Summertime St. Louis

We first learn to love summer as children in school. Summer's first meaning, for most of us, is a holiday from school halls, schoolteachers, schoolwork. Children despise schedules almost as desperately as they need them, and summer for a child is perhaps foremost the liberation from a tiresome schedule. Kids are little primitives, even in the most industrialized societies, and summer replaces a rhythm of arbitrary, human design -- the school day -- with the most essential and primitive rhythm, the cycle of the sun. The school day is over when the last bell rings, but the summer day is over when the sun leaves the sky. And school days yield to school nights, an image of limitation ("not tonight, tonight's a school night"), whereas summer days leave in their wake something altogether different and more delicious -- summer nights -- an image of infinite potential.

Even in childhood, when for all but the least fortunate summer does signal this drastic improvement in rhythm, we are never relinquished completely to the sun's cycle. Grass must be cut as regularly as it grows, a rhythm of chores; pools open, pools close, new schedules to observe; camps appear on calendars, as do practices and game days; eventually we encounter that evil institution, the Summer Job, where hours of our flesh are stripped from duty to the sun and surrendered to pizza kitchens and retail counters. And the least fortunate deserve a moment's witness, those children for whom home is a nightmare; when school shuts them out for the summer, they lose a safe haven. The abused child, that ultimate image of stunted growth and deprivation, is the antithesis of summer, because summer is fullness, everything alive and in flower.

When we leave school days behind, summer is no longer a long holiday in the sun. Then most of us are freed for two weeks at most, and most days the summer only tantalizes us from the other side of the window and melts our work clothes to our bodies when we are walking on the street. Even crowded adult working lives are replenished by summer, though. Cooking, so hot and fussy indoors, encounters the open space and ease of the barbecue grill. The air is perfumed by the fat sounds of softballs meeting aluminum and the sharp crack of baseball on wood. Our great parks come alive with dogs and Frisbees, lovers and guitars. Swimming pools, which haunted us in their emptiness all winter, now shine with water, and the rivers, unfrozen, roll all through our state.

St. Louis, a river-valley town far from ocean breeze or mountain coolness, might be mistaken for a summer hellhole. Anyone who has ever, say, loaded a moving van here in the month of August could argue this case quite persuasively. We would all have to admit that there are days ahead of us these next few months when absolutely the only comfortable spaces will be enabled by Freon. The only other antidotes to the scorchers that await us can be found just outside of town in the Ozarks. Within a couple hours' drive time to our southwest are hills, woods, streams and swimming holes unbounded by heat-holding concrete where deep into most summer nights a person will need a campfire because of a little chill in the air. Summer may be the season of the sun, but the moon never looks better than it does in late June, glimpsed through an Ozark canopy to the music of a crackling campfire.

We may also find our coolness in a bottle of beer. I beg pardon of all teetotalers, of anyone who ever found drink to be a demon, but summer is a sweet season for beer drinking, and what better place to enjoy that pastime? All over the world people have stacked in their refrigerators some canned associations of beer and this town, and for those who favor a heartier brew than A-B's varieties of weak pilsner, we have Schlafly's (among other, lesser local microbews). Baseball bleachers, backyard barbecues, canoe trips, music festivals, country drives (with a sober driver, of course) -- an essay dedicated solely to the appropriate contexts for a long day of summer beer drinking would be a pleasure to write.

We all have our stories; let me tell one: Many summers my cousin Willie and I observed a ritual called simply "fun in the sun," which began with a tour of the A-B brewery, ending with our hammering two King Cobras in their beer garden, courtesy of the house. Then we would repair to Globe Drug in Soulard to buy whatever damaged import beers they were selling on the cheap, and their coolest ball, which we would throw around in Soulard's little park as we drank our damaged beer. From there we shuffled off to wherever the music sounded good, which is all over Soulard. (I know that there should be a sober driver in this story, but, hey, we were kids, and we were lucky). Once we ended up at a gay wrestling party right in the brewery's shadow, but along the way we had also accumulated a Peruvian mathematician, who was a woman and who insisted on going down into the party basement to observe the wrestling matches, which verged on gay orgy. She was unwelcome, so we were unwelcome, so our drunk summer butts got tossed from the gay wrestling party back into the sweltering night -- where, fortunately, beer was still for sale.

Summer is, indeed, a season for being thrown out of parties. Because summer is a blunt season. Everything gets in your face like a hot sun. Higher temperatures dictate lighter clothes so more flesh, more of us. We tend to see each other's toes and armpits in the summer time. It is harder to hide things during the summer -- our smells, our bellies, our nipples, our legs, our pubic hairs, our sweat, perhaps even our intentions. Summer is when we let it all hang out. Let it be a good one.

-- Chris King

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