Songs from the past have been haunting me lately. Words from a George Gershwin tune about “Summer time, and the livin’ is easy.” Songs describing those “hazy, crazy days of summer.”
It got me thinking about growing up on the west side of Chicago in the late fifties and early sixties. Summer time—hot and humid lazy days, sleeping in, riding my bike around the neighborhood, visiting friends, my grandmother’s lemonade, and a feeling of contentment. Summer time—no school, no homework, no worries about exams, spelling lists or memorizing the times tables. Just lazy days, filled with joy, the cold refreshment of the sprinkler in the back yard and hot dogs. I loved those days!
For several years, family summers were spent out in Wheaton at the Off the Street Club day camp, which is still there, off Orchard Road, behind Arrowhead Golf Course. My mom was the camp cook, which meant that my siblings and I spent the summer in the wide-open countryside, and away from the city life with its myriad of people, noises and neighborhood friends.
The camp day began at six a.m. when the overnight campers were roused from bed to help set up the tables for breakfast and get ready for the day campers who arrive around nine a.m. Once the day campers arrived, it was nonstop activity until bedtime.
We biked to Herrick Lake where we learned to row a boat until we were comfortable with the oars (which meant when we stopped turning the boat in circles). We hiked through the woods and were taught about the plants and animals we never saw in the city. Once a month some of us would take a bike hike to the Batavia Quarry to go swimming, while other less adventuresome campers came by bus.
If you were an overnight camper on Tuesday evening, around nine p.m., the camp director Auguste Mathieu would take us out on the golf course and teach us about the constellations in the inky black sky. I learned to swim at the camp pool and learned what plants we could and couldn’t eat in the forest that surrounded us. We even learned to bury the garbage so the raccoons wouldn’t get into the trash and leave a mess. Days were filled with crafting, staging plays, playing baseball, and at night, sitting around the campfire while our counselors told ghost stories. Compared to the city, the air was cool, the outdoors a plethora of delight and beautiful silence at night.
I just loved summer. Except for the bugs, but that’s another story.
But those summers end, and before you know it you are longing to be older, ready to move on to other adventures. Little do you realize that with that dream comes responsibilities you may or may not ever be ready for. I remember going to my first job interview and asking if I could have the summers off to work at the camp in Wheaton as a counselor. My new employer looked at me like I had two heads and said that wasn’t going to be possible. I was crestfallen, but what could one do? I had gotten my wish to become older, and there I was, stuck in a grown-up world, with grown up things to accomplish. Summer jobs to pay for college. Then a job to pay for a car. Then a job to pay for anything and everything. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining, I have had some terrific and interesting jobs, but I never had camp again. Those carefree days turned into different days, filled with other wishes and dreams that kept me busy, and enjoying most every moment.
And those camp-filled summers? Well, I can still point out some of the constellations in the night sky, but don’t ask me what you can and can’t eat in the forest. Even though I quickly forgot how to row a boat without going around in circles, I haven’t forgotten some of the ghost stories I heard around a campfire in the evenings. And the camp? Well, its still there, waiting for me to drive down the lane, park my car by the pole barn that stored the camp bus and lawn mowers, and other camp paraphernalia and remember the fun I had in the summer time when the living was lazy.