Summertime, when I was a boy, began the moment Fair Grove school bus No. 10 dropped us off for the last time in spring and lay before us like a prairie too wide to see across.
Though each and every one of those boundless summer days would begin and end with milking and chores, and for weeks on end we would work from milking to milking in the hayfields, I approached them as a prisoner unbound from the chains of a medieval dungeon.
Summer was a season spent almost entirely outdoors, mostly in the company of milk cows, beagle hounds, my dad and my younger brothers. We had few visitors, and we seldom went farther than Jim Andrews’ store in Elkland or to my grandparents’ in north Springfield. Even those trips to town were infrequent and almost never strictly social.
Never a week passed, though, that we didn’t go fishing. If we weren’t putting up hay, we were fishing. We always went fishing on Dad’s birthday or Father’s Day, which often fell on the same day.
Dad had several favorite spots. Potter’s Ford and the Lost Bridge on the Pomme de Terre near Fair Grove were at the top of the list. When I was a boy, the river was teeming with bass and big black perch. Younger generations have never seen that river.
The same was true of the Niangua at Charity, where the crystal waters shimmered with great schools of suckers and cold springs slaked the thirsts of both the river and a country boy.
We often went to Fellows Lake near Springfield. Dad knew old roads that took us to the water’s edge before they were closed and exactly where the channel of the old Sac River flowed. As a boy, he had followed his ‘coon dogs up every stream and hollow later inundated by the lake.
Wind-driven waves lapping at a lakeshore make books and classrooms seem mighty distant.
Never mind the song, summer was not lazy when I was a boy; but, it was a season with a rhythm all its own. Truth be told, it’s the same today.
Newly mowed hay, for example, will cure in its own time, and blackberries will ripen as they please. Neither can be hurried a moment or a day.
Warm milk in a 10-gallon can has to be stirred and chilled if it’s to survive a hot summer night. Cold well water in a washtub was all the cooler we had. A burlap bag pulled over the can wicked up the water all night and usually did the trick — and sometimes it didn’t.
Summer was always too hot.
The only air conditioning I knew of was in big supermarkets.
Little electric fans, and not more than one or two, were the best we could do. I was a teenager before I had one of my own in my very own room. Even then, the sweat pooled in my ears as I tried to go to sleep.
We could cool off in a river or creek, though. Potter’s Ford had a well-used swimming hole or two. Even Greasy Creek just down our road had a hole deep enough for a cooling dip.
Summer’s end came in early August, marked by the run of the Ozark Empire Fair. By then, my brothers and I were as bronzed as brass buckles. The hay was all in the barn until fall cuttings. Hayfields and pasture were as crisp as saltines, and the pond was nearly dry.
Dad didn’t go to the fair. Mom usually took us boys. We generally had a few dollars we’d made picking and selling blackberries — the only money we’d see until we sold ‘coon hides in December.
As broad as summer had looked from that last step off the bus in May, it seemed mighty quick in the crossing by the time late August came around. And those last days — one of which was likely a school clothes shopping trip to Heers — they crashed down like a mountain rockslide.
My elation at the onset of summer was matched only by my disdain for the start of school in fall. I came home each day with a pounding headache. I can imagine a hound pup being trained to the chain must feel about the same. It took a week or more to get used to being penned inside every day — or at least for the daily headaches to go away.
As for “getting used to it,” I’m not sure I ever found a way.
Summertime, when I was a boy, lay before me like a prairie too wide to cross.
Oh, to be a boy again, with that prairie yet before me.
Jim Hamilton is a freelance writer in Buffalo. Contact him at email@example.com. A version of this column previously published in the Buffalo Reflex. ©️ James E. Hamilton 2019.