August from my desk: Cooler, but not as sweet
I have often wondered where the term “dog days of summer” came from.
The term reportedly goes all the way back to ancient times during the time of the Roman Empire. People living around the Mediterranean Sea noticed that the brightest star in the sky, Sirius, rose and set with the sun during mid-summer. Sirius is also known as the dog star and is part of the constellation called Canis Major, or the Big Dog.
Because Sirius rose and set with the sun, known as conjunction, the period of the year 20 days before the conjunction and 20 days after became known as the dog days of summer, when temperatures were usually very hot and crops got little rain.
Growing up in Washington you could tell when the dog days of August started. Everyone left town. Congress adjourned. The president went to Camp David or to his home. Even the tourist stopped coming to see the sights. In our family it meant that we would go to the beach. When I was six to about when I was 12 the hole family went to Deal Maryland. My grandmother had three cottages that were close together. The kids stayed in one cottage, the teens stayed in another, and the adults stayed in the third. Deal sits in southern Maryland on the Chesapeake Bay. We would swim in the bay, and at night we would go to the movies or sit around the yard eating crabs and drinking Cokes and eating watermelon.
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My stepfather had a favorite spot on the bay called Breezy Point Beach and it was known as the “poor man’s beach.” There was a big bathhouse with another room that serviced as a bar. My mother loved to play the slots, and from the time we arrived until we went home she would be in front of the same nickel machine. I think she must have broke even a lot because she had the same bag of nickels that she started out with.
It was at this beach that I overcame my fear of deep water. My step pop took me out to a raft, which seemed a long way from the shore. He told me that lunch would be ready soon. Then, in he jumped in a swam back to the beach. I sat there for a good hour bobbing up and down. I got my courage up and eased my way into the water and started to swim to shore. Every so often I would stop to see if my feet could touch the bottom. It seemed like it took me forever, but finally I made it to the beach. After lunch and an hour rest, my mother told me if I went back in I’d get cramps and drown, I went back in and swam out to the raft. My fear of deep water was gone.
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In august of 1958 I was sixteen years old. It was the summer that I took the boat to Marshall Hall which was an amusement park that sat on the mouth of the Potomac River by the Chesapeake Bay. The boat, which was run by the Wilson Line, looked like an old fashioned riverboat without the paddle.
The trip was Called “The Midnight Cruise.” The second deck had a big dance floor and a live band that played a mixture of the big band sound and rock.
This was the first time I had taken the boat by myself. I danced and I stood on the bow of the boat with my face to the wind. When we got to the amusement park I went and rode the roller coaster and the huge Ferris wheel. I ate hot dogs and drank coke and ate what seemed like the greasiest pizza I have ever tasted. Then The whistle from the boat starting blowing calling everyone back to the ship. Going up river to Washington I danced with all the beautiful young women I could find. Most were secretaries and file clerks who worked in government offices. As the boat pulled into the dock in Washington and people started to debark I looked at the empty dance floor and realized that my life was changing and I would soon be an adult.
The last August I will mention was the August of 1965. That summer I worked for a construction company that was rebuilding part of Southwest Washington.
The project I was working on was a set of apartments that were being built close to the Potomac River.
The streets around the project were cobblestone and had old railroad tracks running down the middle. This area had once been home to several old warehouses.
The summer before as they were going to tear them down, they had found several of the buildings still held supplies from the Civil War such as saddles, blankets and tents.
As building materials started to arrive, a few of use were assigned to unload the materials and to stack them. Some of the building supplies came by train. The boxcars were rolled up to the job site and we then started to unload them. The first car contained sacks of cement, the second had lumber such as two-by-fours and four-by-fours. The third held a car full of plywood. This was the hardest to unload because we were doing it by hand. We could only carry one sheet at a time, and it took two of us to unload the bigger pieces.
We started to unload the car in the morning about 8 o’clock. By 1 p.m. we had to take a break. We drank a lot of water, and took a lot of salt pills. After four, we started in and by 8 p.m. the cars were unloaded. The boss had gone out a brought some beef barbeque and beer. I remember sitting on the curb eating what I thought was the best beef barbeque I had ever eaten. We drank Papst Blue Ribbon beer – the best, coldest beer I ever drank before or since. As I look back, I was 22 years old in 1965. My whole life lay out before me.