Past, present summer fun -- and it's free
Unchanged melody

Friday, July 17, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

The news these days looks awfully old-hat. Day-in, day-out stories about murder and mayhem, highways and stadiums jostle with updates on nosy special prosecutors and reports on somebody else's lousy weather.

These stories say one thing to me: We've lost track of summer.

Whole seasons are not easily misplaced. Especially when the calendar says we're right in the midst of summertime.

But a steady diet of the same gravely serious subjects can make you forget summer is the season of pure, unadulterated fun.

Desperately seeking a good time, I went looking for summer. My journey took me past the places of institutionalized fun. That's where you pay to park and then pay some more money to stand in line to ride rides, see caged animals or get wet.

Where I went, the fun had to be free. The mood had to be carefree.

So, I went to a park and found the soul of the season at McFarlan Woods, a slice of Mount Airy Forest where my family used to picnic.

Unchanged melody

The old park is pretty much the way it was a million years ago. Trees as straight as flagpoles still guard the entrance. They air-condition the breeze while placing a green, leafy canopy over a cluster of picnic tables.

Green boards on white concrete legs, the picnic tables' benches resemble outstretched hands. They welcome visitors to take a load off and sit a spell.

The baseball backstop, poles and chain-link fence wearing thick coats of silver paint, still stands where my memory placed it: Emerging from a grove of walnut and locust trees, next to an old shelter house with twin fireplaces and stone walls a yard thick.

The spreading catalpa tree remains on patrol in center field. The pitcher's mound is so worn down it's more like a dugout. Home plate is a chunk of sidewalk an ancient tribe of club-wielding batters beat into the ground.

Walking from the outfield through the infield, I saw my shoes grow wet with dew. It was that special brand of summer dew that evaporates before it can soak into your sneakers.

The field was filled with kids going on nature walks, listening to storytellers, working on projects and, in general, goofing off.

Grown-ups called out group names like "Horse Fliers" and "Mosquito Biters." The kids lined up and doused their ankles with bug repellant.

As the nature campers waited to walk into the woods, the girls ran impromptu foot races while the boys passed on age-old survival techniques. If you get lost, signal your position like this: Place hands on cheeks. Cover mouth with the base of palms. Blow real hard. That's the call of the wild baked-bean eater.

Bored? Toss worms on the girls. Makes them squeal.

I watched this from a bench next to the backstop. By my feet sat remnants of a summertime dessert: two wooden spoons. Chocolate-stained.

The bench was damp. That's an adult word, a worried word. You describe things as "damp" when you worry about getting your pants wet.

But, when you're a kid, you don't care. It's summer. You're running races and tossing worms. A moist bench feels cool to a warm rump.

Serious fun

One minute, the kids were there. The next, in my mind's eye, they were gone.

The kids were replaced by images of my family. I could see the old folks, grandparents, great-aunts and uncles, watching over picnic baskets in the cool shade of the shelter house. Everybody else was playing softball.

Uncle Ed always took the mound. That's where he would stand for the entire game, pitching to both sides and laughing with every pitch. The longer he tossed that softball up to the plate, the more he laughed.

His laugh, a giggle hitched to a hiccup, was infectious. Long before the game was over, everyone had caught it.

As a boy, I wondered why this grown man laughed so much.

Now, I think I know. He used his laughter to tell us summer's biggest news story. Life can be fun.

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.