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In the summertime, carefree people had picnics and pie-eating contests and three-legged races. We weren’t those people.

Me? I could only go swimming on days when my father didn’t smoke cigars. To blow up that little plastic pool that sat next to the tomato plants under the peach tree that hung over on the cyclone fence, he needed every breath he’d take.

The swimming pool was special, the neighborhood nirvana where kids shed their clothes and adults cooled their toes. Summers were simpler then. And hotter.

On any given day in July, the temperature inside my house was 87 degrees. The big window fan in the dining room, built before the invention of oscillation, only did so much. My father once got the idea that if you pushed the exhaust button, all of the hot air would be sucked from the house. The result was a vortex, a mortal storm of heat, dust, pollen and unsecured paper napkins that plagues me to this day.

We didn’t go away in the summer. Maybe a few days down the shore – a Kohr’s ice cream, a James’ salt water taffy, a brush with Mr. Peanut. But that was it. We stayed home and made the best of it. A pitcher of cool lemonade to quench our wanderlust.

Back then, lemonade was made, oddly enough, with lemons. Lots of lemons and a bowlful of sugar. Lemonade was always served in a big glass pitcher and always carried on a tray with tumblers. Tumblers were glasses that weren’t glass. They had a fabulous fake frost pattern on them that made the lemonade look ice cold, even when the cubes from the metal ice trays started to melt faster than a Mr. Softee cone.

Even with ice, the heat took its toll. On the lemonade and on the rest of us. I was a social pioneer back then, a founding member of the first generation to use deodorant. I used to go through a stick of Old Spice a week, making sure the gooey gold paste pilled every pore of my not-so-private parts. Adult men, men who worked, never wore deodorant. Only women wore things that smelled good. Men wore pit stains.

“Aren’t you going to change your shirt before dinner?” my mother asked my sweat-soaked father when he got home from work.

“What are we,” my father said, “the Rockefellers? This shirt still has a good couple of hours left.”

After dinner, to cool ourselves, we sat outside, on metal patio chairs with ventilated holes that cut waffle-like patterns in our sun-burned thighs, thighs drowning in an ocean of calamine lotion.

Amusements? Well, The Whip came down our street. The Whip was a faux carnival ride stuck on the back of a small truck. It had two little cars that jerked and spun around turns, making your body go one way and your head go another. Some kids came off with smiles on their faces. Some kids came of with spinal cord damage. Lucky for us, personal injury lawyers hadn’t been invented yet.

There were no real amusement parks in our neighborhood. No carnival with bright lights and games of chance. The only game of chance we knew was playing box ball in the street when the streetlights were out, and the hot rods were flying.

Some nights, when the young got restless, we set off small explosives. Other kids had bottle rockets and cherry bombs. The most I was allowed to do was play with caps. Which was interesting, since I wasn’t allowed to play with cap guns. But we were inventive souls back then. We did what we had to do. We made our own fun.

One night, I discovered that if you rubbed caps really hard with your fingers on the cement curb, they would explode. Unfortunately, so would your fingers. As I lay in the street, writhing in pain, one of the neighbors offered sage medical advice to my mother.

“You should rub butter on those burns,” she said.

“Butter!” my mother said. “Do you know how much butter costs these days?”

July 2012
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