There was a time, years ago, when summer was something more to me than three unpleasant months best endured in the comfort of air conditioning. It was the season I looked forward to most. It was the prize to be claimed after nine long months of school. It was watermelon, lightning bugs, Coca-Cola floats and endless days of swimming.
Last week I was in St. Charles, Missouri, on Main St. in the old part of the city, when the strangest feeling came over me. For a few pleasant hours I remembered what summer in America used to feel like.
I was standing near an ice cream shop when it hit me, watching children and their parents and grandparents come out into the warm night with their ice cream cones. At that same moment, in the fading daylight, a carriage appeared, preceded by the sound of horseshoes clopping on the brick road. A young man wearing a tan flat cap held the reins. The gas lamps that lined the street were just then coming to life, giving off a yellow glow. For the first time, I was conscious of the red, white and blue bunting that hung from porch railings and balconies of some of the old buildings, in preparation for the Fourth of July. I heard laughter and the clinking of glasses from people dining on patios and in courtyards nearby. If someone told me I had stepped through a portal and gone back in time to 1910, I would not have been completely surprised.
Two hundred and nine summers ago, William Clark and Meriwether Lewis left from St. Charles to begin the greatest expedition of exploration and discovery in U. S. history. On this summer night in America, at the end of June in 2013, my impression is that old St. Charles probably looks much the same as it did in 1804.
Outdoor music is a staple of every American summer, and on Thursday night the St. Charles volunteer orchestra did their part, giving a concert at a park on the banks of the Missouri River, near where Lewis and Clark began their journey.
For their second selection, the orchestra played a medley of the official songs of the four branches of the military. Before they started, the conductor asked veterans to stand when the song for their branch was played. By and large, the people who stood up were men, most of them old men, probably veterans of Vietnam and Korea, and possibly even two or three from WWII.
When they came to the Marine’s Hymn, a younger man got up from his blanket on the grass, and I guessed he was a veteran of one the Gulf Wars, probably the most recent one. The thing that caught my eye was how he stood at attention while the music played, as if he was on the parade ground at Camp Lejeune. He stood by himself at first, but after about thirty seconds his wife and his two young children got up and stood with him. It was one of those moments when I was fully aware of how proud I am to live in this country.
I don’t know why I enjoyed summer again for those few short hours in St. Charles. Maybe it was being surrounded by so much American history. Maybe it was because, for a change, this summer hasn’t been unbearably hot. Maybe something made me feel like a kid again. Whatever it was, I liked it, and I want to get it back.