THE SUMMER OF ’54
by Susan Pashman
The Summer of 1954 was a summer they would make movies about. It was the summer my parents rented the Whittle house just south of the only blinker light inSag Harbor. Fish-tailed Pontiacs and your father’s Oldsmobiles cruised the strip along the beach, and Bill Haley’s Comets were blasting at the Casino. But I was eleven years old that summer and unaware that I was living a classic moment inAmerica’s cultural self-definition.
So far as I knew, the Summer of ’54 would be pretty much like others we’d spent at the beach: We’d need to let the egg salad sandwiches “settle” before returning to the ocean, and we could have sprinkles on our Candy Kitchen cones only if we finished all our dinner. I couldn’t know, as we pulled into driveway that August, that I was embarking on one of those adventures that become icons of childhood itself.
From the moment I laid eyes on the house, I knew the summer would be splendid. The Whittles had surrounded it with a miniature truck farm. My parents, who had never lived anywhere but the Bronx, had probably not noticed it when they signed the lease, but I instantly adopted the orphaned vegetable patch and fruit trees and tended them with a fierce, if uneducated, loyalty. Each morning, I picked over the rows of tomatoes, beans, broccoli, beets and zucchini to harvest what was ripe and deliver them up to a mother who was astonished to learn that real edibles lay right outside our house.
In the tiny orchard, I climbed the plum, peach, apricot, apple and pear trees to check on the fruit’s progress. My father remained dubious, but my mother beamed as I, her emissary from the mysterious world of Nature, handed up a rock-hard peach as her first lesson in what seemed a foreign language. She took it from my hand hesitantly, fearful and uncomprehending, but curious nonetheless.
There were flowers, too. I found a book that helped me identify sweet peas, marigolds, zinnias and a powerful, almost menacing, red presence in our yard. As the recognized expert on all things horticultural, I was called upon when guests came as if I were a prodigy violinist: “What are those awful big red flowers, again?”
I’d smile my condescending genius smile and say “Cannas.”
Two weeks into our stay—just as we were tiring of the ocean–the adventure began. One afternoon, the skies grew dark, the winds took a sharp, angry turn, and the air turned suddenly unfamiliar. Next morning, the world outside seemed even more estranged. My mother tried to fill the uncertain morning by making a major event of breakfast: real Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix pancakes! She dribbled the batter onto stove’s griddle and let it sprawl into circles. Bubbles formed on the cakes’ surfaces; it would soon be time to flip them over. The voice on the radio was difficult to hear through the static, but we make out two words: Hurricane Carol.
As I hunched over my plate, drawing my finger through the maple syrup and watching the two syrupy shores lap back together, I began to warm to the rainy-day thought of a box of sixty-four Crayolas. But suddenly, the kitchen lights flickered and died, an unheard-of event both creepy and thrilling.
We were still stunned and blinking when an ear-splitting crack resounded and the immense willow that had screened the house from traffic lay sprawled across the roadbed, severed about four feet from its roots. The lithe, plumy branches that had seemed so supple were piled in an awkward heap. I stood at the kitchen window, thinking of those ferocious dinosaurs that had also proved so surprisingly fragile.
For hours, we huddled down, silently testing the durability of the house; as each gust roared about us, we bore down with all our might as if to nail it more securely to the ground. We watched the trees in the yard surrender ever larger limbs to the wind’s insistent force. Puddles spread into ponds, and the lawn became a lake, but it never really seemed to be raining: Water was merely one of many things being whipped about by the wind.