This past six weeks I have had a series of illnesses that kept me inside, mostly reclining, and thinking a lot. It occurred to me that the last really great summer of my childhood was that of 1963. I spent most of that summer with my family at a rented cottage on Unity Pond in Central Maine. Our rental was part of a little compound of cottages in a cove near the golf course. The families who owned the other cottages were friends and acquaintances of my parents, and all the kids were schoolmates of mine.
Now, the reason that this particular summer was so great, was that we were, as a country, still a bit naïve. We knew about war and chaos, and many of the adults in our summer place were WWII veterans. We knew about the dangers of nuclear war, and had even been to the brink in the October 1962 Missile Crisis. But, in other ways, we were still a country of relative innocents.
We listened to Lesley Gore’s teenage angst in “It’s My Party”, and we marveled at the harmonica virtuosity in a song called “Fingertips” by a young lad named Little Stevie Wonder. I was twelve, so I yearned for the ultimate sophistication of becoming a teenager, which was still months away for me. My girlfriends and I dreamed of dancing with boys when we listened to Bobby Vinton croon “Blue Velvet”, and we weren’t quite certain what to make of the bad boy the Angels described in “My Boyfriend’s Back”.
In our little cove we got up early, put on our bathing suits, and spent the days swimming and boating. On rainy days, we stayed inside and played Monopoly. Our parents had cocktails in the late afternoons on the screened porches of the camps, and the Moms created a flotilla on plastic rafts during the day to gossip and catch some rays.
We had canoes and rowboats and motor boats. We swam to the “float” and pretended we were mermaids, or Lloyd Bridges in “Sea Hunt”. We used our goggles underwater and made up bazillions of games that kept us in the lake all day. When it was time to eat, my friend Dean’s father would cook hot dogs and burgers on the grill. My Mom would make quick and easy meals like spaghetti and salad and cupcakes. The parents would combine forces and have potluck on the picnic tables. At night you were so tired from playing hard all day, that you slept soundly with the lapping of waves on the beach as a lullaby.
The sun seemed to shine most of the time that Summer. The parents were enjoying their vacations and laughing a lot. A few of the older kids pushed the limits, but most of us behaved pretty well and got along with each other. The Country was in a pretty good place with a remarkably intelligent young family in the White House.We were unaware of major events that would change our happy world, and that is why it was, in retrospect, such a lovely time.
That Fall, I turned 13 on November 21st. On November 22nd, the charismatic 46-year-old President Kennedy was killed. Everything changed. Really, everything. No longer were we a nation of innocents; now we all knew that really bad things can and do happen when you least suspect that they will. I wish we had never learned that.
We changed as a Country on that long, horrible weekend in November, and we changed as individuals, too. This was the beginning of suspicion and mistrust of the institutions many of us had regarded as above reproach before. This was the beginning of a lot more divisiveness and discord. This was the beginning of an era that saw us plunge more deeply into a very unpopular war, recoil from the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy, and protest violently against all the injustices that were to come.
It was no longer possible to feel those “Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer” that Nat King Cole sang about. We were too frightened to go “Up on the Roof” with the Drifters, as we had before. And we searched for something that would transport us to a happy place in our minds, as the Beach Boys had done with their singularly American images in “Surfin’ U.S.A.”.
As the Summer of 1963 faded into Autumn, we were not prepared for the enormity of the changes that we would soon face. We were unworldly, ingenuous, and trusting. I guess that’s what I miss the most about the Summer of 1963.