WOODWORKING BY DAVE WOOD A rare treat on a hot night As the temperatures rose last month, the beautiful wife and I retreated from our screened porch and headed inside our 132-year-old house and gave …
BY DAVE WOOD
A rare treat on a hot night
As the temperatures rose last month, the beautiful wife and I retreated from our screened porch and headed inside our 132-year-old house and gave thanks for the blessing of Eaton's of Ellsworth for our air-conditioning. As I drifted into its coolness, my thoughts went back to an August night, long ago, when my widowed father and I made our home with my father's parents in their big house in Whitehall, the only cooling device available being a 60-pound block of ice in the wooden icebox in the summer kitchen.
It might have been a rare treat, a lawn party, if the heat had not been so oppressive. At 8 p.m., Grandma announced that everyone was welcome to spend the night on the lawn under the big elm trees. Everyone included us kids, Aunt Alma, her son Bill, my father, my grandpa and the four boarders who made their home with us on Scranton Street. No sense, she said, in sweltering in the rooms upstairs when we could all swelter together on the lawn.
Grandpa got out the lawn chairs, some new metal ones that weighed a ton, some old wooden giants whose paint stuck better to clothes than to wood, and the rickety outfit with a striped cloth rakishly suspended from a metal frame, cousin Bill's and my favorite. But it was too hot to fight over it, so we made a pact to change off. Grandma spread old army blankets out on the parched lawn that wouldn't be green again until next Spring. My father hooked up an old army hammock between two elms, preparing for another restless night of lonesome sleep.
Three of the boarders picked their way down the porch steps made golden by the street light that flickered on the corner. We expected the fourth boarder, Walter, to arrive later, when the taverns closed. Walter had recently returned from World War II to find that his wife had left him.
And there we bivouacked in the evening silence, a blaze of stars overhead in the black sky, fireflies gliding lazily in the outer crannies of Mason's house across the street. The little town slept, in T.S. Eliot's words, like a patient etherized on a table. Cousin Bill and I knew there wouldn't be much sleeping, which was wonderful, for those of us who had curfew. But there wouldn't be much fooling around either, because all the adults were hoping against hope that Morpheus might penetrate our little band of exhaustion, giving relief and fortification for the difficult day ahead.
So we talked fitfully, quietly, almost in a murmur. Grandpa sat there bony-kneed, recalling a summer just like this one when he was a boy. Was that in 1896 or 1897? Bill and I wondered what it would be like to be a boy in 1896 or 1897. Grandma, the practical one, worried about the present and post-war and opined that this country needed “a damned good depression, like the last one when pork chops were a nickel a pound.” Some high school hellions ting-ting-tinged by in a Model A, oblivious to the economy or the heat or even our murmuring band, camped on the hinges of hell.
A couple walking by stopped to say hello and wondered when the weather would break, then asked the house-coated third grade teacher on the new metal lawn chair when school would begin and then moved on down the street, hand in hand. “Was that her new boyfriend? whispered Grandma, who disappeared into the house and returned with Kool-Aid for Bill and me and a picnic of Walter's beer. She filled and refilled the cheese spread glasses until it was gone. Everyone said that hit the spot. At 11:05, Walter retuned from his lonely vigil on a barstool downtown. He was friendlier than usual, but unaware that he was disturbing the murmured etiquette of the evening with tommy-gun bursts of smart talk. Then he nodded off to sleep in the steel lawn chair.
By midnight, butter maker Nelson had dropped off three hours after his bedtime. My father tossed and turned, the hammock creaked. Soon, a z-z-z was heard from Grandma's edge of camp. Then only Bill and I were awake, lying on the prickly blanket, whispering of school, wondering who would get polio this year. And then we awoke to a dazzling sunrise and the short relief of early morning.
Recently I have thought often of that longago bivouac, as the air conditioner hummed in our bedroom.
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