Long, Hot Summer In Indiana

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When I think of the nineteen twenties, I think of the heat of summers in southern Indiana where I spent my vacations from Harvard. They were mostly happy summers, but there was one that was not—the summer of 1924, which came at the end of my freshman year. It glows luridly in my memory, an ordeal by fire through which I had to pass in the process of growing up.

We drove home to Evansville that year from Washington, B.C., in mid-June, my father and mother and sister and I, in the family Hudson. I had taken the Federal Express down from Boston as soon as my exams were over, and the next day we left the capital, where my father had just finished his first term as a congressman from Indiana. I was pleased with myself, secretly but no doubt obviously, for surviving the year at Harvard fresh and green out of a midwestern high school, and I was proud of my father for his record as a freshman in Congress.

We sweltered all the way home, across Maryland and Pennsylvania and Ohio and on into Indiana, the sun burning bright little braziers of blinding fire all around us on the nickel trimmings of the Hudson as we raced across the countryside at my father’s touring speed of thirty-eight miles an hour. “Is it hot enough for you?” the filling-station men invariably said when we pulled up for gas; and in the tourist homes where we stopped, we kept the electric fans going all night. But I did not mind the heat. A Hoosier boy, I had been miserably cold in New England all winter, and homesick too. When we crossed the state line east of Richmond, I remember, we all sang “Back Home Again in Indiana,” unashamedly sentimental.

On our arrival in Evansville, there was the old house on Chandler Avenue to explore and readjust to, and there were all my stored possessions to sort over and reappraise: adolescent love letters hidden in the secret compartment of my roll-top desk, minutes of the club I had belonged to in high school, yearbooks, dance programs, my rock collection, and even a bag of marbles from grade-school days, with an agate mooned by many battles. I thought I had outgrown them all but discovered I could not throw anything away. Eighteen is an age that looks both ways. There were also those first home-cooked meals after a year of institutional fare, and there was the impatient waiting, all that long first day, to see an old high-school friend whom I shall call Link Patterson. Link had not gone to college and had a job, like any grown man; he would not be at home till suppertime.

After supper I walked over to Link’s house. The moist, hot air was fragrant with the smell of the Ohio River and new-cut grass, and catbirds mewed in the bushes under front porches, where people sat in swings and rockers and said “Good evening” as I passed. But I was thinking of Link Patterson. Four years before, Link and I had bought our first long pants on the same day. We had double-dated in his father’s car and in my father’s as soon as we were old enough to drive. We had survived Miss Long in Latin together, and Mr. Baldwin in trig. We had tried out for the senior play and failed, and tried out for basketball and made the squad, though never the team. We had even had one glorious, bloody fight and afterward, for six weeks, walked to high school and back together without speaking to each other. We were the best of friends.

But the Link Patterson who met me on his front porch that night was not the Link Patterson I remembered. He looked the same and he greeted me in the old way, by cracking me hard on the biceps with his fist as I came up the porch steps. But he was not the old Link Patterson. Nor were his parents the same. I had loved his mother almost as much as I loved my own, and his father—garrulous, bawdy, and uninhibited—had always given me a man-to-man feeling that I had never shared with my own more dignified father. But that night Mrs. Patterson was restrained and formal and seemed only half-glad to see me, and Mr. Patterson said almost nothing at all. I remember especially how they watched me, as if they were waiting to accuse me of something that they knew about but I did not.

The four of us sat on Link’s porch for a while exchanging banalities. It was hot; we all agreed on that. In Boston, I told them, the winters were very cold. Yes, Harvard played basketball, but it wasn’t Indiana basketball, and I bet our old team at Central could beat the Harvard varsity without half trying. Did I know they were building a new high school out on Washington Avenue? And what did I think of Tunney’s chances against Carpentier? But we never got down to fundamentals, like girls or whether Billy Little’s new band was as good as Hoagy Carmichael’s up at Indiana University, and at the end of a half hour, Link said, “I’m sorry, Bill, but Mom and Dad and I have to be somewhere at eight o’clock,” and I left and walked home, disappointed and puzzled.

My sister said I had outgrown Link Patterson, and that made me angry because it implied that I had become a snob or something. But my mother said it was sometimes hard to renew an old acquaintance, and she was sure Link and I would be back on the old basis soon. My father said nothing. He sat in the porch swing drumming his fingers on the arm of it in the way that made my mother nervous, until my mother finally said, “Will, I wish you wouldn’t do that,” and he got up and said he had to go down to the office, and wouldn’t I like to come along?