Above The Timberline
By Wayne Mergler
Editor’s Note: It has been an aeon since Wayne Mergler wrote for Hubris (the column below ran in June of 2011, back when the magazine was a weekly!). I miss him daily—his longform wit; his out-in-left-field perspectives—but I have to trust he is still out there, somewhere in the far north, writing (at length, of course) about Charles Dickens. We await dispatches, Wayne.
ANCHORAGE Alaska—(Hubris)—1 March 2023—In Ray Bradbury’s wonderful classic, Dandelion Wine, there is a now-famous chapter in which the young protagonist, Douglas Spaulding, age 12, as soon as school is out for the summer, puts on a pair of tennis shoes for the first time since the previous September. Bradbury’s description of the way those tennis shoes feel on the much-abused, respectable feet of schoolboys, is one of the priceless jewels of contemporary fiction.
Bradbury writes: “Somehow the people who made tennis shoes knew what boys needed and wanted. They put marshmallows and coiled springs in the soles and they wove the rest out of grasses bleached and fired in the wilderness. Somewhere deep in the soft loam of the shoes the thin hard sinews of the buck deer were hidden. The people that made the shoes must have watched a lot of wind blow the trees and a lot of rivers going down to the lakes. Whatever it was, it was in the shoes, and it was summer.”
Bradbury goes on to explain that a boy’s feet, burdened and hampered all winter by the “iron leather” of regular shoes can, at last, burst free when school is out and summer appears with all its representative freedoms, into a pair of tennis shoes, full of the magic of summer, which enable them to jump over “trees and rivers and houses” and “over fences and sidewalks and dogs.”
I was in my early 20s when I first read Bradbury’s magical book but, suddenly, that 12-year-old boy in the summer, that I had once been, came back to me alive again and as vivid as ever. I can think of no other book that comes close to Bradbury’s for recapturing the magic, the wonder, the sheer audacious marvelousness of that time of life. Not even Mark Twain’s classics of boyhood seem to quite capture the very minutiae of a boy’s summer the way Bradbury’s does. (Robert McCammon’s marvelous Boy’s Life comes close.)
Young readers today who happen upon Bradbury’s classic may not quite understand the chapter about the new tennis shoes and the way they felt on the feet and the freedom they represented. Most of the boys I know wear tennis shoes all year round now. But that was not so in Bradbury’s day, nor in mine. Doug Spaulding is 12 in the summer of 1928; I was 12 in the summer of 1956. And in both of those times, tennis shoes were strictly for summer wear. The rest of the year, we were forced into heavy leather brogans and laced-up shoes that could protect you from snow and ice and the assaults of other boys’ feet. We plodded and galumphed through the world as heavy-footed as a herd of young elephants.
Also, there would have been something decidedly indecent about wearing tennis shoes during the school year. They were considered too casual for school wear. We did not wear jeans to school, only slacks and cords. Just so, we did not wear loafers or tennis shoes to school, either. In school, you were expected to be neat, tidy, presentable, clean, wholesome, and contained. There was something too wild, too barbaric, too casual, too free about tennis shoes. School could not tolerate any of that. But, just as Bradbury describes, the end of school was the beginning of the wearing of tennis shoes. And they had to be new tennis shoes. Old ones had lost their magic, had somehow gone flat. But new ones were like putting clouds, air, marshmallows (to use Bradbury’s word) on your feet. They were freedom personified. You felt as if you could bounce and hop and even fly.
I don’t think tennis shoes still have that magic. We wear them all the time now, so they are no longer anything very special. But I remember very well how magical and exotic they were in the summer of 1956.
In the summer of 1956, I lived in Cleveland, Ohio, in a brick house on Sherbrook Road. My parents were Southerners from Virginia and they never cared much for Cleveland, which was too big, too crowded, too fast-paced, too Yankee for them, but I took to the city like the clichéd duck to water; explored its alleys and back alleys, golf courses, swimming pools, and tree-lined suburban streets on my omnipresent bicycle. Everything was new then, everything magical and unique and utterly unseen by any other eyes before mine.
That summer, the planet Mars came closer to the Earth than it would again for thousands of years. I remember lying in the dewy grass on a warm summer’s night, listening to the tree frogs and the cicadas and the rest of the cacophonous chorus of nature as I watched Mars through my father’s binoculars. It was a red flickering star, big and burning bright, and wondrous, as wondrous as everything seemed to be that summer. I remember that that was the summer I first saw Elvis Presley perform. He sang “Hound Dog” on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and managed to scandalize every American over 25 and thrill everyone under 25. Everyone watched “The Ed Sullivan Show.” It was what America did on Sunday nights. That was, of course, before we had 60 channels to choose from. In those days, there were only three (or perhaps four, if you had a local channel), and everyone knew where the viewers would be on Sunday nights at 8.
That was also the summer that Marilyn Monroe married playwright Arthur Miller. None of us 12-year-olds knew who Arthur Miller was, but we sure knew Marilyn, who had been largely responsible for the earliest stirrings in our loins. Of course, we were all in love with Annette Funicello, not Marilyn. Annette was wholesome and sweet and our age. Annette was the girl we all knew we wanted to someday marry. But Marilyn was something else altogether. We looked at the honeymoon pictures in the newspaper: Arthur Miller was scrawny, bespectacled, and old! How did he win Marilyn? We didn’t get it.
That summer, my favorite baseball team, the Cleveland Indians (of course), were, in my mind, the true heroes of the world. On the roster of players for the Indians in those days were names like Rocky Colavito, Roger Maris, Early Wynn, Minnie Minoso, Bob Lemon, and Mike Garcia. I collected baseball cards with a passion, always hoping to get an Indians card in the batch. We all traded baseball cards and comic books. Any one of the aforementioned Indians players would be equal to at least five cards of players for the Dodgers or the Giants or the Phillies.
The valued comics were more debatable. Batman and Superman and the Green Hornet were hot, but so were Aquaman and Plasticman, even Wonder Woman would be okay if you didn’t enthuse too much about it. Humorous comics like Little Lulu and Donald Duck were also valued items.
That summer “The King and I”was a big hit at the movies; “My Fair Lady,” a big hit on Broadway. Most of our parents were listening to Julie Andrews sing “I Could Have Danced All Night” and “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” and Doris Day’s “Que Sera Sera” on the radio. At the Saturday matinee movie, which I went to without fail every weekend, I watched John Wayne in “The High and the Mighty,” which I found mesmerizing. I sat through it four times and, when I finally went home, I found that my frantic parents had called the police to report their child missing. Also, at that same matinee theater, I saw “Invaders from Mars,” which terrified me so much that I could no longer look out of my bedroom window at night for fear of seeing a flying saucer landing in my backyard.
But, in some ways, my summers, particularly the summer of 1956, were different from other boys’ summers. I lived, in essence, in three worlds. And they were three very different and not always compatible worlds.
My first world was the world of the city. I lived in Cleveland, in wholesome suburbia, with access, via my bicycle or, better yet, the thrilling new Rapid Transit Railway, to the inner city. There were baseball games to attend and to play, swimming pools in which to congregate with friends, roller skating to do on slate and concrete sidewalks, Kool-Aid stands by which to make a few pennies, and countless hours of bicycling. When not doing any of that, I was often a cowboy fighting off Indians, usually, again, on my bicycle, which had miraculously become my trusty horse. Or I was Robin Hood or Tarzan or a pirate. I remember that my back porch was once a pirate ship, sailing the tempestuous seas, with me climbing over the riggings (a.k.a. the porch railing) and engaging in high seas brawls and battles, until, alas, my mother, who had had quite enough of shrill pirate voices and shouts of “Stand fast, Ye Lubbers!” threw all the pirates off the ship, casting us adrift into the neighborhood, like Captain Bligh expelled from the Bounty.
My second world of summer was in rural Virginia, at the home of my aunts and uncles and cousins. A lengthy summer’s visit there was better than Disneyland could ever hope to be. A farm, equipped with horses and cows and sheep and goats and turkeys and chickens and pigs, not to mention acres and acres of fields and rolling hills and forests and the Roanoke River running freely through it all.
My cousins (boys, like me) were the perfect guides for a city boy to the delights and adventures and mysteries of country life. There was daily skinny-dipping in the river, romping in the barn, swinging from the rafters by ropes, and falling into haystacks. There were the occasional snakes to encounter and, once, a battle to the death with a deadly black widow spider. There were rats, foxes, skunks, even bobcats. And best of all, better even than the tennis shoes of the summer city: I got to go barefoot every day.
Probably the only thing more liberating than new tennis shoes is no shoes at all (though Bradbury still insists that tennis shoes are better). City kid though I usually was, I felt completely liberated when my feet were totally free of shoes. With the constant warnings from our elders to beware of snakes, we boys flew over the earth with feet as naked as the day we came out of our mothers (appropriate in my case, since I was born feet first). There is nothing quite like the prickle of young grass against the bottoms of your feet, the dewy wetness of the grass in the morning or at night.
There were hazards, though. We rarely got through a day without some new scratch or cut on our bare feet. Stubbed toes were always a danger. Summer bare feet were always browned by the sun, scratched and scraped and scabbed and swollen with insect bites. And, of course, there was the very real danger of snakes. Anyone with bare feet who confronted a snake was in real jeopardy. One awful day I stepped on a rusty nail and drove it completely through my foot. I still remember the horror of having my uncle pull it out and then dowse me with a horrible, burning red antiseptic called Merthiolate. There were no sissifying trips to emergency rooms in those days in the country. You took your Merthiolate like a man and hoped that gangrene or lockjaw wouldn’t set in. They never did, but I do still have a small scar on the bottom of my right foot from that rusty nail.
At night, we caught lightning bugs in jars and lit up our bedrooms all night long until they slowly and sadly flickered away into feeble bug death. Or we camped out by the river, letting its burble over the rocks sing us to sleep. And again, there were the omnipresent tree frogs and cicadas and crickets and, in the morning, so many birds chorusing that it seemed like a racket.
Then it was on to my third summer world. At that time, my grandparents lived in Virginia Beach, in a small house just a block from the ocean. I remember having nearly unlimited freedom the summer I was 12. Before that time, my mother had always taken me to the beach and watched me like a nervous hawk. But now that I was 12, I was given new freedom. I am not sure why but, suddenly, I was allowed to go to the beach by myself. I spent those days barefoot, as well. I remember walking over sandy beaches and black-topped parking lots that were so hot and sizzling that the bottoms of my feet seemed on fire. I remember hopping and dancing and wailing, “Ow, ow, ow!” as my feet fried beneath me. Yet it never occurred to me to put on shoes. That would have been somehow unsporting.
I spent every day at the seaside that summer. When I was not swimming or body surfing or leaping over the breakers or simply cooling my burnt feet in the salty brine, I was chasing crabs across the sand. Or meeting up with other kids. Or exploring the vast and colorful world of the beach resort. I spent a good bit of time at the amusement area, riding the bumper cars and the ferris wheel, eating cotton candy and saltwater taffy, buying balloons, watching the clowns and the mimes and the jugglers. I also used to watch the body builders, whom we all called muscle men, as they lifted weights and did their pull-ups and sit-ups and strutted about for all the adoring, watching girls. At night, there were often fireworks. I would lie on the sandy beach on those nights, just as I had lain on the grass in the city as I watched the planet Mars flicker overhead, but now I watched the skyrockets and the billows of bursting explosives, the colors and the serpentine gyrations in the starry night sky.
The summer of 1956 only lasted three short months, but I cannot ever think of it that way. It seems to me that it was nearly eternal in its length. So much crammed into so many days; so many memories that can still be triggered by smells and sounds, by music, by tastes, by the far off shout of a boy outside on a summer night.
Here in Alaska, we don’t have summer nights. It doesn’t get dark in the summer, so we have no tree frogs or cicadas or lightning bugs. But we do have the voices of summer, the laughter and the distant shouting, the cheers of crowds at Little League baseball games, the sounds of lawnmowers and weed whackers, the smell of barbecuing chicken and burgers and hot dogs on outdoor grills. Summer is as summery here as anywhere else. But, alas, Alaskan kids don’t usually go barefoot. It isn’t because it is too cold. That is a myth. Our summers are warm and friendly and the earth is toasted by nearly 24-hour sunshine. But going barefoot is not part of the Alaskan childhood culture. I’m not sure why. Maybe it is because we are so dependent on shoes the rest of the year that to abandon them in the summer seems somehow awkward. I remember my Alaska-born daughter, one summer visiting Virginia, who, going barefoot for the first time, picked her way gingerly through the summer grass, proclaiming that it all felt “icky” on her bare feet.
This summer, two of my grandsons turn 12. I see so much of myself in them, in so many ways. Of course, they spend a lot of time texting and tweeting and fiddling with iPhones. I never had any of those gadgets and I am very glad I didn’t. I don’t think I ever even used a telephone until I was in high school. If I wanted to communicate with my friends, I rode my bike to their houses and shouted up at their bedroom windows. Those days, I guess, are gone forever.
They have gone the way of summer tennis shoes and Saturday matinees. But other things are still there. Last night, at midnight (remember, it isn’t dark here now), one of my 12-year-old grandsons rode his bicycle half a dozen times around the block in my neighborhood just because of the freedom of it all.
It was midnight, it was silent, it was empty, the midnight sun was pale and dusky, and he had the world by its tail.