Lately I have been getting up early, when the only house background sounds are the hum of the kitchen refrigerator, the humming of the little machine that rids our air of dust and pollen, and the ticking of a 100-year-old pendulum wall clock.
Recently I was awake in the quiet dark and thinking about the sounds of summer, particularly the sounds of summers past.
Summers seemed much longer when I was in elementary school at Park View in Mooresville. Our front yard faced N.C. Highway 801 - the Mt. Ulla Highway - and the intersection of that road and North Main Street was less than 200 feet away. This meant that one of the background sounds during every season was the sound of traffic going by, particularly the sound of motorists heading away from town, gunning their engines, ignoring the speed limit.
At the corner of North Main and West Park there was a red fire alarm box. Remember them? The sounds of fire alarms and the caterwauling of police or ambulance sirens were part of the sounds I heard growing up.
There were two droning sounds: The first was the drone of airplanes. I loved airplanes - still do - and I would run outside to see if I could identify the aircraft, usually a propeller-driven, I had heard. Only rarely did a helicopter pass overhead.
The other droning sound was that of the cicada, whose “WEEE-OOO” droning sound filled our evenings. Their combined sound was loud enough to drown out birdsong. We heard the cicadas so often in the sweltering summer months that it became part of our subconscious. Through open widows it lulled us to sleep. We, literally, did not notice it. Someone once told me that if you counted the fluctuations in pitch for a minute and multiplied that number by something, or added some number, it would tell you the current air temperature. But maybe it was crickets they were talking about.
If the cicadas weren’t too loud, you sometimes could hear the cry of doves. I thought owls were making the sound until a dove hunter corrected me.
If you listened closely, two sounds that could be heard all year were the sound of the steam whistle at noon from the Mooresville Furniture Company. The sounds of far-away train whistles could also sometimes be heard if not blocked out by something closer and louder, say, lawnmower motors, another constant daylight summer sound.
The sounds of dogs barking and children playing permeated our summers. Dogs were our constant companions and we children knew the names of most of the neighborhood’s canines and to whom they belonged. We were basically free-range children in Mooresville back in the 1950s and early ‘60s. We played an abbreviated form of baseball or “rolly-bat” at the drop of a baseball glove. We boys also played “Army” with cap pistols and pieces of uniforms and equipment our fathers brought back from France or the Pacific. In our backyard wars it was never clear which side was “the enemy” and who was “US,” which conveniently also stood for “United States.” Almost every house within a block of our home had two or three children living in it.
There was one sound and smell that was only heard and smelled in the dog days of summer, and that was the twilight-time chug, chugging sound of the “bug-spray truck,” spewing clouds of white DDT-laced diesel smoke in its wake. Almost always behind the machine there would be five or six boys on bicycles, weaving in and out of the toxic fog, looking like they were having an awfully good time. I never recognized any of these bike riders. Who knew how long they had followed the machine around town.
My mother was rock-firm in forbidding my brother or me to join the bikers; she rushed to close as many of our windows as possible before the machine was close to our house. No one had air-conditioning in those days, so windows were wide open. Dad prudently moved our car from the front of the house beside the highway to our driveway. If the fog could kill flies and mosquitoes, who knew what it did to car finishes?
The toxic fog, the “bug truck” and the boys on the bikes are all gone, except for their places in memories of summers past.