Solstice Serenades

Despite the mounting profusion of ads for Halloween, the bloom of summer remains fragrant. Besides, this was written in September. At least two weeks yet before Michael Myers, Freddie Krueger, and Jason Voorhees start invading screens for marathon gore sessions.

However, time has come to put away the music evocative of the expired season. Certainly the Beach Boys are on hiatus until a magic day beyond what passes for thaw here in the Mojave Desert in 2023.

Now that we’ve loosened ourselves from the clutches of Covid, I took a moment to consider what music from my past epitomized summer. The several titles chosen represent what unfailingly unifies all Americans. Simpler times. Isn’t the quest for “simpler times” a part of our national character?

For the longest Americans preferred believing themselves “innocent.” Or as we now better know, ignorant and naïve. Often willfully.

More like we knew but didn’t want to confront our disreputable angels. There’s wonderful attraction in the self-deception of exuding purity.

It beats the hell out of truthfully admitting who we are.

Anyway, Covid’s scourge nearly vanquished, less complicated times could come to the fore. Sweltering months when plenty of those long gone walked, talked, and gamboled among us.

Generally summer tunes are happier than most released during the other three seasons. They fit those three months. And once the equinox arrives, they’re fairly forgotten until spring solstice wheels onto the calendar. Hence, hearing the Beach Boys in January means Mister DJ put the needle in the wrong record.

One of the finest summer anthems I’ve carried with me all lifelong is Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer, sung by the incomparable Nat King Cole. Like a good number of that season’s songs, lyrics and melody are simple. No matter how drunk the singer may be, the tune’s simplicity should make butchering it difficult. Belching it is a different matter.

I owe mother and father thanks for implanting Cole’s No. 1 R&B title in my brain pan. They listened to it with a dedication that reminded of their hard upbringings. As long-time readers know, they grew up in the Rural Jim Crow South during the Depression. That each bore no grudges or anger, just memories, astounds me until today.

What Cole’s sweet baritone emphasized while it imparted verses was the easy relief and enjoyment which must’ve been impossible to fathom in my parents’ youth into young adulthood. But once they found each other, became a couple, started striving towards the then possible American Middle Class, Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer must’ve deeply appealed to our elders because it presented joyous rewards earned through honest toil.

Younger, my parents couldn’t have imagined hitting the beach, jumping into the surf, and frolicking. Except for remote, clearly demarcated slivers of sand here and there, authority forbade them the Atlantic Ocean.

Only after migrating North could they stroll boardwalks. Beyond the slats, they could lay out towels then picnic on the sand or even enter and partake of raw bars fruits of the sea without some kind of segregation diminishing their slurpy pleasures.

After lifetimes of denial, Cole’s song may’ve had mother and father agreeing with his sentiment of “You’ll wish that summer could always be here.”

As I love telling the current generation angry their labor doesn’t vault them into executive suites on Day One, “Money and bennies are terrific! What you want to leave with at day’s end is your dignity.”

The ascendant generation prefers “respect” to “dignity.” The first may be given. The second is established.

The latter strengthens backbones. The former often yields malleable, okay, squishy, senses of being. Subsequent civil rights leaders quickly forgot dignity enabled the movement to create societal advances for our nation’s long-marginalized. Those leaders who grasped the standard after the greats accepted era-appropriate trinkets New World Indians later learned were sops that quickly tarnished.

Dignity would’ve lifted us all farther and faster than mere respect.

Of course as those of us older see and hear, a great deal of “dignity” has been forfeited. “Respect” has been bartered away. Enough double talk from someone who wishes to hurriedly dismiss an aspirant seeking “respect,” and whatever dignity derived seems shallow. Because it is.

Two pairs of cousins were born throughout the 1940s. Junior and Richard arrived early in the decade; Barry and Vernon were among the initial Baby Boomers. When each man attained his age of majority, he was subject to the draft. The first two were “fortunate sons.” The younger men had no recourse but to walk the walk in Vietnam.

The two who benefitted from deferrals, Junior and Richard, were the sons of father’s oldest brother Frank. College matriculation spared them any possibility of going to Vietnam. Barry and Vernon didn’t have the same luck of the draw. They were delivered into harm’s way.

Their service in active combat zones overlapped. Each endured Tet. In Vietnam, each man kept his head on a swivel and learned to sleep with both eyes open.

Launched by Vietcong irregulars and North Vietnamese Army troops against the south’s Army of Vietnam and American forces, the 1968 Tet Offensive punctured all notions of the United States military’s invincibility. Ordinary protesters grasped this immediately. However, it took tens of thousands more American lives squandered before the best and the brightest realized the obvious.

Circumstances that kept him Stateside during World War II also enabled Frank’s sons to find succor and safety on college campuses. While the Vietnam convulsed America, Junior and Frank would later admit those cocoons shielded them from that conflict’s gales.

Perhaps his age alone might’ve exempted Frank from induction after Pearl Harbor. But as countless husbands discovered the war’s exigencies demanded fathers too. Frank, though, possessed an ultimate “get out of jail” card. He clocked hours in a war industry. Minor cog as he appeared, he was essential to the arsenal of democracy’s manufacturing effort.

Frank’s four brothers, on the other hand, gained entirely different distinctions. Infantrymen.

War work paid well. Devour raw materials as beating the Nazis and Japan did, creating a shortage of consumer goods, all but the dumbest hourly or salaried personnel didn’t sock away his or her earnings in savings accounts or war bonds. Frank did that and more.

Criminally deficient as his and his brothers’ educations had been, Frank nonetheless exhibited drive to improve himself. He listened to men whose acumen struck him as worthwhile. He then processed what had been heard. And if he couldn’t immediately untangle it, he resorted to deciphering what perplexed him. By the time I came along, one understood him to be a far more granular thinker than all his brothers combined.

My most vivid memory of Frank isn’t his fall out of chairs laughter, but him squirreled away in some quiet spot reading US News & World Reports – perhaps the driest periodical ever published.

Besides stuffing his bank accounts and supporting the war effort through bond purchases, Frank also became an investor. Portions of those funds went to comfortably secure Junior and Richard in colleges.

Barry and Vernon lacked the same leverage. Their father had also been an infantryman. Back on civvy street he found one of those be diligent/make few waves as possible assembly-line jobs like my own father and millions of other returning veterans. Those positions would vault former hayseeds and greenhorns into middle class prosperity. Every veteran who’d lived through the Depression automatically shared a second common background. None of them would call himself a “little man.” These were “working men. Having saved the nation, they took their comforts with just due. On one hand, they maintained lives as simply as possible. On the other hand, they enjoyed their pleasures with a gusto those of us who’ve grown up with plenty might’ve believed exaggerated.

Perhaps if these same strong male figures had shown some skepticism regarding the propaganda being slung by men high above them about Vietnam and other nationalist movements, they wouldn’t have so readily allowed their sons to sacrifice themselves for a 20th century notion of empire.

That was beyond Barry’s and Vernon’s sire, as well as fathers of millions of American sons who dutifully answered their draft notices.

Like father and his brothers concerning the European Theater during World War II, Barry and Vernon never shared what occurred in Vietnam. At least not with anyone who hadn’t been “in country” or had combat in his background. Sometimes at backyard barbecues Frank hosted one would see the recent veterans huddle aside with the older. There, in some distance apart from us civilians they’d discuss subjects probably too raw for the ears of the unaccustomed to blunt honesty.

Cousins as the two sets were, okay, related as in-laws, I wonder if Junior and Frank ever felt any “fortunate sons” pangs. Who knows if the draft ever would’ve plucked them? And if their numbers were called, would they have followed the era’s increasing conscience or have submitted themselves to induction?

Knowing he ducked possible service through legit options, was either ever bold enough to inquire of Barry or Vernon about Vietnam, knowing neither man having been remotely capable of the same escape? Unlikely. Frank imbued his sons with caution. And this held until real life demanded more incisive responses to struggles than either knew how to give.

Neither man could save himself.

The young veterans lived life full out. They were jocular and at ease among others. After their Vietnam service, it wouldn’t be presumptuous or farfetched to have asked them what problems in life couldn’t they solve? Or after wartime what could life throw at them which they’d regard as unmanageable?

In the end, the lives of the two pair of cousins diverged through irony. Those who took advantage of safety in deferments died too soon. The duo who faced scary stretches of imminent death or maiming became senior citizens.

But before the future overhauled each set of sons, I imagined some early 1970s summer afternoon. A day behind the wheel of an Impala or Mercury or Rambler or Corvette radio tuned to WABC. After innumerable ads and promos (it was after all AM radio), followed by DJ schtick, what song or songs might stir the driver? Having been a passenger in all four vehicles then with one of the four sons driving, this isn’t so much of a what may have been proposition as disjointed recollections.

On particularly sweltering New York days – or years later when witty DJs claimed oppressive heat and humidity turned the Big Apple into the Baked Apple – wouldn’t the Lovin’ Spoonful’s Summertime in the City have been in heavy play rotation? It’s so descriptive of the Metropolitan Area’s more densely settled neighborhoods. Especially the “gritty” verses.

And maybe at dusk when “love runs high,” trepidation and expectation and hope merge on rides to exploration and discovery, the Zombies’ Time of the Season anticipates journeys into “promised lands.”

Lastly, and not just because Young Rascals’ lead singer Felix Cavaliere grew up in nearby Pelham, a pair of heartfelt croons. The first, A Beautiful Morning limns the start of the grayest day, while A Girl Like You so directly makes its case the object of affection should feel obliged to submit to such clear blandishments.

Yet summer tunes as these are, they and the feelings engendered drift away with autumn’s first insistences.