Fond Farewell Sweet August
I suppose a lot of important things got done in the world last week while my family and I were vacationing in a house on a sleepy island off the coast of North Carolina, but I largely failed to notice because I was officially on August do-nothing time.
I rode a bicycle about four miles a day, usually at dawn and late at night, from one end of the island to the other, pedaling mindlessly along with the sea breeze in my face. Nothing much happened during the solitary outings, I should point out -- unless you take into account several stunning sunrises and beautiful night skies I got to witness.
Some mornings I remembered to shave. Some mornings I just forgot.
I did finish reading two novels I've been poking through for months, though, and worked on a novel of my own that may or may not ever get finished.
I also took a nice nap every day after lunch, and twice I dozed off in a rocking chair on the porch while chatting pleasantly with my mother-in-law about, well, I forget what important subject. She was perfectly understanding, however, because I think she dozed off too.
One morning I chatted with a couple of grizzled fishermen at the end of a pier. That was fun. They offered me a Pabst beer and told me a joke I wouldn't tell a drunken hooker. On the way home, I found a handsome seashell that may have washed up from Madagascar. I went to the beach every afternoon with an umbrella and a chair and got my first good suntan in years, watching the waves build from the approach of Hurricane Bill.
This dedicated do-nothingness reminded me how I love watching people amble down a beach, particularly middle-aged beach moms.
There was this one fetching beach mom in a black one-piece suit, I must admit, that really caught my eye. Her face was adorably freckled by the sun, and her figure was still something to behold. Luckily, she turned out to be my wife, Wendy.
Funny all the stuff that doesn't happen during a late-August vacation. I let my cell phone run out of juice. I took a suitcase of clothes but pretty much wore the same old clothes all week. I meant to start learning Italian but forgot to. I didn't watch a news broadcast or a ball game.
I also took along my golf clubs but never touched them. We played three rather cutthroat rounds of family mini-golf, however, and I won two of three matches to retain my crown as the reigning family mini-golf champion of our tribe.
Summer's Short Lease
This getaway was special, our first family beach trip in more than five years. Two of our four were headed back to college, including one who is spending her year in a small town in Umbria. The other two were heading back to school in upstate New York.
Summer's lease is short, and they've all grown up far too fast, and we intended to get a nice group picture of them all before everyone scattered at week's end. Something for the Christmas card. We took along the new camera but somehow forgot to take the picture.
Every morning, though, I hopped on my bike and pedaled to the only store on the island and bought three or four newspapers, which I read from front to back, including the horoscopes and every comic strip on the funny pages. What a civilized pleasure this was -- having the time to read a newspaper front to back and actually doing it.
I know meaningful health-care reform was hanging by a thread, and Scotland really screwed up by turning loose the Lockerbie bomber. But as far as I'm concerned, possibly because Capricorn was ascendant in his sun sign, the biggest breaking news event of the week concerned Archie, who after 70 years of acute teenage indecision chose to propose marriage to rich girl Veronica over Betty, the winsome gal next door.
Mark my word: Poor Archie's going spend the next 70 years deeply regretting this costly decision. As any Jughead knows, Veronica is one high-maintenance gal.
My wife took a small lending library of old cooking magazines to the beach, culling recipes for her homemade Mother of All Cookbooks. She views cooking the way I view sitting on a beach watching the tide come and go and beach moms amble by -- therapy for the soul, a tonic to the creative juices.
While I scribbled notes on my novel, she created delicious Caribbean grouper, corn-fried oysters and lime beer, grilled sausages and sweet white corn, peach pie and the best key lime pie I've ever eaten. My diet was officially on vacation, too.
It Was Better Before
There was a time, of course, when this sort of family down time or simple human laziness was a God-given right of every American come August.
Back when the cloaking heat of Foggy Bottom became too much for our nation's Congress to bear, the Founding Fathers declared an August recess and caught the first nag out of town. August became America's family vacation month, its spiritual island time away from the coming harvest and daily grind, the calendar's only true do-nothing month.
Only heat waves and dog days happened during August. Sunburns and melting ice cream cones qualified as high drama. For this reason, no national holidays of any sort were plunked into August. Nobody would be around to observe them, anyway.
As a nation matured, August became the calm before September's storm of official presidential declarations, back-to-school shopping sprees and pigskin mania. Back then, whenever that was, whatever happened in August generally stayed in August. Labor Day meant more than the end of white bucks and seersucker shorts. It meant the end of fireflies, better-tasting ice cream, going barefoot in creeks, kick-the-can, and reading the entire back of a cereal box -- and enjoying it.
Sadly, however, August has become an endangered species. It grows shorter with each passing year, having been hijacked by busybody bureaucrats and secret summer-haters, downsized by restless workaholics and corporate marketers who don't know when to leave well enough alone and probably never let their cell phones run out of juice.
The demise of August may well have started with educrats who shoved the official start of the school year like a wooden stake deep into the heart of the summer doldrums, evidently believing a barefoot kid left to fill up an idle summer day with his own fertile imagination is a recipe for trouble.
Speaking as one whose generation was fortunate enough never to enter a schoolhouse until after Labor Day, I'll wager that the poor souls who swiped the last fortnight of true summer freedom from America's kids probably never tried to eat a grape Sno Cone while pedaling a bike along a bumpy creek path. They probably never experienced the exhilarating rush of dousing an unsuspecting loved one with a water gun or water balloon on a broiling summer day.
Not to be deprived of their own power grab, high school athletic departments began piling on summer's end by requiring scholar-athletes to show up for pre-season "training" camps that were about as meaningless as a mustache on a watermelon.
During a family road trip to the Carolina coast some years ago, we made an impromptu stop in Gettsyburg on our way home to Maine so the kids could tour a famous battlefield of the Civil War. Ken Burns' award-winning documentary was about to premiere on PBS, and we thought it would be an outstanding aid to comprehension, an ideal teaching moment -- a way to make their own history come alive, in other words. Silly us. It was already Aug. 20.
As we were dining together in a great pub on the square, chatting about how informative and moving our hike up Little Round Top had been that afternoon, my daughter's cell phone tootled with a teary teammate on the opposite end explaining how "Coach" had announced that anyone, including our daughter, the incoming co-captain of her field hockey team, would be "suspended" from participating in a regular-season game for every day of "pre-season training" she missed. She's already been docked one day.
"Dad," moaned our co-captain, her blue eyes puddling with tears, "we have to get home by practice tomorrow afternoon or I'll have to miss the first two games of the season."
"That's ridiculous," I harrumphed, pointing out that educational family road time has been a sacred part of higher civilized life since the days of Magna Carta. We had plans to take a walking tour of Pickett's Charge by dawn's early light.
"Dad, please. I'll die if I have to miss two games."
Regrettably, I caved to this shameful emotional extortion, this grand theft of precious family time. We burned up the highway and got her there in time for her Tuesday-afternoon practice. Her team went 2-8 for the season. And we wonder why most American don't have a clue about their own history.
Encroaching on Idleness
Once upon a time, football was a purely autumn affair. Then professional football discovered the commercial value of televising pre-season August games that had all the natural thrill of watching your neighbor hose-wash his Buick.
Now colleges and high schools are edging further and further into hot August nights, courting heat stroke and enhanced revenues, shortening summer's lease like a greedy landlord.
Like their French counterparts, especially in these parts, commercial shopkeepers and chefs used to close up the shutters and flee to mountain or seaside for some or all of August. It was a perfect time to pause and take a calming breath, to ponder a new fall menu or take stock of one's books and plan inventory.
But along came the air-conditioned superstore, and soon everyone was encroaching on August's sweet idle days with bigger -- and louder -- "End of Summer" and "Back to School" sales that now seem to begin before the bunting from Independence Day is properly hauled down.
Bending to the weight of the almighty buck, state legislators soon established "tax-free" shopping days designed to transform sunbathers into shoppers and make the cash registers ring like Christmas. I can just see poor Archie sitting on a bench at the mall while Veronica power-shops for the perfect diamond ring.
It wasn't so long that dedicated TV fans had to wait until sometime in late September to catch the premiere of the new autumn shows. Networks now target mid-August for debuting their hippest offerings, thereby reducing a would-be stargazer's chances of witnessing the glorious Perseid meteor shower.
For what it's worth, I actually saw a shooting star from the seat of my bike late one night last week on the island. On the spot, I made a wish that someone would try and save August before it completely vanishes down the rabbit hole of lost American childhood.
I'm afraid our tribe came home from the sea -- and departed for school -- with little more than peeling suntans and a little beach sand in shoes we didn't wear terribly much. I also brought home a lovely pink shell I found in the dawn surf for my office desk.
But let me say thank you, Sweet August. We sure had a nice time doing little or nothing. Hope to see you again this time next year.
Best-selling author Jim Dodson, writer-in-residence at The Pilot, can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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