About Summer and Me

I opened the window of the car, and summer slipped in beside me. “I know him,” I said when the air conditioner objected to our picking up a hitchhiker. I’d been following him, I could have explained, watching for glimpses of him through the windshield.

I had almost forgotten the smell of his cologne, one part fresh-cut bluegrass, one part humidity, one part –oh, I can’t name it. Maybe heat, the kind you see rising up in a haze on the horizon? But now I remembered. The scent of summer before time ran away.

“Whadda you want to do tonight, kid?” Summer’s voice was a retro-mix of pop classics. Crickets and tree frogs and far away car horns with a hint of Elvis.

Would he laugh if I said I wanted to roll down the sloping lawn after the dew has fallen like I did when I was a kid?

Yes, he would. “Your back would go out and never return.”

Then maybe my bare toes could taunt crawdads in Eagle Creek’s shallow pools?

He laughed again. “No, they’d pinch you and set off a siege with gout.” When did summer get so health-conscious, I wondered.

I didn’t mention reading poetry out loud in the cool of the barn to callow cows who didn’t care a hoot (or a moo) that the raven croaked “nevermore.” Even I blush at that over-dramatic ’tween memory, but it
was good preparation for later teaching high school English students who didn’t give a hoot (or a moo) about what the raven said either.

But maybe I could eat a good hamburger outside at twilight, one like Daddy used to cook in the backyard on our first charcoal grill?

Before summer could add up a cholesterol count, I rushed on giving him no chance to interrupt.

We got the grill, I’m pretty sure, by redeeming Top Value stamps (which were always yellow and should not to be confused with the green S & H stamps advertised on TV that our local retailers didn’t give away.) They really were stamps, with glue on their backsides, and each one represented a bonus point earned on purchases we’d made. Because they could be exchanged for gifts that tantalized us in a full-color catalog, we hoarded them in a growing pile in the fruit bowl. When they became so unruly they spilled over the dish like kudzu and spread over the tabletop, someone, usually me, was delegated the tedious task of pasting them into little booklets provided for that purpose. Invariably, no matter how many pages of stamps I licked, we needed one more to get what we really wanted – a philosophical statement on the human condition, I suppose. Nevertheless, many of the non-essentials that made their way into our frugal farm home came from the Top Value folks. That’s how we got the black metal grill with its round hood and stork-like legs.

In the 1950s, “grilling” in the backyard was trendy, and we reveled in this new-fangled way to entertain. Aunt Helen, Uncle Louis, and Cousin Judy were frequent guests. So were our neighbors, The Hunters and the Wrights. Sometimes we invited the youth group from the Methodist Church to come on over for supper or a few of my school friends.

Only Daddy could light the charcoal, a risky business that involved lighter fluid and matches. And only Daddy could tell when the exotic square brickettes of charcoal we bought in ten-pound bags were the right temperature to cook our burgers. You could not mistake red coals and flames for “ready.” No, you wanted a shade of smoldering gray that arrived a minute before starvation and that only he could discern.

Daddy’s hamburgers started out on the food chain as “baby beeves” he raised on our farm. (Oddly, I had no moral compunction about this, but then again, the cows did snub my poetry readings.) It was Mother, however, who shaped the thawed hamburger into fat patties that she salted and peppered with abandon. I don’t recall her adding anything extra, but when you begin with good meat you don’t need to.

At the last minute, she would slather butter on the buns and stick them on the grill to toast, an inspired touch that lifted Daddy’s burgers to unprecedented culinary heights, he said. We probably had sliced tomatoes and corn-on-the-cob, too. But I only remember the burgers on the buttery buns, tender, juicy and succulent, hot off Daddy’s grill, and eaten outside on a balmy country night.

In the 1960s, hamburger fast food chains hit the country like tornadoes, dropping down here, here and here, forever changing the landscape and our diets. I wish I could say I remember the first McDonalds hamburger I ate, but mostly what I recall about that 1960ish visit to their walk-up stand on Lexington’s New Circle Road are their French fries.  Their burgers, then and now, remain unremarkable in my experience. And what’s up with slapping sesame seeds on buns? They have no taste whatsoever and lodge in random places in the teeth and gut.

To be honest, I can’t remember when I last ate a really good hamburger, although I’ve eaten every kind that exists, from the cheap fast food varieties to the expensive, hooty-tooty sort. From time to time, we even try to re-create Daddy’s burgers at home although it’s never balmy on our deck, only too hot, or too cool. And our fancy gas grill can’t do the job as well as that cheap Top Value charcoal model. Even when we butter the buns, our burgers turn out too dry or too raw.

“Why do you think that is?” I asked summer who had now sprawled all over the car.

He was quiet for a moment. Then, with a touch of melancholy Elvis in his voice he said, “Maybe when time ran away, it took the recipe for good hamburgers with it.”

Copyright © August 2015 Georgia Green Stamper