Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Think Summer

Today is Valentine’s Day. Instead of roses, chocolates, or other tokens of affection, I’m gifting you with something cheaper, less caloric, and more heat producing: A reminder that Summer – hot, sunny, summer -- is just a tad over four months away. And with nary a break in Chicago’s 19-day cold wave, I figured photos of bathing beauties (captions provided at the end), tales of unforgettable vacations, and peeks into childhood summers gone by, might be more welcome than traditional Valentines.

First up, my summer memory: Like many Jewish Chicagoans who grew up in the 50s and 60s (see “The Division Street Princess”), Union Pier, Michigan, a seaside town about 90 miles from the city, provided our family with scrapbooks full of photos and memories that have lingered for decades.

Our annual routine went something like this: the four Elkin sisters, plus some sisters-in-law, would rent several cabins in the country where they and their children could spend a few weeks away from the sweltering city. On Friday nights, the husbands would drive up for the weekend, shed their workaday wardrobes, and join their relaxed wives and exuberant children for a quick two-day respite.

Looking back, I see me racing to meet Dad’s four-door Buick, watch it stir up a cloud of gravel as he pulls to a stop in our compound, and as soon as the motor is off, I hop on the running board to kiss his sweaty, bearded cheek.

I also recall days at the beach where we buried compliant cousins neck deep in the sand, riding my brother’s shoulders until he tossed me off into not-so-deep water, and finally, trudging back to our cottages, hot, exhausted, and sand encrusted. But it’s the Buick, and Dad’s scratchy cheek I remember best of all.

Now, let’s meet some friends who have generously shared their stories of summers past. Here’s former Chicagoan Chuck Otto, a West Michigan-based writer and communications consultant who specializes in environmental issues. Chuck and his wife, Ruth Anne, live in a tiny town on the Lake Michigan shore. This is Chuck’s contribution:

“Like many Midwesterners, I tend to hunker down during the winter months and dream of the coming summer’s vacation destination. From Nantucket to Anchorage, Santa Fe to Seattle, near or far, I’ve loved them all. To me, travel ranks as one of life’s greatest pleasures, and an absolute necessity for maintaining my sometimes borderline sanity.

“As a native flatlander, I have a special place in my heart for Colorado and the Rocky Mountains. Nothing beats those vast, open landscapes, distant mountains and blue skies. Boulder in particular, with its relaxed attitude and outside orientation, has an almost magnetic hold on me. I’ve had similarly wonderful experiences wandering the Pacific Northwest, the desert Southwest and the Northern regions of my home state of Michigan.

“As you might have noticed, my ideal summer vacations often involve trekking through woods, deserts and dunes. But I have to admit that an afternoon in a museum, humble or grand, is also time well-spent. And don’t even get me started on food or I’ll dazzle you (or not) with riveting tales of my first bowl of Southwestern green chili, a life-altering Indian meal in Cambridge, England, or that superb dinner of fresh-caught wild salmon in Fairbanks…

“I know people who have been everywhere, seen everything, and are clearly bored by it all. I pity them. I hope I always feel the sense of childlike wonder I experience from looking at maps, reading travel guides, packing my suitcase, and heading out on that next great summer adventure.”

Linda Freedman, LCSW, LMFT, PhD is in private practice in Chicago and is an academic researcher/writer, and the popular blogger, TherapyDoc. She has a more harrowing experience to share:

“How hard could this be to remember a nice, sunny vacation in the middle of the winter? Except it's the BAD vacations I remember. That's how my brain works.

“When I fell in love with F.D., we would talk about what we would do when we were married, and camping was at the top of the list. Even after we had kids.

“One summer, the older children went to camp and F.D. and I took our boys, 4 year-old and 10 months, to Turkey Run, Indiana for a weekend in the summer. By then we had a dog, too, an Airedale, only a pup. But he was BIG.

“Turkey Run's gorgeous. The best hiking path is through a very steep gorge that cuts through a canyon. What's left of a creek or a river is a little trickle of running water. When we arrived it started to rain a little. So here we are, in a gorge, and it's raining. Then it starts to pour, really pour, and pretty soon we're knee deep in a running river, not a trickling creek, and thunder's scaring the kids and lightning's crackling, lighting up the sky. Other hikers are scrambling up the cliffs, but we're handicapped with the boys and the dog. I remember water rising, rising, rising.

“We do it, make the scramble up the cliff. We dive between trees wondering if we'll be hit by lightening and that will be the end of what had been previously been a relatively nice life. Then the rain lets up. We go back to our site, get showered, start cooking because it's a Friday and we're Sabbath observant and everything has to be ready before sunset.

“I turn on the radio and hear: Tornado warning. Tornadoes have been spotted in Champaign, Illinois and are headed into Indiana, should be in the vicinity in about an hour. If you're in a trailer or a mobile home, please vacate to permanent shelter immediately.

“F.D. looks up at the sky and says, ‘No way, We've had the worst of it.’ But the sky's getting dark and it's starting to rain again, so I take the kids to the lodge to see if they have a room, but all are taken. ‘Can we stay in the lobby?’ I ask. ‘Sure, but not the dog,’ they say. I run back to the car and in blinding rain find the campsite again, and then locate F.D. We both have seen the dark cloud, watched the miserable black funnel as it passed over the area. It never touched down.

“The upshot? I don't like rain anymore, and I’m a little traumatized when I hear thunder. I'll walk in the rain, but I don't camp. Vacations? I'll take mine in the winter, thank you.”

My brother, Ron Shapiro, lives in Kansas City, Missouri, with his wife Norma (my sweet sister-in-law). Along with writing his occasional blog, Ron keeps busy with his jobs as “The Rapid Peddler,” an industrial chemical and janitorial supplier; at Allied Home Mortgage; and as a sports photographer. I asked Ron to supply a story for this photo and this is what my big brother (three years older) sent:

“Who is that guy? That's a time when I had a thin body and fat hair. Now, it's sort of switched to a fat body and very thin hair. I guess everyone has a place to escape to in his or her mind. Mine is over 20 years ago in the photo, near the water, lots of sun and happy days. I find myself going back there more often than I should. But rather than get depressed, I mentally flee to Hawaii. If I were to title the photo it would be “Every Day.’ Norma says I should stop living in the past and she's right. But when I close my eyes, my ‘Making Happy’ days start to roll as if in a film.”

Lowell D. Streiker, Ph.D., is an inspirational humorist, speaker, and author who lives in California. A 1956 graduate of Austin High School, Lowell has contributed to 40 books and his latest is “Of Boys and Guns: Childhood Memories of a Chicago Neighborhood--1942 to 1952.” Lowell offers us this essay about a much beloved summer place:

“During the summers, some kids from the block went to Riverview, the famous amusement park at Western and Belmont, about 40 minutes by two streetcars from our neighborhood. Now and then, thanks to coupons distributed by the Mom and Pop stores that ballyhooed, ‘free admission to park and (6) rides per person,’ I would go along.

“The coupons provided admission and free rides on the lesser attractions—the 70-horse merry-go-round, the slower roller coasters, the Tilt-a-Whirl, the Bump ‘em Cars, the Tunnel of Love, and the miniature train. The gang considered these ‘kiddy rides,’ fit only for ‘chickens’ and ‘sissies.’ They headed for the 35- and 40-cent rides. Their favorite was the Bobs, then America’s scariest roller coaster. Next they rode the Chutes, a fast slide down a long ramp in a 10-passenger, landing-craft-like boat into a huge pond. The resultant splash was sure to soak the riders and any bystanders!

“The limit of my courage was the Super Eli, the great double Ferris Wheel, twice the height of ordinary Ferris wheels. The operator made sure that each car stopped at the top for a minute or two, swaying in the wind, with its occupants shrieking in fear. Way beyond my terror limit was the Pair-o-Chutes, a 212-foot tall lace work of steel (originally built as Chicago’s version of the Eiffel Tower), from which couples sitting side by side on a wooden bench would free fall as a parachute canopy opened above them.”

Thanks to Chuck, Linda, Ron, and Lowell for sharing their stories. We hope our tales have managed to raise your hearts’ temperatures several degrees. If not, there’s always chocolate.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Photos Captions:

1. My friend Eve and me, bathing beauties at North Avenue Beach, circa, 1956.
2. Aunt Blos, with Cousins Randy and Renee on either side. Union Pier, 1960.
3. Uncle Nate, Aunt Jackie, Cousins Michele and Lori. Union Pier, 1960.
4. Sasha, our first golden retriever, during a Union Pier revisit, likely 1998.
5. My daughters Jill and Faith, with their friend Rachel behind them. Taken at the South Commons swimming pool, sometime in the 1970s.
6. Chuck Otto, elevated in Colorado, Continental Divide in the background.
7. Journey to Chuck’s personal Mecca: The steps of the Beatles’ Abbey Road recording studios, London.
8. Turkey Run State Park.
9. My brother Ron Shapiro in Hawaii; in the early 1980s.
10. Cover photo, “Of Boys and Guns” by Lowell Streiker
11. The Pair-O-Chutes Tower, Riverview Park. Photo by Chuck Wlodarczyk, as shown in Lowell’s book.

Gratitude Corner:

To the Chabad organization for posting my essay on their Jewish Woman website and for sharing it with their vast readership.