Featured Stories

When summer actually smelled like summer


   It's coming, kids. I know you can smell it. Summer.
   Impending summer probably smells the same now as it did 40 years or so ago, when I was a kid. But the ingredients are much different. Summer has changed a lot for your average kid in Madras compared to how it was for us youngsters in town back in the dark ages (before cable TV and the Internet wrapped its invisible hands around the necks of our culture) -- back when Madras had a quarter of its current population, and (it seems) about twice the retail outlets.
   I guess current kid life ought to be much different than it was for us in "oldentimes." I'm breathing down the back of 50. My memories of regular summer days now sound like an I-remember-when Statler Brothers' song -- and if that isn't enough to thoroughly bum a person out ...
   But, we could actually smell summer back then, because we were outside.
   I'm told those under 30 don't read papers anymore, so if you're old enough to be reading this, you probably remember how it was: back then, after a breakfast of Tang and Cap'n Crunch, parents essentially turned kids out for the day, like cattle to wander a pasture. Our pasture was the entire town.
   My friends and I would ride our bikes to Oscar's Sporting Goods and just listen to Oscar and older guys talk. (It's still the Oscar's building in name, but instead of glorious topics like flyfishing and football, conversation is about paper products and bill-paying). We'd cruise by the Chief Theater (now an optometrist office) to see what was playing; then grab an Orange Crush at Mertz Big 5 (now the Madras Professional Building offices), before heading over to the Buff Drive-In (now LaPasada) to get one of those amazing burritos for a couple quarters.
   Maybe we'd cruise over to Lorraine's Variety (now an empty pad of concrete called Sunshine Corner) or Turner's Variety (now the hospital thrift store) to see if they had any new baseball cards in.
   Even the primary one-way through town had a different name back then, in practice. Probably more people call it Fifth Street now than when I was a kid. When I was 10, I wouldn't have been able to give directions to Fifth Street even if I were standing on it. Main Street, though, everyone knew where Main Street was.
   We'd most likely make a stop at my dad's store on the north end of town (it's still there, still called Ahern's, but it hasn't been owned and operated by one for over a decade) where the pop and fudgecycles were free. Ready to head back to Hillcrest Street and the neighborhood, we'd dodge the north-end traffic on our bikes and maybe run into Western Auto (essentially where the Golden Arches reign today) to get a treat for our beloved bikes.
   Back in the neighborhood, we'd cool off indoors for a bit. It wasn't such an ancient time that we didn't have video games. Sometime around Fonzie and Vinnie Barbarino, my friend Donnie's family got one of those amazing Pong games -- which we could sit and play for, I don't know, several minutes before we had to get up and head outside again. It was apropriate for his family to have a Pong game -- they also had the first home calculator and microwave that I'd ever seen.
   If it was hot, and we couldn't coerce my sister's friend Penny to invite us to swim at her pool, we'd con a brother or parent to take us out to the canal by Cherry Lane to swim, but we'd have to leave our Converse on -- you never knew what could be on the bottom of those ditches.
   Now, of course, there's the Madras Aquatic Center. Now, Madras kids don't have to learn to swim by dodging mudbergs and ingesting ag chemicals. I'm pretty certain you don't have to wear shoes to be safe at the MAC.
   If our town bike tour was over, and our swimming options ruled out, we just hung out. That usually meant shooting a basketball or throwing a baseball around, for hours on end.
   Of course we'd talk about girls. I imagine middle school boys still do that. But we'd talk longingly of girls we wouldn't see until September. Now, I'm sure, the young Romeos just throw those Juliets an email from their smart phones, or, if saddled with a phone not yet smart enough to realign satellites, a simple text. Us, we might get brave enough to go inside and dial her up on an old rotary phone, but likely chicken out and hang up when a mom appeared, or just at the mere thought of someone picking up on the other end.
   Left to our own devices -- that was often the case. There wasn't a laundry list of organized activities for us. Now, thanks to the Kids Club, there are unique summer camps every weekday (we made up our own, but throwing water balloons at passing cars isn't on the modern-day camp list). There were only three channels on TV, no cable and satellite TV for us (had they existed in the mid-'70s, with 24-hour sports and MTV, I might not have ever seen daylight -- thereby drastically reducing my high odds of melanoma).
   Certainly everything is more organized and controlled for kids now. Of course, we are all just trying to better protect our precious youngsters in this more unpredictable, scarier world. Or maybe we adults just want to remain part of the game and we can't think of a better way to do it than make our participation mandatory.
   This for certain: we old folks, we can still smell it: the coming of summer. I'm sure kids can sense it too, the aroma of impending warmth and freedom -- but nowadays it's got to smell like it comes from an aerosol can. But coming it is, sweet June, summer. Let's enjoy it, remembering how fun it was, and how it can be still.
   And any kid who may accidentally come upon this article while surfing the Web, pack your summer with as much fun as you can. Love it -- and love the box it comes in: your town, your neighborhood, your friends and your family.