnettos, and soft, pliable circus peanuts. Candy necklaces, candy cigarettes with tiny pink sugar flames, and Necco wafers were favorites; we bargained 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 our grade school. In June, we attended Vacation Bible School before heading off to camp to enjoy hikes in the woods and evening campfires. Day camps found us transforming popsicle sticks and plastic laces into mysterious, inexplicable treasures, or replicating famous paintings with dried-bean mosaics.
In short, summer was a time to explore: to try new things. We learned to throw softballs; to roller-skate; to push a lawn mower. Over time, we took on even greater challenges: 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 before pushing new limits, it was our own timidity that held us back rather than 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 same sense of freedom infused our celebration of summer’s High Holy Day: the 4th of July. After a morning parade, everyone set aside ball-playing and hopscotch to fold napkins, ice watermelons, or help to set the table. The menu itself was traditional, and the grilled hamburgers, sweet corn, thick-sliced tomatoes still warm from the vine, potato salad, baked beans, and pies that the women produced could have fed a threshing crew. We ate our fill, leaving what remained on the table for late-comers, or anyone who couldn’t resist just one more spoonful.
If there was risk associated with the abandoned potato salad, we didn’t think much about it, and no one seemed to suffer. For that matter, we didn’t give much thought to possible dangers associated with our evening’s entertainment: boxes of red, white, and blue sparklers waiting to be burned on the front lawn before we headed to the park to watch the town’s fireworks display.
With today’s airwaves filled with a new holiday caution — to avoid combining fireworks with potentially explosive hand sanitizer — I began thinking about the pleasures of those childhood fireworks and remembered an earlier caution issued by a representative of a local hospital who said, rather off-handedly, that no child, under any circumstances, 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 a child with a sparkler bringing down the whole of Western civilization.
Certainly restrictions on fireworks — even total bans — are reasonable 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.
Today, her advice seems a precursor of a phenomenon increasingly obvious in our society: the so-called ‘nannie factor’ — the attempt 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 agendas 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 freedom itself.
In a world where sprinklers are allowed, might we slip and fall on the water-slicked grass bending beneath our feet? Of course. Could we over-indulge in tainted foods and suffer the consequences? Certainly. Will the sun or sparklers burn; the bicycle tip; the bone break; the puppy nip? No doubt, for anything can happen in a world where nothing is guaranteed. Given the realities of an unpredictable world, we need to exercise both caution and care on behalf of those who live around us.
But too much of the wrong kind of caring can lead to paralysis and disengagement, particularly when what passes for care is little more than an expression of thinly-disguised fear. For those who live in fear of what ‘might’ happen; for those who hunger to control what cannot be controlled; and especially for those who prefer to deny that brokenness, contingency, and pain always will be a part of life, there never will be enough caring.
“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 demanding truth; for celebrating and enjoying the multitude of gifts freely offered by the world.
In truth, when we choose to worry less and participate more, we often discover even the most dire warnings dissolving beneath the summer’s rising warmth. We run through the sprinkler without slipping. The sparklers light up the night like the stars, and the last bit of warm, wilty potato salad gets eaten, just because it’s there.
As the children fall asleep, we tend to them in the darkness as the world itself sighs everyone home: safe, sound, and free as a bird crying through the deep summer night, careless and carefree at once.