Why is it that summers used to last so much longer back then? School would be out in early June, and by the time horrid September rolled around, it seemed three years had passed.
What fun it was to be young, and for it to be summer! No homework, no need to stay in shape, no starving oneself to make weight for wrestling, girls galore at the country club and on the beach, softball on the public lawns of Greenwich, Connecticut, or soccer on the lawns of Vouliagmeni, east of Athens, where Greek shipowners parked their yachts. Sailing boats, that is. The first man to own a gin palace was Aristotle Onassis, who had a Canadian frigate converted, and it all went downhill from then on. Youth never worries, and takes its fun whenever and wherever it can get it—hence one didn’t worry about being locked up in boarding school until it actually happened. (Now, in old age, I worry about something unpleasant months before I have to go through with it.) And how quickly and easily one fell in love during those long summer days and nights, and—thank God—how even more rapidly one fell out of love when something more exotic came along. I’d say on average there were three to four major romances during those unending summers—with each one starting “for life and for ever after,” until the inevitable happened. Time seemed to go so slowly that one is now embarrassed at how little a second bite at the cherry one had with all that time on one’s hands. The first time I ever kissed a girl—Marina was 11, and I was 12—was during a hot summer evening. Then came Margo, Isla, and Mary. (Then came September, and the kissing had to stop.) Amazing how 64 years later I not only remember their names but exactly what they looked like. Mind you, they wouldn’t recognize me now, and vice versa, I’m sure.
Yes, as the song says, “Summertime and the livin’ is easy,” with those haunting Jo Stafford songs and Peggy Lee and Joni James and Edward Hopper’s masterpiece called “Summertime,” of a beautiful and shy young woman standing on some steps, with her hat shielding her from the sun. Those were the golden-haze years after the war, when baseball was played in flannels, players flung themselves on guard railings without pads to catch a fly ball, pitchers went nine innings, there was no trash talking in college or pro football, everyone, rich or poor, wore a hat, and every man took his off when a lady entered an elevator. Taxi drivers spoke English—Brooklynese, actually—and were either Jewish or Italian, with a few Greeks thrown in for good measure. They wore caps, were extremely polite, and most of the yellow cabs were Packards with jump seats. Fifth Avenue went both ways, and Harry Truman used to walk without Secret Service company up and down the street early in the morning. When in New York, he lived at the Carlyle. Through the mist of time and nostalgia I now imagine summers where doors were left unlocked, children played in the streets, crime was nonexistent—at least where I lived—and people really did look out for one another.
War was central in our lives. We remembered the world war only too well, and waited in vain for news from Fraulein, who had brought us up and had left as the Greek civil war raged to return to Dresden. When the Korean War began children would fire imaginary machine guns in the woods, and dive-bomb with ear-damaging howls into the arc of heroic death. Poor kids had wooden tommy guns, and we’d laugh at them because we were grown-ups. Wartime values, however, were still very strong. Respectability, conformity, restraint, and trust were what underpinned the 50’s. Children, especially in Athens, would walk to school by themselves, even as young as eight. No one would think of bothering them. Bicycles were left against walls unchained at bus stops or at railway stations.
Parents were remote figures, especially one’s father, who was either away at war or in his office. But come summertime, things changed. Father would take us boating, play soccer with us, and once, in Greenwich, even try to play a strange (to him) game—he called it “palouki,” which means a large piece of wood—baseball. (He didn’t do so good, as they’d say in Brooklyn.)
No respectable girl bared her breasts on the beach, except in the south of France. Even as far back as the summer of 1952, a 15-year-old could sit on the railings in Cannes and look at bare-breasted women to his heart’s content. At night, young prostitutes would tease one at the croisette, asking if one had ever been with a woman. “Come on, I’ll show you—how much change have you got on you?” And then, on the way back to jail, I had a reprieve when I met Olga on the Constitution returning to New York. We had six days and secret nights together, swore eternal love and planned marriage, and once I was off the boat and on my way back to school, I never spoke to or saw her again.