Last week, as I was reluctantly writing a $1,500 check to send my two kids to a Berkeley summer camp, I started to think of what my parents, uncles and aunts did in the 1950s and ‘60s to provide childcare for their families during the summer months when school was out full-time.
The following is a story of how I spent my summers.
Every summer, my younger brother and I spent the sultry months in a rural backwater somewhere on the eastern shore of Virginia. This southern outpost, which was reverently referred to as “Down Home” by my grandmother and assorted aunts and uncles, drew my relatives like a magnet southward in cars stuffed with kids and fried chicken, and talk of past lives and remembered times.
I found out later that the reason we always packed food for long trips in those days was “Jim Crow.” We couldn’t stop at the diners and restaurants we passed along the way because we wouldn’t have been served. Forget using the restroom, even in the gas stations! Be glad you got gas and go! The woods were our bathroom and fried chicken was our travel food of choice (it’s good hot or cold). After a seven to eight hour ride from New York City and Philadelphia our caravan of three to four cars (we always traveled down south as a group) would finally arrive down home.
The modest piece of earth we so proudly owned was called Bay Side. It was originally owned by my great grandfather, Luke Burton, a former slave, farmer and mule team driver. There was a “country style” house which was elevated from the ground for some unknown reason and was infested with flies. I used to wonder how my mother, who would spend hours trying to eradicate the life of just one single fly that happened to invade her world in Philadelphia, would have dealt with these buzzing and flitting hordes.
My grandmother, whose unselfish love and protection I will carry with me always, was never prouder than when she introduced “her boys” to almost forgotten, ill-clad and foreign-talking second and third cousins.
An acre of cultivated field that yielded corn and tomatoes lay to the left of the house. I’ll never forget Nana eating a raw tomato right off the plant, with no salt! Outside of the field, the house, and assorted fruit trees and grapevines were the woods. The sound of the word “woods” catapulted my 12-year-old imagination into flight. “The woods.” Not a park with its safe trees and harmless squirrels, but the woods, full of unknown “dangerous” creatures and all sorts of adventures. I’m convinced that my fascination (in my telling stories of these woods) was the only reason I allowed myself to be stuffed in the back seat of an overcrowded Chevy and whisked away from mother and friends for an entire summer.
I loved venturing into the shadowed wooded depths, armed with bow and arrow. My urban eyes would strain into every crevice; every clump of underbrush, looking for something that I know was hiding and waiting for two little boys like me and my brother.
This particular summer, prior to the pressures of puberty, I knew an adventure was imminent. I became obsessed with the idea of finding a snake. It may have been something my grandmother said about the weeds around and under the house being ideal for serpentine domesticity that made me conscious of the possibility of their existence in my own backyard. A snake. There are no snakes in West Philadelphia but here, right next to the woods, there had to be at least one snake. I now had a purpose and a plan.
The days that followed my revelation found me busy at work. Limbs and branches from every conceivable tree were askew about the yard. I made snake clubs and forked sticks with the same fervor that Noah must have possessed when building the Ark. There wasn’t a side of the house or an area of the yard where my craftsmanship was not in evidence by the presence of a giant club or some other primitive looking weapon.
The days summered by. My brother and I vacationed the days away. My grandmother lovingly labored about with the energy of an army of grandmothers, cooking, peeling, washing and calling after us. “JOEEEY,” I can hear her now. Her voice traveling for miles, it seemed, or as far as necessary, to hasten us back to her protective perimeters.
It was this soprano wail that I heard as I was approaching the steps on which she was descending with a load of wash in her arms. But she wasn’t calling Joey. The word she was shrieking was “SNAKE.” I responded like a soldier hearing a call to arms. I spun around in the direction she was flailing her now empty arms and there it was, slithering right next to my brother, not more than ten feet away. A snake.
The club was in my hand as one-third of its shiny blackness disappeared into a clump of weeds. With all of my 12-year-old might, I sent the club crashing onto its ebony midsection. What a mighty blow! The snake twisted its front around to see what had happened to the rest of its length and the club found the snapping head with the precision of a billiard shot.
My grandmother was shouting and trying to pull us away, but I would not be denied the trophy. My brother grabbed his club and joined in the pounding. The snake rolled and twisted its broken body from side to side until the inevitability of death calmed the scene. I was ecstatic! I beamed. My brother was in awe. “You got him Joe,” he kept saying. “You got him.”
My grandmother was hysterical. “He was crawling right by Winston’s leg,” she kept repeating, “right by his leg!”
I poked and played with my prize all that day. As the flies swarmed and converged on my trophy, I emptied can after can of Raid into their midst in my futile attempt to give dignity to a lifeless piece of meat.
What a kill! It was black, about four feet long. My grandfather said it was a water moccasin, which are poisonous. To me, it was an anaconda. I wanted to skin it and keep this treasure forever, but my grandfather quickly rejected this idea and, around dinnertime, he threw the rotting carcass into the woods where it got caught in a tree.
I stood there and watched it hanging from a branch, silhouetted against a purple sky. Turkey buzzards circled the tree. I grabbed my bow and arrow and thought, “Wow, I’m going to shoot a buzzard out of the sky!”
I sneaked around from tree to tree until it got too dark to see. The next morning, it was gone.
As my kids were boarding the bus in downtown Berkeley to go to camp I told them, “Don’t kill any wildlife, especially snakes.”
As the bus pulled away, full of kids of many different colors and cultures, I was glad for how far we had moved from the “Jim Crow” summers of the past. I also wondered if they could ever have as much fun as we did.