— James Dent
(b. May 9, 1939)
Ironic how that old expression “hot as a firecracker” has found its way into more than a few local conversations the last couple of days. After all, it’s hot — triple digit hot — and Wednesday is July the Fourth, as in land of the free, home of the brave and gateway to the loud.
This heat wave is a fitting preamble to America’s annual tribute to ear-popping, eye-pleasing fireworks. The fact that they’ve arrived at about the same time is no accident. After all, it’s summertime. And July 4 is synonymous with heat. Love it or hate it, I think it’s supposed to be this way ... just maybe not for so many days in a row, nor quite as blistering as a furnace.
Al Gore’s probably sitting pretty tall in the saddle right about now in the eyes and hearts of those who believe greenhouse gases and global warming are more than just scientific theory. Of course, the other side of the camp during each mid-January freeze counters with, “Where’s your global warming now?” To each his own. Most have their opinions. As do I.
My down-home father-in-law’s favorite cliche to describe the midsummer wilt as “hotter’n blue blazes.” My guess is a blue blaze is pretty darn hot, inarguably much worse than the standard yellow variety. By contrast, I’ve heard some colorful metaphors used for the cold. But most are unprintable, at least in a community newspaper.
The heat that traditionally wraps itself around Independence Day and all those barking fireworks often takes me back to my north Mississippi boyhood where the July inferno was compounded by the corresponding heat index. Down there this time of year in the land of kudzu, corn and cotton, the air always seemed “thick as molasses,” to quote my late grandfather, J.D. Denson of Booneville. Southern born by grace, Papaw shared many of my West Tennessee father-in-law’s views on life, liberty and the pursuit of an Oak tree shade on those sultry summer afternoons when the air was heavy and the breeze was still.
In those days I didn’t even know “heat index” was a weather term. We always called it “muggy.” Some said “juicy.” Others just exclaimed, “This air is thick!” My Dad occasionally would call it “humidity,” whatever that was. Most of us boys just roared in our Deep South drawls, “It’s hot!” Our convictions were as deep as our thin bodies were tanned.
Beating the heat altogether was near’about impossible so dulling its sting was our key to survival. The grownups enjoyed a comforting shade, a cold glass of iced tea — sometimes water — or a cardboard fan waved back and forth across the face. The lucky folks had a window air conditioner that comforted a room, but failed the house.
Boys had their own devices for staying cool. More times than not, it involved water — from a muddy pond shared with the livestock, from a creek whose trickling current tickled the senses of sun-reddened skin or even from a rubber hose whose valued possession led to more than a few hundred wrestling matches by freckle-faced youngsters wearing hand-me-down swim trunks. These were backyard brawls where the water king knighted his slippery pawns with pinpointed sprays from the tip of the prized, thumb-blocked garden hose.
In those late ’50s and ’60s, boys did what boys did ... whatever it took to beat the heat. No magic. Little mystique.
Looking back, it’s a wonder any of us survived our youth. Today’s young folks who worship the clear blue ripples of a municipal swimming pool, or the bright white sands of a Florida beach, would surely turn up a nose and curl a disgusted lip at some of the pond water that cooled our heels back in the day. Can’t say that I blame them.
Our catfish ponds had beaches, but they weren’t white and they boasted no sand. Most were muddy banks lined in grass, weeds, a cow patty here and there, and on occasion the rogue snake. Some my Dad would call “just a water snake.” Others, well, they were easily identified by country folks like us as water moccasins. Most called them cottonmouths. “Bad’uns,” the adults would call them. That meant they were venomous and we boys had orders to steer clear.
One steamy Saturday afternoon — probably about August — my Mom plopped down on a weed-infested bank to watch us kids frolick in the pond. I don’t recollect the full details, but according to rural legend — told most often at family reunions — my mother glanced down to one side, saw the coiled menace just a couple of feet away and promptly rediscovered her youth. From what I was told, she ran one direction and the snake slithered the other.
Mom wasn’t harmed in the adventure, but I’m pretty sure the cottonmouth never saw another sunrise — compliments of Dad’s double-barreled shotgun.
Swims in the dirty pond were often followed by the downing of a couple of soothing watermelons back at the house. Most were eaten fresh off the vine. Few were chilled on ice or cooled in the old, grungy, white Frigidaire. Half-a-century later I believe watermelons tasted so much sweeter when we were boys. They filled our scrawny frames — at least, until supper — quenched our thirsts and calmed our parched throats.
We survived our share of heat waves in tiny Falkner, Miss. Whether they were hotter or cooler or about what we’re going through right now, I cannot say.
But this I do know.
Summers weren’t always defined by the heat, but how we beat the heat — and the memories we made in the doing.