Dandelion Wine. I’ve never tasted it, but reading Ray Bradbury’s book of that title, makes me long to. Summer in a bottle is how Mr. Bradbury describes the wine; glowing and warm, filled with the flavor of endless days and softly gloaming twilights that last forever.
Of course, the summer he writes about takes place in the year, 1928, in a small Illinois town. It was a summer, gentle and rolling, heightened here and there with fireworks, carnivals, gleaming new tennis shoes, secret midnights, and dandelion wine. It was a summer that lasted long enough to be two or three summers all melded into one, expansive enough to seem a luxurious eternity to a twelve-year-old boy, who knew how to read by the light of lightning bugs, stories of ancient Egypt, pirate treasure, magic lamps, and travels to the moon. A summer when you know you are alive, part of the world, and anything is possible, that really only comes once but sometimes that is enough.
Fortunately, Bradbury, knew such a summer, loved such a summer, and in his talented, heartfelt largesse captured it in words, pure and poetic, and poured it out to us like a golden glass of wine. He named his main character Douglas, which is his own middle name. Of the first dawn of that long-past Illinois summer, he writes,
He stood at the open window in the dark, took a deep breath and exhaled. The streetlights, like candles on a black cake, went out. He exhaled again and the stars began to vanish. Douglas smiled, pointed a finger, “Everyone yawn. Everyone up.”
Clock alarms tinkled faintly. The courthouse clock boomed. Birds leaped from trees like a net thrown by his hand, singing. Douglas, conducting an orchestra, pointed to the eastern sky. The sun began to rise. He folded his arms and smiled a magician’s smile. Yes sir, he thought, everyone jumps, everyone runs when I yell. It’ll be a fine season. He gave a last snap of his fingers. Doors slammed open; people stepped out. Summer 1928 had begun.
It is another summer now. A faster summer, zooming by like a silver sports car cutting you off on PCH; a summer of technology and cell phones robbing us of being where we are, except in selfie photos.
In 1928 people had no television, no streaming services. They sat on the porch, under the stars.
Sitting on the summer-night porch was so good so easy and so reassuring that it could never be done away with. These were rituals that were right and lasting; the lighting of the pipes, the hands that moved the knitting needles, the eating of foil-wrapped, chilled Eskimo Pies and the coming and going of all the people. For, at some time or other during the evening, everyone visited; the neighbors down the way, the people across the street, Miss Fern and Miss Roberta, or Mr. Jonas, the junkman, having left his horse and wagon hidden in the alley. And at last the children who had been squinting their way through a last hide-and-seek or kick-the-can would sickle quietly back like boomerangs, and the voices chanted, drifted, in moonlit clouds while the moths, like late apple blossoms come alive, tapped faintly about the street lights and the voices moved on into the coming years….
These days if people were to drift to your porch at night, the security system would no doubt sound the alarm, the patrol car would come, and surely, the junkman would be jailed. I also suspect the name, Eskimo Pie, could be deemed not to be politically correct. Do children still play at hide and seek? I can’t see them kicking a can around; it would seem far too dangerous what with the jagged edge; maybe a plastic water bottle. At least now, Miss Fern and Miss Roberta are free to walk along a Main Street holding hands. Bravo!
In 1928, the President of The United States was Calvin Coolidge. He was known as, Silent Cal, because he didn’t talk a lot. Can you imagine? No tweets. What a relief!
In those quieter, peaceful times, there was a special sound Bradbury recognized as being the official herald of summer.
Grandfather smiled in his sleep. Feeling the smile and wondering why it was there, he awoke. He lay quietly listening, and the smile was explained. For he heard a sound which was far more important than birds or the rustle of new leaves. God bless the lawnmower!
There were still lawnmowers in use when I was growing up. Little Brother and I, following the smooth, new-mown path behind our father as I pushed a baby doll carriage and Brother, little hands on a long handle, wheeled a plastic dome filled with popping colored balls. We felt part of the ritual there on an Ohio hillside in mid-summer but recently the old familiar clickity-clack of the blades are gone, replaced by the jarring assault of the weed whacker and the motorized growl of the leaf blower. If current drought conditions persist, grass may soon be a thing of the past. I’m just glad Grandfather isn’t around to see the passing of something on which kids used to run and play, something upon which they could lie upon of a summer’s day and stare up through the trees at that big sky, pondering the meaning of life, and under their bare feet feel its living, giving, green presence. Something simple, taken for granted, once known as a front lawn. Good-bye.
I’ll bet, however, there is a taste of that lawn lingering in Dandelion Wine. I tried to buy some, for research purposes only, but it’s an elusive item, not really carried in stores. Evidently it can be ordered online, but when one reviewer pronounced it as tasting “God awful,” I didn’t make the financial investment, thinking I’m sure its true magic comes from making it yourself. If only I knew where to pick dandelions.
Being an honest writer, Bradbury doesn’t paint the small town in only pastel dandelion colors. There are dark hues and deep ravines with tangled branches and secret murky depths. Gossip and suspicion can make for good entertainment on long hot days, even fermenting and festering into accusations of witchcraft. Death is no stranger where there are multi-generational families living close together. The sad loss of a child is not infrequent and ushering a grandfather or grandmother off to the promised land is part of life but, admit it, there’s nothing so exciting and terrifying as the small-town murder. The suspected, creeping culprit who moves through the shadows, waiting and watching, takes on mythical proportions amongst the townsfolk and is known in whispered tones as, The Lonely One.
All of that fear and trepidation can haunt a 12-year-old; get under his skin a bit.
“Tom,” said Douglas, “just promise me one thing okay?”
“It’s a promise. What?”
“You may be my brother and maybe I hate you sometimes, but stick around, all right?”
“You mean you’ll let me follow you and the older guys when you go on hikes?
“Well, sure, even that. What I mean is don’t go away, huh? Don’t let any cars run over you or fall off a cliff.”
“I should say not! Whatta you think I am, anyway?”
“Cause if worse comes to worst and both of us are real old, say forty or forty five someday, we can own a gold mine out West and sit there smoking corn silk and growing beards.”
“Growing beards! Boy!”
“Like I say, stick around and don’t let nothing happen.”
“You can depend on me,” said Tom.
“It’s not you I worry about,” said Douglas. “It’s the way God runs the world.”
Tom thought about this for a moment. “He’s all right, Doug,” said Tom. “He tries.”
And may He always.
Happy Summer, Topanga