Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The long days of summers gone by

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VANCOUVER -- When I was a boy, I was blithely healthy, unburdened by time and my sense of the future stretched only as far as dusk, when the street lights came on.

We were all boys then, a pack, still untroubled by girls and the fevers of sex, though there was that one indelible memory of a slightly older girl, still prepubescent, whose parents had rented a house down the block, and she, pale and freckled, and standing in the screened window of her bedroom one hot afternoon, stripped for us, while we, an audience of seven- and eight-year-old boys, stood in her backyard, rapt and grinning and not quite sure what to make of it.

I remember her mother surprising her in mid-performance, and the rifle shot of her slap against the girl's bare bottom and the girl's wails. We scattered like birds. The girl and her parents moved before the summer was out.

Children have a different geography than adults; it's a more intimate and closely examined one of the landscape, and we knew and plotted every detail of our block -- the best fences on which to test our balance, Wallenda-like; the backyards that held the cherry and plum trees we could pillage; the best escape routes down side yards and alleyways in the enormous, roving nighttime games of tag and hide-and-seek we played.

We were, for the most part, left to our own devices, and we grew feral during those long hot summers, unbathed, our fingers and toes rimed with dirt, our high-tops taking on the fermented, eye-watering stink of ripened brie. We cruelly burned ants with magnifying glasses and threw rocks at each other, and perilously and fearlessly -- looking back on it now with wonder, when even jumping down from a chair brings thoughts of a possible fracture -- monkeying up to the very tops of trees, where we would sway in the wind like pennants.

Time lingered, and ours were summers of slow, distracted walks to the corner store, and sitting on curbsides where we stuffed our mouths with Double Bubble and Macintosh toffee and blackballs, these last giving our teeth a squid-ink stain. Our summers were so long and unhurried we were spendthrifts with our time, and we grew bored by the second week of August, whining to our mothers that there was nothing to do. Then Labour Day came, and we mourned having to go back to school.

All of that changed in a moment, and my summers became charged with girls and flesh and hormonal adolescent torment. My brothers in arms suddenly became co-conspirators, and sometimes competitors, and we prowled the summer streets at night looking for willing females, who were always elsewhere, or were, we began to suspect, non-existent.

Slouching, insolent and as slimly beautiful as we would ever be in our lives, we crammed into cars with bad brakes and bald tires, and we flocked to the beach, where we would see there the other half of the transformation spread out before us on the sand, who were so miraculous and succulent in bikinis and Hawaiian Tropic tanning lotion they made us groan to ourselves.

We preened for them, puffing up our chests and tossing footballs and Frisbees at the water's edge, and endeavoured to be theatrically unmindful of them when we could think of nothing else. Mostly, it came to nothing, but then one summer, something clicked in them, and lust was reciprocated. Our nights were filled with street-corner trysts and midnight skinny dips that allowed us to catch glimpses of each other in the dark.

I wrestled not with boys now but with girls, who always battled me to a draw until that one wondrous summer afternoon when the girl not only succumbed but, to my astonishment, willingly pressed the matter, and that was that. The sex was at once revelatory and anticlimactic, so to speak, as it often is for initiates, but I felt transformed, as if I had joined an exclusive club. I, of course -- casually, as if it were a matter not worth mentioning -- told my friends about it, and that summer brought me status among my peers no amount of money could have bought.

Adulthood arrived. Constricted by real work and a prescribed number of vacation days, summers lost their slow rhythms but gained, for all of that, a new poignancy. One hungered for summer now. Momentous things happened in summer.

Summer cemented the course of the rest of my life, when a girl and I went for a weekend trip to Tofino. She was sweet, gorgeous and game, and I knew we had something when on the drive in, in the scorching heat, we pulled off the highway to get some air and take a look at the Kennedy River.

The river at that point ran through a rocky ravine. Standing on a big boulder 70 metres above the water, we looked down on a deep azure pool so clear we could see trout hovering in the current. We dared each other, held hands and, on a count, jumped. The water was so cold it knocked the breath out of us. We married the next summer.

Then summer after summer followed, the best of my life. Anyone happily burdened with children would tell you the same thing -- summer reborn in their babies' deepening tans and bleaching hair, the slippery press of their feet on dad's shoulders when he stands in as a diving board, the little adventures around tide pools and campfires that are forever impressed upon you as the biggest events of your life.

There were the interminable road trips where the clichés of "Are we there yet?" and "I'll stop this car and leave you at the side of the road if you don't stop!" actually play out, and the all-too-short stays at a cottage where your daughter pirouettes across the beach with such innocent grace your heart aches. There were the sweating gin-and-tonics with friends on a seaside porch and meals with new potatoes and peaches 'n' cream corn on the cob, and the vegetal aroma of a just-picked beefsteak tomato you held up to your nose and smelled, as if you could inhale summer.

There were country roads and fields of waving grass. There was the sun. There was the spangling water.

I am a little unsure of how to regard summer now -- the children are grown, and they will want to make their own summers, and the prospect of a nearing retirement might also promise to rob summer of its special place in the calendar. How to give summer its due when retirement is but one long summer? I'll have to wait and see.

But when it comes time to look back and remember the best of it, it will be a summer day I will remember, and the sun will be shining, and my loved ones will be with me playing in the surf, and I will be smiling.

Pete McMartin is a columnist

for the Vancouver Sun.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 7, 2012 j1

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