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Sweet Sounds of Past Out of a Harmonica

July 20, 1987|EDITH H. FINE | Edith H. Fine is a free-lance writer who lives in Encinitas. and

ENCINITAS — Marking California's two-season years used to be easy. Chapping in winter and flies in summer.

Now that's changed. Winter chapping still holds. But summer's now a harmonica.

On slow July evenings when the sun has made its splashy exit and cool air wafts through the backyard, I retreat to a newly hung hammock with the dog. Only people who are dog-silly know what it's like to float in a hammock with a good old mutt who's so limp that without a protective arm he'd roll off.

Comes the harmonica. Comes the memories.

The gentle sounds of a skilled harmonica player wooo-ahhh their way over the back fence. "I've Been Workin' on the Railroad," "Oh Susanna," and "Daisy, Daisy," "Red River Valley . . . ." I hum, eyes closed, or sing harmony sotto voce.

Sweet Memories

And pretty soon, just like the TV networks, my mind's playing summer re-runs.

. . . Of family reunions in Kingsville, Ontario, where relatives range from 9 months to 99 years. Old log picnic tables, set end-to-end in long, green grass, laden with corn and chicken and watermelon and three-bean salad and brownies like poured chocolate. Fishing and kites and Frisbees and pick-up baseball with stretchy rules. Fat scrapbooks bulging with the lives of ancestors we never knew who still, somehow, are part of us.

. . . Or camp. That counselor who calmed 10-year-olds' fearful mix of nighttime giggles and eye-popping loneliness with a tall dose of harmonica just outside the door of our cabin. Sweet sounds, conjuring up tents, secrets, mosquitoes, key-ring crafts and food we loved to hate. Canoes and day hikes with the barest tinge of danger. And having no sense of a power-filled, four-letter word whispered around, but savvy enough to fake full knowledge with an easy bravado.

. . . And didn't we celebrate with kazoos, pan-lid cymbals and harmonicas when the whole neighborhood pooled Lionel train tracks, each house marking its own with distinctive paint dots, then assembling a giant layout that snaked up and down driveways, along sidewalks, with engines hissing up its shallow grades, and racing down the other sides dragging a melange of cattle cars, log cars, milk cars, Sunoco cars and the inevitable cabooses.

Those Summer Games

. . . Harmonicas, the backdrop of our summertime games. Red light/green light and red rover and, best of all, hide in the dark, a flip of hide and seek. One person hid while everyone else (ranging from a little too young to a little too teen-aged) waited a set time limit in somebody's basement. Within wide boundaries ("Barthel's house to Cooper's, and no crossing the street or climbing the fences"), we fanned out to search for the hidden person. No "all-ee all-ee in free" when we found the hider, either. We became hiders, too, crawling around, climbing behind, or squishing in with. Then waiting, waiting. We squelched laughter, shushed each other and practiced the shallow breathing of the dead in the sticky night air.

The ultimate hide-in-the-dark prize, still vivid decades later for its perfection, went to Davey Hughes, who chose the telephone pole behind his house. One by one, we found him. And one-by-one we climbed the fat metal spikes, crunching hands and heads and elbows, white-knuckled, jaws-clenched, squiggling--a vertical Chinese dragon, its lumpy silhouette growing taller and taller against the near-night sky.

That old smoothie, that memory-prodding harmonica, evokes hand-cranked strawberry ice cream, one-fingered piano lessons, community sing-alongs, waiting for Fourth of July fireworks, fish fries, bare feet.

Concert over, the dog stirs. A scoop of strawberry ice cream and to bed.

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