"Summertime and the living is easy," so goes a line composed by George Gershwin in the cooler climes of New York City. Similar sentiments ring from "In the Good Old Summertime," a movie starring Judy Garland and Van Johnson. Nat King Cole got lyrical about "those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer."
None of these people ever experienced a July afternoon in a tobacco patch pulling suckers or cropping wilted leaves. None of them on a summer day had ever stirred a steaming wash pot full of work-stained clothes or pushed a flat iron heated on the kitchen stove just a few feet away.
Summertime was the busiest time of the year for farmers in the South. Cotton had to be ploughed — maybe even hoed again — deep into the summer lest a green stain from weeds or grass give an excuse to buyers to downgrade the value of ginned cotton. Tobacco was topped, suckered and harvested in the summertime, inevitably involving afternoons under the sun. It was hard to find a comfortable day for washing clothes and that was particularly true in the summer.
Work in 90- to 100-degree heat was not just uncomfortable. It was dangerous. The phrase for suffering a heatstroke was "The bear got him." On one very hot afternoon, I was part of a team of tobacco croppers who all found themselves being chased by the bear — at the very edge of heat stroke. At the end of the first row, we crawled into a shade and postponed the task until "it cooled." But we did not stop soon enough for Mr. Tom. He was a middle-aged sharecropper who should not have been in that field. However, he had too many children and too few resources and pride drove him to "do his part." The heatstroke did not kill him outright, but broke his health and he died a couple of years later.
Without frequent rains, the heat of summer drove crops into distress and, soon, destruction. Most farmers lived from year to year, accumulating debt along the way to pay for seed and fertilizer. Some had "run bills" at local stores whose owners allowed them to get food and other necessities "on credit." Farmers were not alone in hoping that their crops would make enough to pay their bills. When the weather was hot and dry, just about everyone watched the sky for clouds bearing life-giving rain.
There was a time and a world before air conditioning, actually not so long ago. In the summertime, it sometimes got too hot to sleep. In mid-summer, the whole house absorbed heat, inside and out. When nighttime temperatures did not drop much below 80, when no breeze came through windows, it was difficult to get comfortable enough to sleep. If the house had electricity and if there was an electric fan, there was hope for relief, but only an exhaust fan could cool every bedroom. Days of hard labor and nights without sleep are dangerously draining.
Summertime did have its special thrills. Eating was good! This was the time of year when people really did have fried chicken. Hens did not "set" in the winter. Their maternal instincts kicked in during late spring and summer. Mother always pushed the season by raising a couple of batches of "biddies" (AKA chicks) in her brooder, which protected them from cold nights. She could buy them in various places, even ordering them from Sears Roebuck. Later she allowed selected hens to raise broods naturally to produce more fryers.
We went fishing as often as we could find a break from the pressure of work. Fresh fish, like the frying chickens, were particularly welcome because by that time of year, the cured meat had either been eaten up or was becoming "strong" (rancid). It was possible to buy things like canned smoked sausage if one had cash or credit, but fresh fish and chicken tasted better.
This was prime time for fresh vegetables. Better still, it was time for watermelons and fresh peaches, for sweet juices running down the chin and arms to the elbows. Peaches could also be transformed into preserves and cobblers. If a fishing trip led to the discovery of ripe huckleberries, there could be a double feast, eating some off the bush and taking some home for a cobbler.
Summer's supreme delight was ice cream. Harvest work for pay — even small pay — opened the treasury of ice cream on Saturday afternoon in town. One could choose between a cone and a Dixie Cup (a sturdy, round paper cup with wooden paddle for scooping out the ice cream). Of course, the true food for the gods was homemade ice cream. That was my judgment then and I have not wavered.
Nothing beats the heat like the river. Swimming pools were rare, but creeks and rivers were available and cool. Moreover, many swimming holes were social spots, gathering places for people from all around. As well as cooling off, one could meet and greet. Among those present were individuals of the opposite sex and at some point in every young person's life, such attractions become more important than beating the summer heat.
Living was not easy in the summertime but it could be wonderful.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.