The end of summer is at hand, and I may well miss it. Jumping the gun a bit, but not by much, I find myself less disgruntled, overheated, and dying for that sense of “death in the air that really gets the boys’ pens moving,” as Hemingway once wrote to Fitzgerald around this time of year. Writing this at the very beginning of August, again, I say, I may be congratulating myself prematurely. Still, not bad, not bad as summers go.
I never went to summer camp, but what I had was baseball on Chicago’s West Side. It was a very large city park across from St. Robert Bellarmine school, which my cousin Jim attended. He was a genius — a doctor today, and he was always meant to be. No question. Jimmy was a good pitcher, very good. So was I, but he was better, so I hit better, which landed me in right field most of the time. Shortly after dawn, Jimmy and I would wake up on those ’60s summer mornings and put out the call in front of six to ten friends’ houses up and down Merrimac and Montrose Streets: “Yo-oh, Vinny! Yo-oh, Ant’ny! Yo-oh, Stosh! Hey, Missus DeSilvio! Can Ant’ny and Ant’ny come out to play?”
Jimmy had an A2000 pitcher’s glove worth $60. I forgot what I had. Jimmy’s dad was a cop and would sometimes hit some out to us. Both he and my father were giants with the strength of major-league colossi. Each fly ball was a thing of awe and beauty, every grounder a haiku of grace and restraint. Jimmy and I were a little past the point of just feeling lucky to get wood on the ball, but it puzzled us as to why our fathers were not famous all-star legends. Why would you want to be a cop or an advertising insurance copywriter if you could hit and field like that?
Royal Crown Cola in 16 oz. bottles is part of that memory. Nothing ever tasted as good as that, not after that last summer. Not even Royal Crown Cola. Not even booze.
We never had nine guys on a team, but often we would have five or six, which was plenty. From 7 a.m. to sundown at 8:30, even 9 o’clock, stopping for a lunch of Italian sausage or salami sandwiches, we played baseball. Years later, trying to recapture the taste of that salami, I entered a Jewish delicatessen on Court Street in Brooklyn. Not realizing this was a kosher joint, I asked for Italian salami. The guy behind the counter called into the back, “Murray! What’s Italian salami?” From the wings offstage came the reply, “It’s the same as kosher only it’s got hairs in it.” For dinner it was often spaghetti (before it was called pasta) or my aunt Louise’s neighborhood-famous ravioli. I’m sure we ate other things in that house with my two aunts, grandmother, and two uncles, but I can’t remember anything else except stuffed peppers...maybe pot roast.
If this sounds idyllic, cornball, ethnic, I suppose it was, but I never played stickball (didn’t know what it was) and we never had to play in sandlots, whatever they were. We had vacant lots, but they were for target practice on rats with my uncle’s .22 when we couldn’t get to the range or the dumps.
I remember my Uncle Lenny’s police service .38 wheel gun lying out on the kitchen counter whenever he was home. We never messed with it because there was no mystery. We loaded 12-gauge shotgun shells for him (and us sometimes) in the basement with a lever device like a one-armed bandit. I remember motorcycle rides on Lenny’s police cycle through the alleys of the West Side. I don’t know if Leonard Kozlowski is still alive. I hope so. He was a good man who helped my family after my father’s death in 1968.
It must have been humid, but that’s not what I remember. I recall fireworks set off by my dad and uncle and the “punks” used to touch them off (Jimmy and I were allowed those and sparklers), most of which had to have been confiscated as police evidence. Cherry bombs and M80s. Those were the summers of Riverview Amusement Park, the coolest place in the world, where Paul Newman and Robert Redford would be filmed in scenes from The Sting just a few years later, before the whole place was demolished.
On Sundays, Jimmy would serve Mass at St. Robert’s. Very serious he was about this, and I could never crack him up. After Mass it was a daylong feast of antipasto, sandwiches, sodas, Carling Black Label beer and Chianti, cold-cuts and sausage, and the ever-present vat of marinara sauce. In the attic, Jimmy and I would eat off of TV trays piled with food. My aunts thought we were skinny, and we were, and I remember Jimmy’s mom, Aunt Ruth, telling me repeatedly, “Johnny, you got such a nice head of hair. Get it cut, for crissakes.” We watched Flash Gordon, Captain Blood, and WWII movies all in black-and-white but somehow full of more Technicolor than the real thing.
When it rained, that’s all we did, watch movies: Henry Aldrich was a recurring character, now long forgotten, from 1940s films; The Sea Hawk, with Errol Flynn (it was his long hair I wanted ever since, not the Beatles’); even Jack Benny and Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in road movies. Tarzan, too.
Or we read. Jimmy read Tom Swift books and adult war novels (which I also liked), while I read the Hardy Boys and H.G. Wells. We read each other imitation sports articles we had written on his typewriter about our own games or the Cubs or Sox if we’d been taken to Comiskey or Wrigley that Saturday.
Puberty put an end to all that. And if this past summer was a pretty good one, it can’t compare. None of them can, except maybe the summer of 1977 in New York. It’s been called the Summer of Sam, at least in the movie by that name, but I think of it as the Summer of Geoff. My son was born on August 27 of that year. Happy birthday, son.