By Faith Ellestad
To my beloved sons,
I was thinking back to my childhood, and thinking forward to my children, when it came to me. Guys, its not my fault. It’s the fault of summer in the ’50s. Let me explain.
The modest neighborhood of my early childhood was newish, and the street, when we first moved there was partially occupied by new construction in a pattern reminiscent of a jack-o-lantern’s smile, missing every third or fourth tooth. The smile rapidly filled in, each new house bringing more kids to play with. We all had friends our own age, but sometimes, in the summer evenings, age lost its importance and we all played together, games like king of the hill, tag, red light green light, hide and seek in the scary forest (one double lot) or sneak to the creek, which was probably specific to our neighborhood, and extra exciting because it was totally forbidden.
Porches were for the adults to gather on, smoke a pipe or cigarette and discuss parent concerns while they kept an ear open for the occasional fight or hysterical screech that usually indicated blood was involved. As a rule, the injured child was ushered home by a cadre of concerned friends, all proclaiming their innocence. While the escorts milled about anxiously, the victim would be blotted off, sprayed with Bactine, bandaged and sent back outdoors, the hero of the evening.
It was during these summer nights we taught each other valuable child survival skills such as, if you hold your eyes really wide open, and make your mouth very round when you say, “It wasn’t me”, you look much more believable. No one will ever blame you for accidentally letting the dog out if you look like that, either. And, if you punch a hole in two paper cups and connect them with a long string, you might possibly create a primitive telephone, handy for talking to your friend next door. (I never personally had much luck with this method of communication, but some of my friends swore by it.) Also, if you jump off the slide holding an umbrella, the umbrella does not work like a parachute. You will probably end up with a sprained ankle and be unable to participate in certain activities. Just ask your uncle. This may have been why he became a lawyer and not an aeronautical engineer.
In any case, daylight savings time was a miracle to us. We stayed out playing until we could barely see each other through the falling darkness, and moms started calling us home. Woe betide the naughty child who was sent to bed early as a punishment. It was torture sitting in your room listening to all the other kids shouting and laughing while perfectly good daylight mocked you through the open window. It was rare for a child to endure that punishment more than once a summer. No one wanted to miss playing out after supper.
Of course there were rainy nights when you couldn’t play outside. Those were the nights you might entertain yourself counting fireflies through the screen, or watching TV if your family happened to have one. But rainy nights were ok because they brought mosquitoes, and mosquitoes led to the most magical nights of all: the arrival of the DDT truck.
Oh, how we loved that DDT truck. It only came around once or twice a summer and you could hear it grind and hiss for blocks. As it inched ever closer, the excitement was palpable. Doors swung open and entire families flooded out on to their lawns. Parents pulled out folding chairs and children danced around in anticipation. The moment the truck lumbered onto our street, kids raced out to be first in line behind it.
Back then no one knew much about DDT other than it had miraculous mosquito-killing properties, so we were allowed unfettered access to the clouds of toxic chemicals that sprayed out in a wide arc from a big nozzle at the back of the truck. We were inexorably lured by this giant, poison-belching mechanical Pied Piper, with its unmistakable chemical-sweet smell, starting our magical journey at one end of the block, and keeping up with the possibly gene-altering cloud all the way to the other. The game was to make ourselves invisible in the thick vapor. A horde of little illusionists, disappearing and re-appearing at will, and not a mosquito in sight! Consequences? No way.
By the late 50’s, the trucks no longer came, and a few years later, reports of DDT dangers began to surface in the news. I have always worried about this, and recently after a health scare, with some chagrin I asked my very young, earnest doctor whether all those trips behind the DDT truck could have had adverse consequences. She thought I was kidding, and as I told my tale, I knew she must have been thinking, “Who would be that dumb?” But she did consider my story with admirable gravity, reassured me, and even made a note in my medical record.
So far, so good for my overexposed siblings and me, and I can only hope you kids were unaffected by the folly of those happy summer evenings so long ago, because I will need you to take care of me some day. So I apologize now for all your future troubles, just in case.
© 2018 Faith Ellestad
Faith describes herself as a serial under-achiever, now retired after many years as a hospital scheduling specialist. When her plan to cultivate a gardening hobby resulted only in hives, she decided to get real and explore her long-time interest in creative writing. She’s so happy she did. Faith and her husband live in Madison, WI with Ivy, their beloved old Belgian Tervuren. They have two grown sons, (also beloved), and a wonderful daughter-in-law.