I shifted my bulging school folder to my other arm and got a firmer grip on my Mickey Mouse tin lunch box. The sky was blue, school was behind me, and a voice in my mind was singing, “It’s summer, it’s summer, it’s summer!”
As I walked up the hill toward my house, the days of summer seemed to stretch forward into infinity. Don’t get me wrong—I loved school. I loved the counting cards with dots, I loved the green border along the top of the black board with showing how to print all the letters of the alphabet. I loved reading aloud in our reading groups and I loved standing at the blackboard with chalk to work out arithmetic problems.
But summer! What glorious freedom to do whatever I wanted.
And this is what I would do on a summer day, on Millsview Avenue, Oakland, California, in the mid 1950s.
I would head out of the house every day after breakfast and start finding playmates. Our house was at the crest of a gentle hill, the street sloping down toward the school on one side, and toward MacArthur Blvd on the other. There were lots of kids on the street to play with. I would first go to Betty Jean’s house down the street on the corner, who was just my age, but if she couldn’t play, there was Larry across from her, who was a little older. If neither of them could play I would find the little boy across the street who was quite a bit younger, or some of the others. Often children were just outside on the sidewalk and in the yards and I could just join in with them. I depended on the neighborhood kids for playmates; my sisters were quite a bit older than I--they were busy with their own lives--and my brother was already away at college. My dad was at work and my mother was busy doing mother things, I suppose. I never thought of my parents as playmates. But there were plenty of kids to play with and plenty of things to do.
If some girls were available, we would play with our dolls, put them in wagons or buggies and take them up and down the street. We also loved paper dolls which we would maybe get for a birthday present in a book like a coloring book. The back cover of the book would have the dolls, on heavier cardstock, dressed in their underwear. We would cut them out very carefully. Then the clothes would be on the inside pages. We would also cut out the clothes with scissors. Each item would have little fold-over tabs, so after you placed the paper dress on the paper doll you would fold the tabs over the shoulders so it would stay on while you acted out whatever story the doll was busy with. We also got paper dolls out the McCall’s magazines some of our mothers subscribed to. Every month Betsy McCall would appear in the pages of the magazine with a story about her adventures and a wardrobe to match.
We all had jump ropes and spent lots of time jumping, alone or in groups. Alone, I would skip up and down the street, counting how many times I could jump without missing. If I could round up two or more friends, we would use a longer rope and have two kids turn the rope while the rest jumped. If someone missed, then she had to take a turn on the rope while that kid came out to jump. We would sing rhymes as we jumped. Here are a couple:
Cinderella, dressed in yellow,
Went upstairs to kiss a fellow.
Made a mistake and kissed a snake.
How many doctors did it take?
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
Then we would count until we missed a jump.
Other times I would go down to the basement storage area, and dig out the old steel roller skates. These skates had been passed down through all the children in the family and were probably 20 years old. But that didn’t matter because they never wore out and they always fit. They were made to fit on the bottom of your hard-soled shoes. Along with the skates, on an ancient loop of string, was a metal skate “key,” which was used to adjust slider so the length of the skates would fit the bottom of your shoes. That was the first step. Then you just buckled on the skates with the brown leather straps and you were ready to sail down the sidewalk. I would skate fast down the hill to the school and then work hard to skate uphill to my house, then back again, whirr, kathump, whirr, kathump, over the sidewalk. The hard steel made every sidewalk crack reverberate through my legs. When I took off the skates to go inside for lunch, my legs would still feel like they were vibrating.
We could play for a long time with a red bouncy ball. With a group we would play two-square or four-square, either in someone’s driveway or down at the school playground. If no one could play, I played a bouncing game with the ball by myself, bouncing the ball to this rhyme and throwing my leg over the ball at all the O Leerios.
One, two, three, O’Leerio.
Four, five, six, O’Leerio,
Seven, eight, nine, O’Leerio
Ten, O’Leeri O O!
On the last O, I would bounce the ball as high as I could and then run to get it. I loved playing this. We also played a game that involved bouncing a ball on concrete steps, but I can’t remember that one.
Sometimes a bunch of us would go down to the school playground to play on the tricky bars. These were metal pipes in a simple upside down U shape, set in the concrete. We would swing our legs up high to climb up on them, bend one knee over the pipe and leave one behind, and then throw our bodies over with enough momentum to bring ourselves upright on top again. If you were really good you could do multiple turns. Sometimes you could even do it with both knees on top of the bar. I wonder we didn’t crack our skulls on the asphalt under us, but somehow we didn’t. Then we would jump from one piece of play equipment to another, so we wouldn’t fall in the hot lava.
There were small palm-like trees on the street. We would gather the palm fronds and weave them into mats to use in a playhouse we may have created behind the garage. We picked the neighbors’ fuschias and they became fairies with bright colored skirts. Sometimes a bunch of us made teams and threw dry dirt clods at each other, watching them explode in satisfying clouds of dust. No one was supposed to hide a rock in the dirt clod, but it did happen on occasion. Then great outrage followed and we wouldn’t let that kid play anymore.
We weren’t always playing outside. Sometimes we prepared a show for our parents. We dressed up in old dance recital costumes. We had a portable record player which folded up like a small suitcase with a handle. I had a 45 record that played “Here comes Susie Snowflake.” My friend and I would flit around the basement in our fluffy dance skirts and entertain the parents who had paid a penny each for the privilege of applauding our performance.
One summer we made a neighborhood newspaper. We would find news of the neighborhood. I would check the clouds and make a weather forecast. Thanks to my third-grade science class, I knew that black nimbus clouds meant rain. Of course, in California, the forecast was usually clear and warm. I would type up the edition on my mom’s huge black Underwood typewriter. The big brother of someone had a way to make copies by rolling the original on a pad of some chemical—like a primitive ditto machine. Then we would go up and down the street selling our paper to all the neighbors.
Another money-maker was hot pad production. An uncle made me a loom from a square board with nails stuck all around. We would buy a big bag of knit loops at the corner market and then weave hot pads. I loved making pretty designs with all the colors. Then I would try to sell them to the neighbors.
After dinner on long summer days, all the kids in the neighborhood gathered in the middle of street for night games. We played Red Rover, Mother May I, and the favorite—Hide and Seek. The thrill of waiting in your hiding place, not knowing when you would be found, the joy of hearing Ollie, Ollie, Oxen Free, and know you had escaped detection—that was the best. Then we would hear our mothers calling and look toward home to see that the lights were on in the windows and it had become dark without our noticing.
Toward the end of August, my mom would start making me try on the new dresses she was sewing. They were cotton plaid, with full skirts and sashes that tied in the back. As I stood still on a stool, turning slowly as Mama measured the hem with her wooden yardstick, I knew that soon I would be wearing these new dresses to school and the long summer days would be over.
But that was OK. I was hoping to get Miss Andersen for fourth grade and I knew that she let the kids make bread sometimes, right in school. Who knew what other delights were waiting?