Summer Days

Alan Gowan

They seemed to last forever. Time would nearly stop. The sunshine would pour down on me and the lonesome pulsing drone of some distant unseen airplane engine would become the solitary metronome slowly beating cadence, the only thing marking time during those endless golden summers of my boyhood.

I remember the fourth of July picnic was a pretty big deal to me. Steak, watermelon, and strawberry pie washed down with cold iced tea under that giant maple. The week I spent every summer at Grandma and Granddad's was magic, filled with delights so different from home. Riding in the back of Granddad's truck. The aroma of coffee in the dewy cool of a July morning. Fried potato cakes and Good Humors. All the different smells. Onion sets in the shed, lumber new and old, fertilizer, peat moss, and the lavender growing by the back door.

But as a child the high point of my summer really was the family vacation. Our reservations had been made since late winter, and whereas the wait always seemed interminable, every year the time would eventually arrive to make our preparations. Suitcases through the scuttle from the attic and down the ladder, to be aired out on the brown summer lawn. Crates, jugs and the picnic basket up from the basement. Pack some food, clothes, car and force the trunk lid into submission and then finally ease away from the curb, droplets of dew becoming watery lines on the car window glass, our vacation finally tangible in that coolness of an early summer morning.

Rt. 29 southwest across Virginia. The trip always included a picnic lunch at a roadside table, stops at filling stations where the restrooms stank to high heaven and dusty fly covered hams hung in the front window, and then finally late in the afternoon we would arrive at Fairy Stone State Park. This was one of those log and stone masterpieces fashioned from the land by the CCC, and the cabin we had reserved sat in the woods right on the shore of the lake. The plain iron bed-frames, old fashioned icebox, and the basic wooden table and chairs set the tone for a week of simple pleasures. Dark green wooden rowboats. We had one for the entire week tied up to a tree just beyond our screened porch. The lake offered the adventure of fishing from our boat in the morning, and swimming at the sand beach in the afternoon. Hikes on park trails revealed some of the secrets of the forest, and the forest itself became the Wild West for our cowboy and Indian fantasies.

Every year during the vacation, from the park stables we would join a group of vacationers for a guided trail ride. Since I had watched many westerns on TV, in particular Roy Rogers, there was no doubt in my mind that I was an expert cowboy and then naturally it just follows that one is an expert horseman as well. Since I was convinced I really was Roy Rogers, this was the most exciting part of the entire vacation. I was convinced my hours watching cowboys on TV had conveyed to me all the talent and knowledge to be the expert horseman that I was convinced I really was. I knew my black high top Keds looked like cowboy boots, too. We followed the horse in front of us on the winding trail through thick woods. The guide would pick up the pace and the horses would run! Mostly for me, I tried to hold on and look cool as I desperately tried to correctly time the up and down of my rear with the up and down of the saddle. Somehow this seemed different than what I had observed from the front of the TV.

When I became a teenager, with the family vacation and my cowboy days behind me, I began to spend some time each summer with family friends in central New York State. They lived in a small town, and owned a farm three miles away. Their boy was my age and was active showing horses in 4H. My first summer visit found me on a farm with horses for the first time in my life. Being the expert accomplished vacation horseman, surely on this farm horseback riding would come my way. First things first.

Ignorance of my ignorance had kept my world small but comfortable; false confidence demanding no consideration that a greater world lay waiting. A fleeting summer afternoon in a Stuben County barn, sunlight shafting through ancient timbers, brought awareness of larger world possibilities. Muck out stalls, spread manure? Unaware of these activities even existing, these tasks required skills. Paul used the tractor to back the manure spreader into the barn. I watched amazed as he steered right, left, right left, cleanly centering it in the aisle. Disbelief followed, I waded in and soon my fork was sending dank residue arcing overhead to the waiting spreader. I being around cars and trucks all my life but being isolated by the automakers from the nuts and bolts that made the vehicle go, our car would just magically carry me along, while the mechanicals silently did who knew what, hidden beneath hood and floor. I had never experienced basic real machinery like the tractor and spreader. Cold steel, worn, hot oil and steel, gears and grinding chains. Power take offs, spinning shafts and hot grease as we drove across the big hill.

Finally with an application of fragrant oat straw the stalls were ready. Coaxing Paul's horse out of the pasture, leading her to the barn we began the transformation of the horse for an upcoming show. We soon had his horse cross tied in the center aisle and we began. This was something different from my expectations. With a hollow suddenness, I sensed my knowledge of horses, was as irrelevant as my knowledge of mechanical things gained in the back seat of the family car. On my vacation I had approached a docile, tired horse held with a bridle outdoors in a large area. One foot up, swing over and ready to go. That's sort of what a horse was to me.

In the confines of the barn, the horse seemed larger and made me nervous. Captured, tied to the planks of the stalls, she shifted and I sensed her weight, blood, muscle and felt her moisture. I moved cautiously, her bulging eyes followed me. Course hair, soft nose, hard hoofs, touch her, wash her. So much larger than me. We squeegeed the water from her body with coat hangers. I felt her tendons, veins, scraped fly eggs off her legs, cut burrs from mane and tail and combed her until she shone. We cleaned her like a baby.

The following week on a clear summer July morning, Paul and I packed lunches, saddled horses and into the adventure we rode. We wandered dirt lanes, crossed creeks, wound our way through pastures, mossy cool glades and hot stony hillsides. We explored crumbling farmsteads, streambeds, woods and fields of grain. We laughed, wondered, threw firecrackers into the air, got lost, talked and went wherever the day led us. Early evening, homeward bound, we emerged from the woods and rode into a field. Paul picked up the pace and we were "running". The horses started to lope and the slam bang smoothed out as if in a rocking chair. For the first time ever, I wasn't just sitting there upon the horses back. My legs were wrapped around another animal, the uneasy fears of this creature were stripped away in scant seconds as I felt her heart through my body. And then it happened. Paul kicked his mount, I did the same, the horses exploded beneath us, and something only imagined became a reality. On that sunset evening, time seemed to stop as those beasts launched us into another dimension and we flew; running flat out through crimson air.

I will never forget that day. Nor subsequent times on other summer days spent at the farm, or wandering over the hills of the rural countryside. Boys being boys on sultry summer afternoons.

Read other articles by Alan Gowan