Running on Empty: Summer used to be fun…What happened?

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I remember summer very differently.

On the last day of school, I couldn’t wait to get off the bus and dash up our long rock driveway. Sure, we all said summer started the minute the last bell rang, but it didn’t really start until we got home, threw down our backpacks, and sprinted out the door to explore the wild blue yonder.

If you’re under the age of 40, you’ve probably never heard of the ‘wild blue yonder.’ It sounds folksy and generously sprinkled with that magical ‘back in the day’ fairy dust that makes everything shinier. Truthfully, I have no idea what the ‘wild blue yonder’ actually is (sure, I could Google it, but then what would I write about?).

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I’ve always assumed it meant the unexplored country under an infinite blue sky, miles and miles of frontier land stretching out as far as the eye could see. At the horizon, a cowboy waits, silhouetted against the setting sun, having walked as far as he has ever walked before, in his Fisher Price vest and Sears Roebuck boots, a plastic toy six shooter strapped to his hip.

I suppose, in a way, it does mean that. At least to the generations that grew up in the afterglow of our father’s exploits.

(Years later, when you’re a father, you learn that these ‘exploits’ are more like tall tales, spun with a wink and a grin. You learn this as you spin your own to your children, suddenly content to leave them in the dark.)

But like those exploits, the wild blue yonder has been greatly exaggerated.

Don’t get me wrong – I still love it, or at least the romantic ideal that it was meant to be. But the reality is so far removed from the fantasy, that I find it difficult to relate the two. For one, the ‘yonder’ is hot. I mean stick-to-the-asphalt, difficult-to-breathe hot. Surely this happened within the last thirty years, right?

I remember playing outside for endless hours, running across the lawn while the sun beat down, playing basketball and baseball until it set, and riding bikes on that jumbo hot plate we called a road.

There was no unbearable heat then.

Remember camping?

That was ‘vacation’ when I was young. We didn’t go to Disney World or Gulf Shores or even Branson. No, those luxurious trips were meant for families with money. For us, nothing could compare to bacon and eggs on a propane-powered griddle, or hot dogs and marshmallows for lunch and dinner three times a week. Campfires were lazy moments in the dark, fending off mosquitos and drying clothes doused with lake water. And when you got bored, you found a shade tree and a book (often of the comic book variety), or walked the trails in search of long sticks and random debris.

There was no such thing as ‘hot’ back then.

Even road trips were different, stuffed into the back of a wood-paneled station wagon that may or may not have working air conditioning but most assuredly lacked proper seat belts for all eight passengers. We didn’t feel the heat then, sitting shoulder to shoulder in what must have been sweltering air.

Something changed since those carefree days of summer. Things got hotter, less ‘bearable.’

Everyone tells me it’s because I got old. Yeah, maybe. That could be part of it. But the thing is, I’m not that old. And two, my kids can’t stand the heat either. Send them outside for a brief jump on the big new trampoline in the backyard, and they stumble through the patio door five minutes later wheezing like they just finished extended tear gas training in the Army.

And my kids are active kids too, so it’s not that.

Life is just hotter today. No, not actually – the temperatures from our childhood match up pretty well with those today – but it feels hotter.

There was a time when having a large, wrap-around shaded porch was a blessing. In the heat of the day, you could sit outside with a Big Gulp sized ice tea and let the breeze cool you. Air conditioners weren’t invented yet, and even when they were, they struggled to keep up with the hottest parts of the country, even if you could afford one. Can you imagine living back then? Before air conditioners?

I think I might’ve moved to Michigan.

I can’t stand the heat any longer. In our house, no piece of equipment known to man produces so much instant, back-pinching anxiety as an air conditioner on the fritz. I just can’t handle it. I’ll lie awake at night wondering what I’ll do if the air conditioner goes out.

Car making noises? “Eh, it’ll be all right.”

Ice maker frozen up? “I just don’t have time to thaw the fridge right now, honey.”

The picture on the TV starting to show its age? “Yeah, but do we really want to spend the money on a new one right now?”

(Side Story: We spent the first couple years of our marriage with an old-school, 21-inch tube television I bought when I was 16. When you turned it on, the picture was pinched and took a good five minutes to fully warm up and expand far enough to fit the entire screen. But only when the picture didn’t stop expanding – meaning the score of the Cardinals’ game was inconveniently displayed out of sight – did we finally break down and buy a new TV. This was 2009.)

But let the air conditioning struggle just one day to keep the house cooled to a comfortable 74 degrees…? Whoa. I will move heaven and earth to get that repairman here ASAP.

“What do you mean you’re all booked up today?! Would it help if I came and gave you a hand? Maybe carry your tools for you? Could you make it to our house by the end of the day then? I don’t think you understand, sir. I am HOT!”

I just can’t handle the heat. I’ll endure all sorts of harsh punishments – screaming children, channels full of golf and the NBA, or even a wife constantly begging to ‘get out of the house’ – if I can only stay inside where it’s cool.

The effect is life-changing. We don’t go out and do as much as we did when we were kids.

We don’t go to the lake. We don’t go to the park. Only occasionally do we venture out to Roaring River and spend the day watching fish flop on top of each other and throwing rocks in the river. And even then, we usually “ooo” and “awe” over the perpetually cool cave at the mouth of the spring.

Outside activities are out. Period.

What happened to us? It’s okay. You can admit it. You’ve been thinking the same thing for years. Oh sure, you sit on the couch and yell at your kids about going outside and exploring the wild blue yonder – okay, maybe not in those words. For you, it probably sounds more like, “Put down your tablet/phone/video games and get outside!”

But inside, you’re thinking exactly the same thing I’m thinking.

“Holy cow, it’s hot out there! How did I ever do it? There’s no way I’d play outside right now if I were them.”

It’s time to face the facts. Be honest with ourselves. Like it or not, summer’s just not as fun as it used to be.

(Update: Okay, I broke down and Googled ‘wild blue yonder.’ There’s a movie with the same name. A brewing company – pretty sure I’m checkin’ that out now. And a ‘guess’ on a forum that claims it comes from “the US Air Force Song (Off we go into the wild blue yonder…) introduced in July 1939 written by Robert Crawford.” Huh. I vaguely remember that one. And now the tune is stuck in my head.)

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