One summer, my life changed.
At the time it seemed only like a change in plans, but I was wrong.
I remember the events that altered my life and social position as if it were yesterday. The month was May. The year, 1965. President Johnson was in office, Vietnam was raging and student unrest was rising. The place was Tyler, Texas, a sleepy beautiful little city about 120 miles east of Dallas where my dad operated a very successful retail bakery. Our only exposure to the turmoil and protest that was brewing in Asia and on college campuses was when we watched Walter Cronkite report the evening news. Most of Tyler’s residents were still in shock that Sen. Goldwater had lost to Mr. Johnson.
It was a beautiful spring and I was looking forward to a summer of rest and relaxation before making the big step to high school.
Tyler was — it is — a very social little city. In the 1960s, your dad’s profession, the country club and dinner club to which your parents belonged, even where you went to church, defined your level of coolness and popularity, in contrast with the rest of us, the unwashed masses. They were the insiders, and we were, in effect, outside, looking in. This East Texas caste system defined who you dated and on Friday nights it dictated what you did and who you did it with.
Suddenly my sense of order was thrown into chaos. Some of the cool kids asked me if I wanted to join them at a friend’s lake house (read: lake swankienda) for swimming, boating, skiing and, I had been told confidentially, access to beer. Even better, I was assured that one of the cool girls, with whom I was smitten, would be in the group.
Wow. I had arrived. My life hereafter, I reasoned, would be perfect because I had been invited into the coolness club.
Two days before the school term ended, two days before boating, skiing, female companionship and, yes, the possibility of beer, my father entered the picture. “What do you have planned for the summer,” he asked nonchalantly. Well, I could hardly contain myself. The cool kids, I explained, had included me; they had invited me to join them for fun times at Lake Tyler. I did explain that this girl I really liked would be there but I conveniently left out the part about the beer.
“Well, we have an issue,” he began. What? An issue? My future life of perfection—social elevation—flashed before my eyes. “The porter quit today and I am going to need you to fill in until I can find a replacement.” This was a hot job; pots and pans had to be washed, floors scrubbed and work benches and equipment to be cleaned. No smart kid would take this kind of job in the summer. He knew it and I knew it.
My goose was cooked, my life changed. My summer of relaxation and trying to learn about membership in the cool group was now a train wreck.
That night, as I lay in bed feeling more than a little sorry for myself, I had another crushing realization. There would be no future summers of rest and relaxation. I would spend the rest of my life working during the summers, earning money for college and, after college; I would spend summers making a living to provide for a family.
It hit me like a ton of bricks, crushing my already bruised sense of importance, that the previous summer, a couple of months of lying around reading, playing baseball and goofing off, was the last truly free time I would have in my life.
If I had only known that, I thought, I would have not taken it for granted. I would have savored it every day.
© 2012 John Gregory Self