A Summer Like ‘69

  • David Hoffman The last day of school at Omaha’s Hillside Elementary was somewhat bittersweet. The excitement we students felt about our forthcoming freedom was mixed with a tiny bit of trepidation as to what lie ahead during the blistering hot, muggy days of a Midwest summer.

    In 1969, I was especially excited—and nervous—for the summer ahead. It would be my first taste of independence away from family; I was enrolled to attend overnight summer camp at Esther K. Newman near the Platte River. We were also moving to a new house that would allow each of the Hoffman kids to have his or her own room. Finally, after spending almost a decade watching the Saturn, Gemini and Apollo programs launch rocket ships around our planet and orbit the lunar landscape, the United States would finally be sending astronauts to walk on the moon. The entire nation was holding its collective breath in anticipation for the end-of-July landing. [The country was unaware that the summer of ’69 would also add notable names to our nation’s class roster like Woodstock, Chappaquiddick, Manson, Stonewall, and Hurricane Camille.]

    To this ten-year-old boy, the summer of ’69 was like most others of my childhood: long, glorious, sunny days of climbing trees, playing Spud (you’re it), swinging croquet mallets, swimming at Peony Park (an honest-to-goodness artificial lake and amusement park just minutes from my house!), trading Outer Limit monster cards, riding bikes through yards, discovering treasures (and garter snakes) in vacant lots, chasing ice-cream trucks, visiting the Benson branch public library each week to shiver in frosty air conditioning and saddle up to adventure books, watching the Gothic soap opera, Dark Shadows, with my best friend (hoping that the character, Barnabas Collins, would bear his vampire fangs to his T.V. fans), and laying on cool, newly-mowed grass gazing at slow moving Cumulus clouds, occasionally seeing the Goodyear blimp float above Omaha’s flat plains.

    At night, the adults would join the neighborhood kids outside. While we played kick-the-can, they would converge on someone’s driveway with their latticed lawn chairs to share work stories, trade child rearing tips, whisper about the Vietnam War, or comment on the college world series (always played in Omaha) while cicadas sounded their shrill sirens, fireflies flitted into our mason jars, and the Milky Way dazzled heavy eyes with a heavenly light show. At some point, we children would reunite with our parents, sit in reverence as they wound up their conversations, and walk back to our respective houses to have a slice of watermelon before going to bed, only to wake up hours later to repeat our indolent rituals.

    The summer of ’69 was truly life changing. My weeks at Esther K. Newman marked the beginning of my affection for attending (then working at) summer camps, which, in turn, sparked my love of teaching and mentoring children. Our new house enlarged my circle of life-long friends and helpful neighbors. And when an Apollo astronaut took his “one giant step” for humankind, I felt a pride in this great country that had, in less that one decade, set and met an unimaginable goal; lessons in leadership and dreaming big that still inspire me.

    Late that summer, my favorite group, the Beatles, would record and release its final album, a newly elected president would continue the war in Viet Nam and eventually challenge my naive view of the presidency, and the fast approaching “Me” decade geared itself up to unleash a litany of ludicrous and pretentious cultural events to last a lifetime. Yet, for one last summer, the radical, rowdy, revolutionary decade of my childhood provided a desirable respite from growing up.

    Your child too deserves and is entitled to a summer of fun and innocence—days of exploration, imagination and dreaming.

    A few weeks ago, our first graders were treated to a Skype session where they were connected with a research scientist who, like astronaut Neal Armstrong, walked where few have traversed. [While not the moon, the scientist spent his days studying penguins while trudging through the barren regions of the Antarctic.] The students sat and listened in rapture as the scientist relayed personal stories of quiet observation and new learning. During the question and answer session, one student shared that he too wanted to devote his life to studying animals. He asked, “What do I need to do so I can grow up to do what you do?” Anticipating a reply that had smatterings of “study hard,” “get good grades,” or “prepare for tests that will get you into Harvard,” I was delighted when scientist smiled and said matter-of-factly, “Go outside and quietly watch the birds.”

    It is such a simple yet profound directive. It is what I wish for all students this summer. Partake in activities as simple and profound as quietly watching birds. And while you’re at it, try scrutinizing Cumulus clouds? Or identify and idealize local trees and flowers? Have a go at experiencing and self-organizing the empty spaces and unscheduled moments of your young lives.

    Summer is a time to recharge lives, not smart phone and video game batteries. It is a time to slow down and take stock of one’s surroundings—a new neighborhood, an overnight camp or an unexplored region. It is a time to catch up on reading, traveling via the printed word to the outer limits of one’s imagination. It is the season to be lazy and laugh a lot.

    Fifty years ago this summer, I watched a man walk on the moon. I helped paint a new bedroom in a new house bright orange because nobody told me I couldn’t. I slept under the stars at camp.

    May your son or daughter also experience a summer of quiet awe, colorful options and heavenly bliss.

    Until the fall...
    David Hoffman