Glenn Arbery on the Long, Hot Summer

Writer Glenn Arbery recaptures the hot summers of his youth.

“Essence of winter sleep is on the night,” Robert Frost wrote after picking apples in New Hampshire, where winter comes early. The South of my childhood, where summer was the essence of place, was a vastly different world—not just different from Frost’s lyrical North, but from the closed-in, air-conditioned summers we now experience. I’m after its lost essences.

Bugs and Bees
June bugs were as rare as hummingbirds. I only half-believed in them until I saw one—ungainly, vaguely Egyptian, imbued with strange power like the sacred scarab. When my uncles were boys and they caught a June bug, they would tie a string around it and hold the other end of the string and let it go. Trying to escape, it would whir in circles, round and round and round.

Lightning bugs, on the other hand, were everywhere. I discovered later (to my confusion) that Yankees called them fireflies. Why would they say fire? It was lightning—that strobed moment in the night storm when everything startles out of darkness and instantly disappears. A flash nearby. Where? Here, it flashes. Then, like old Hamlet’s ghost, here. Then 5 feet away, here.

Best were bees. I’d get a small Peter Pan peanut butter jar my mother had washed out and poke holes in the metal top with an ice pick. Between mowings, the lawn of the Baptist church would grow big patches of clover, and you could always find bees in the clover blossoms. If you knelt carefully over one of them drunk with nectar, you could clap the top onto the jar with the bee and white blossom inside. The danger made it worth doing: that furious, thrumming, golden body suddenly encased in glass.

Breezes and Fans
My grandmother, who lived to be 102, was an aficionado of breezes. She grew up in the South in an age not only before air conditioning but even before electric fans. When she and my grandfather built their house in Ninety Six, S.C., in 1909, it had a screened sleeping porch for summer nights. She was alert to breezes, no matter how light. Sitting on the porch after dinner, she would lift her head a little and say, “Oh, feel that breeze.” I would almost—was that it? An almost indiscernible touch.

When I was growing up, only a few families in town had air conditioners, or window units at that. During the day, we stayed outdoors most of the time. If you went inside, you were at the mercy of whatever fans were available. My parents had the biggest one, a huge floor fan at least 2 feet in diameter and more than a foot deep. The blades looked like a big motorboat’s propeller. It had one speed: full blast. When you stood over it and tried to talk, it blew your words back into your larynx, and they came out metallic and uncanny.

I don’t remember a fan in my own room, probably because I had asthma, and it was thought to be bad for me. I remember lying by the open screen in a sheen of sweat, hoping for a breeze, wishing that someone would cool me off with one of those stiff paper fans from the back of the pews at church—the handles like tongue depressors at the doctor’s office, the backs advertising the funeral home. The Methodist memento mori. All the ladies, trading hands during the endless sermon, would wave the picture of Jesus on the front, tirelessly summoning graces. I once knew how to pray for breezes.

Recently, in North Carolina, I saw with pleasure a new house built with porches on three sides like the home of my earliest recollection. Eminently practical, porches were places to cool off, places where conversations took place, not only on them, but from them with the people going past—everybody outdoors as late as possible, enjoying the cool of the evening.

Already, in those days, my parents had fallen prey to the allure of television. Bonanza, Ed Sullivan, Gunsmoke. It was my grandparents who gave me some sense of that older world I sometimes think we might recover. They were green without knowing it; they knew things about being self-sustaining that everyone knew then and almost no one knows now. I romanticize them. Still, if they had a harder life, they also had a freer one. From the porch in the evening, they could catch the breezes and notice the distance the evening star had moved in an hour. The world was held taut on its string.


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