Last week I was in an old building that had never been air conditioned. A fan, one of the black oscillating fans, was running in the corner, swiveling back and forth as it moved the hot air around. The drone of its motor brought back memories because, when I was a kid, that was one of the sounds that meant summer had arrived. Some of those sounds are still with us while others have disappeared, pushed out by the forces of progress and technology. From my childhood back in the day here are seven sounds of summer.
- Fans: Air conditioning was rare and expensive, not to be found just anywhere. Few homes were air conditioned and then it was only with window units that cooled only one or two rooms. Stores were the same: big department stores might be cool but smaller shops and offices were not.
There the cooling method of choice was the oscillating electric fan and they could be found everywhere. Big fans on stands stirred the air in large areas while small fans perched on desks, filing cabinets, shelves, and countertops to dry sweaty necks and arms. The drone of fans could be heard in homes, shops and offices.
There were no malls or fast-food restaurants.If you wanted air conditioning—the real deal—you went to the bank or the movies. Theaters advertised that they were “healthfully” or “scientifically” cooled by refrigeration and the price of a ticket would also buy you two hours of relief from the summer heat. The whir of oscillating electric fans has largely disappeared in many places but it was oddly soothing and conducive to an afternoon nap.
- Baseball: Back then the Boys of Summer played in the day time—even the World Series. Few games were televised but almost all were broadcast on the radio. Wherever you went you were likely to hear the play-by-play being called from a radio. The broadcast did not include, of course, instant replays or up-close-and-personal moments. Other than periodic commercials what you heard was the game narrated by announcers who took their jobs seriously. As with the electric fans, their voices tended to fade into a drone in the background—ever present but never intrusive. When baseball was on the radio, it was summer.
- Children Playing: In the fifties and sixties there were kids everywhere. Young Baby Boomers filled streets and neighborhoods and we spent summer days playing in groups. We ran around, rode bicycles (no helmets), organized pickup ball games (dodge ball included) and went to the beach. We lived a block from the Taunton River so all we had to do was grab a towel and run down the street to the Pratt Avenue beach. Finding other kids to play with was never a problem. Hide and seek, free the box, statues, red rover—you name it and we played it. We played outside for hours, interrupted only by meals and darkness. We didn’t come in until our parents called us or we couldn’t see a hand in front of our faces. We yelled, cheered, screamed, and shouted and you could hear other kids doing the same in other neighborhoods.
- The Crack of a Bat: The pick-up ball games included baseball and it was always hardball, even for girls. (Softball was only played in the official Recreation Program at the Pottersville School.) We played in backyards and pretty much any open area. We learned the rules and played by the rules. There was no crying. The crack of a bat on ball, followed by cheering or groans, defined many summer afternoons.
- The Milkman: Back then milk was delivered in bottles to your door. It came in a tall boxy truck with the bottles packed in metal carrying racks. The truck’s brakes squealed when it stopped in front of your house. Then the milkman would go in the back and select your order from the bottles in wood-and-metal crates before hopping down to walk to the door. Bottles rattled in the metal carriers and clinked against one another.
That distinctive clinking-rattling sound meant that the milkman had arrived. His milk truck was not refrigerated. Instead, the crates were packed in big chunks of ice. We knew the milkman by name—at one point it was my Uncle Gene—and we would beg him for a piece of ice. We always got one and would walk away with a chunk the size of an apple or bigger to rub on our necks or suck on for instant ice water. Summer and a chunk of clear ice, mmm-mm.
- Motorboats: Living a block from the Taunton River meant that we heard motor boats going up and down the river all day, every day in the summer. The roar of the motor was accompanied by the bump-bump-bump of the boat’s hull on the waves, especially at high tide. Sometimes a water skier followed behind but that was harder to hear. We learned early about the Doppler Effect as the moan of outboard motors rose and fell with the boat’s proximity and whether it was coming or going. In summer, the river turned into a highway with boats going out to Narragansett Bay in the morning, coming back in at night or just zipping along for the fun of it. I live inland now so I no longer hear this particular sound but folks who live in Somerset or other places on the water still have it as part of the soundtrack for their summer days.
- Push Lawnmowers: Back then most people pushed their own lawnmowers over suburban yards. Power mowers had been introduced and some neighbors had them but they were expensive and too big for our yard. They were too big for many of the yards around us so summers included the distinctive sound of a push mower whirring a path through the grass, pausing as the pusher pulled it back, then cutting its way forward again. These mowers have been replaced by power machines and landscapers with big industrial riding mowers so their summer sound has largely disappeared.
Many other summer sounds are still with us: the jingle of ice cream trucks, the shouts of kids at the beach or the pool, kids playing at daycare centers or summer camps, the clink of ice in a glass of lemonade, but these seven sounds from my childhood bring back sultry days when there was little relief from the summer’s heat and humidity and when free-range kids were allowed to play by themselves without adult supervision. Sometimes we were drafted to push those mowers and then we did so because our fathers told us to or it was one of our chores. It was exercise and sometimes we even enjoyed it although we would never admit that, especially to the parental units.
Life was quieter and slower but that doesn’t mean it was better. I wouldn’t trade my central air conditioning for an oscillating electric fan and I have no desire to push a manual lawnmower. Still, it’s fun to remember some of the summer sounds that made up the hot and happy months of pure freedom before school started again. Although, come to think of it, I would cheer to have milk delivered to my home.