Jean Shepard once wrote that “summer descends on the Midwest like a fat lady on a picnic bench.” Spring and fall are wonderful: full of vibrant colors. The summer, however, is beset by oppressive heat and humidity, and they don’t let up until late September. The heat was especially bad during the summer at my grandparents’ house in the Quad Cities. They lived in a house that was built before central air conditioning was invented, and Grandpa never believed in spending money on a window unit. The reality of no-central air came hit me square in the face when my brother and I spent a week with my grandparents while my folks were away.
Grandpa met my big brother and me at the Greyhound Station in Moline and drove us back to the house. As we drove along, he pointed out International Harvester and John Deere, the two factories that were the backbone of the economy. Every time we entered Silvis, Grandpa never got tired of telling us that his town had more bars per square mile than any other. “That one over there,” he’d say, “is named Hard Times Bar. And, they’ve had some hard times, too. They got robbed twice in one week.” As we drove down First Avenue, we passed our favorite place: Ben Franklin’s, a dime store that sat next to City Hall and the Police Department. The store was only a couple of blocks from my grandparents’ house and the high water mark of every visit was a trip to Ben Franklin’s. The place was full of all the toys that a kid could want. These were the days of squirt guns, silly putty, wind up cars and dentures, plastic army men, jacks, super balls, dart guns, balsawood gliders, yo-yos, pull-string helicopters and flying disks, Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs, Erector Sets, junior carpenter tool box, jack in the boxes, bows and arrows, gyroscopes, 3D View Masters, Whirly Wheels, board games like Operation and Candyland, Play-Doh, Easy-Bake Ovens, Lite-Brite, Spirograph, Barrel of Monkeys, Chutes & Ladders, Cherry-O, Sling shots, whoopee cushions, plastic periscopes, Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots, Johnny West, Astronaut Matt Mason, G I Joe, paddle balls, Indian headdresses and double-holster cap pistols, tom-toms, tin badges, Battling Tops, plastic spiders, marbles, pea shooters, and plastic handcuffs. I couldn’t wait for grandpa to take us.
Grandpa turned right and pulled up the hill and parked the car in the garage. As soon as we got out, the reality of the summer sunk in: the no wind, open-oven, don’t-touch-me, suffocating and sticky heat. We all made for the living room, and Grandpa took his position in front of the ottoman fan that sat in the middle of the floor. My brother and I sat on the sofa, our skin sticking to the wool upholstery and the beads of sweat forming on our foreheads. Soon after, I understood my father’s obsession with air conditioning. It meant the ability to control his environment and was a sign of middle-class success. The flush toilet and running water notwithstanding, central air was one of modern man’s greatest inventions. My Grandma and Grandpa lived simply. They didn’t have a whole lot of things. I first noticed that I wasn’t at home anymore the next morning when I got up for breakfast. The only cereal that they had was Team flakes and Rice Crispies. I opted for the Snap, Crackle and Pop, and doused them with sugar. During the week, I had eaten so much cereal that my Grandma asked me, “Sweetie, have you moved your bowels today?
I was dumbfounded; I had no idea what she was asking. “Moved my what?” I responded.
“Your bowels,” she repeated.
Still without a clue about what she was talking about, I answered: “My what?”
Altering her voice slightly, she asked, “Did you poopy?”
In utter confusion, I heard myself respond, “huh?”
My grandpa, who was watching this unfold from his chair in front of the television, rephrased her question: “Did you shit? She wants to know if you took a shit today or not.”
I probably answered, but I still don’t recall what I said. Grandma didn’t ask me again.
To be continued.
Cross-posted at B2L2: http://jimmygabacho.com/?p=805