I love Illinois. I love all its seasons, but I love the summer most of all. I like sitting on my front porch or even upstairs at my desk with the window wide open so I can hear all of the living going on outside. I can hear the kids screaming their pleasure as their parents turn the hose on them, and the ice cream man with that song that drives me totally nuts as he screeches around the corner. “La cucaracha, la cucaracha ya no quiere ...” The rest of it fades out as he tears down the street doing 70 in a 30 mile zone. I can hear the neighborhood kids knocking at the front door. They want my 17-year-old son to go out and play the guitar for them. The kids start shouting for a song and I listen with pride and pleasure as Nick’s deep baritone blends in with the children’s voices and drifts upwards to heaven like a prayer. There’s so much energy, so much life going on that I can’t help but remember when I was that age and able to take pleasure in the simplest of things. Oh to be an innocent six year old again, and laying in the tall grass beneath the Texas sun.
We lived in a little Texas town called Petersburg. My daddy was the only Hispanic pastor in town. Actually he was the only one this town had ever had. So, in appreciation the men of the congregation built us a house right next to the little white church on the dead end of Waco St. It was a little house, but because it was filled with lots of laughter and love we never noticed the size. The house had been built on two acres of grassy land, and in full view of the railroad track. We had so much space to run and play and so many colors to experience. This was the summer I finally came into existence; the summer I finally started to notice the world around me.
The grass was a rich gentle green, and the bright butter-yellow sun worked right along with the grass to make every day of that summer shine forever in my memory. You could hear the horses and the cows on the other side of the railroad track. And on occasion, you’d hear the far away drone of someone’s tractor.
Petersburg had a huge population of 625 people. We’d grown so much that they had to add another three rooms to the L-shaped school. I thought it must surely be the biggest school in all the world since it now housed between 200 and 300 kids. Among them, los Arellano. I don’t think Pancho Villa School and Petersburg knew what hit it when the Arellano clan moved in.
My brothers always made me promise to wait for them after school. But on this particular day of days, I wasn’t in the mood. Not only was this the last day before summer vacation, but I’d also be turning six years old in a few weeks. I’d just gotten through the hardest year of my life and had made it through kindergarten. I rushed home from school without waiting for my brothers and my sisters. They’d probably be looking for my body on the railroad tracks real soon or maybe like me they were off enjoying themselves. It really didn’t matter to me. I was just too excited. School was over for the summer, and I didn’t want to waste any time. I wanted to sit in the grass and look up into the sky and just relax. My first year of school had just about done me in. Nobody’d ever told me there would be so much cutting and coloring to do in kindergarten. I figured I was due for a rest.
The only good thing about going to school had been walking on the railroad tracks every morning and afternoon. It hadn’t much hurt either that my brothers had always stopped at the shearing shed behind the school on the way home every afternoon. I always managed to make my brothers, Steve and Albert, feel guilty. So, they’d let me tag along. Steve was 13 years old, with a head of curly, wild, dark brown hair and even darker eyes. He was the spittin’ image of my daddy. He was full of “piss and vinegar,” so Grandma said, and told the greatest stories. I never had to worry if Momma and Daddy were too tired to tell me a story. I could always count on Steve. We usually snuck into the shearing shed after school and we’d climb up high on the bleachers and he’d sit me on his lap and proceed to make up some of the wildest stories I’d ever heard. I never quite knew whether or not to believe the story about the mean dog on the railroad track with a hat on its head and smoking a cigar, or if he’d even seen la Llorona crying on the railroad tracks three Halloweens ago, covered in the blood of her children. Either way, he always had the knack of telling one mean story.
My 11-year-old brother, Albert, would sit as far away from the flying fleece and smell as he could get. He didn’t want to get his suit messed up. He considered himself the intellectual of the two and for some reason he thought that meant he had to wear a suit every day. As always, he looked the perfect gentleman with his blue suit and his white dress shirt tucked neatly into his pants. His hair, as usual, was parted on the left and slicked back, though it didn’t usually stay that way for long. He’d probably used lots of Momma’s Dippity Do that morning. He had some big, chocolate brown, innocent eyes that made you think he was such a good kid. You’d never know by looking at him that he’d encouraged my brother Steve to hang from the power cables by the church last week, and to swing until they’d managed to turn off all the lights in town. Boy, that had been some night. Daddy, the deacons, and the rest of the church members had chased them until the boys had found a place to hide. You’d of thought that being PK’s (Preacher’s Kids) would have kept them out of trouble. Nothin’ doin.’
Now my sister Mitzy had turned 15 in February. After her quinceañera, she’d turned boy crazy. She preferred to spend time with her friends discussing clothes and boys. My sister Abbey was 9 and an all out tomboy. She had a favorite pair of jeans, a cowboy hat, and some old play guns that she wore day after day. Her hair was always clean, but it was so curly and out of control that you could barely find her little face underneath all the wild bushy hair. Steve and Albert had nicknamed her Tumbleweed because with all that hair she reminded them of those huge tumbleweeds that blew down the streets during a Texas sandstorm. Momma was lucky if she could get her to sit down long enough to get her hair brushed. Poor Momma despaired of ever getting her to look and act like a lady since Abbey had already asked for boots and guns for her birthday in July. Momma, in desperation, bribed poor Mitzy into dragging Abbey along with her everyday after school when she met her friends at the corner soda shop across from the school.
On a regular day, we’d all do our thing and kill some time until we knew Momma and Daddy were on the way home from church. Then, my brother Steve would pick me up, throw me over his shoulder and run like nobody’s business. We almost always managed to make it home on time. And on the days we were late, they always blamed me. But that was okay because I never got in trouble. To this day I still don’t know how Steve expected to make it home on time, as the church was right next door to the house.
Today though, was a different kind of day. I didn’t want to hear Steve tell stories or listen to Mitzy talk about boys. And I certainly didn’t want to play cowboys and Indians with Abbey (She usually killed me three minutes into the game). I just wanted to be by myself and enjoy the sounds and smells that made up our little corner of Texas. There was nothing better than lying in the sweet tall grass and watching the dragonflies with the sun shining rainbows through their wings. The grass smelled so good, and I could hear the bees as they buzzed around me. I watched the grass sway from side to side in the light breeze, and I swayed right along with it losing track of time as I sat making bracelets and headbands out of dandelions and braiding long stalks of grass until Momma finally found me in the grass. Kissing the top of my head, she made me go in for supper.
It must have been around eight o’clock that night before we were able to get outside to play again. The sky was so clear and beautiful that we didn’t need any streetlights. Then again, we didn’t have any yet because of the Steve and Albert fiasco. We’d been gathering old nails every day after supper for the last week because we knew the train would be passing through town tonight. The Navarro boys had been out pulling nails from walls, and their grandmother’s porch swing. They just hoped nothing would fall apart or they would get grounded again for the third time that month. They’d brought with them a group of about thirteen kids and together we’d all raided grandpa Navarro’s pop supply. Now all we had to do was wait for the train.
Around 9:30 Abbey came screaming up to the front porch that the train was coming. We could hear it whistling at us, but Abbey was louder as she jumped up and down in excitement. We ran to the railroad tracks and laid our nails down, ran and hid behind the bushes at the foot of the gate. After the train was gone we raced back to the tracks and started picking up the little swords that the train had made out of the nails. We played until it was time to go to bed. Summer had officially started and I planned to enjoy it.
The summer of my sixth birthday ended quite suddenly when my daddy announced we were being transferred by the Southern Baptist Convention to Levelland, Texas. I remember trying to hide in the grass so they couldn’t take me away, but there was nowhere I could hide. We lived in Levelland for three years before we moved out to Illinois, but summer has never been the same since.
Momma and Daddy are gone now. My brothers and sisters have all married or moved into their own homes. And when I look around, I’m reminded that the open spaces, colors and smells that I associated with that Texas summer are gone forever. Then all of a sudden I hear the laughter of a child, the smell of freshly mowed grass and the strumming of my son’s guitar. My heart knows that an Illinois summer is just beginning, and I’m not about to miss a bit of it.