It began as a very ordinary day at the tail end of May. I’d been home from college for about 2 weeks, and had just begun my quintessential summer job mowing grass around the electrical substations of Western New York. It was a high paying job ($8.90 / hr) that my Dad had managed to get me working at Niagara Mohawk, his employer of 35+ years. It would be a hot, dry summer in 1988, the temperatures would set records, and the creeks would dry up. I would spend my days driving in circles around Western New York, from the hills of Cowlesville, north to Medina, east to Brockport, and south to the shores of Hemlock Lake. It was an enormous expanse of country to cover in a company pickup truck with 2 others, pulling a trailer loaded with mowers, gas cans, trimmers, and the tools of our trade. By July the grass has burned out to straw gold, but our work continued, making the rounds of rural back roads from substation to substation, tending to the weeds, and holding back nature from the electron laden arteries of civilization.
In some ways it was the best job I had ever had. At first I had considered the painting crew as the pay was around $12 / hr, mostly due to the inherent danger of climbing the electrical towers. But in the end, my fear of heights got the better of me, and caused me to chicken out. It’s just as well. My friends on the crew complained about the long hot days in full coveralls, burning in the sun and “bitch-a-mastic” paint, as they worked their way through the mosquito infested swamps of Bergen and Alabama. By contrast, my days were spent driving the idyllic farm roads of Western New York, familiarizing myself with every short cut, and coffee shop between the waters of Ontario, and green hills of Wyoming County. I learned more about my home during that summer, than in the other 19 summers combined, and fell in love with the place. But I digress…
The evening of my birthday was not intended to be anything special. I had made some plans with Dan’l to get together and hang out, and he was due to pick me up shortly after dinner. To my great, and ever lasting surprise, when he pulled into the driveway of 20 Prospect in his 1978 Chrysler Cordoba, the front and back seats were full of my 5 closest friends in the world. When I jumped into the back seat, I noticed a case of Molson Golden sitting on the floor, and was informed that we were heading to the lake.
It was a gorgeous, warm summer evening. The sun was slanting in golden rays across the landscape as we drove due north through the muck lands of Elba, across the fabled canal at Albion, through the orchards of Orleans County, and on up Route 98 like an arrow for the shore of Lake Ontario. Six of us laughing in the car, with the windows down, and the moon roof open, and Steve Miller’s greatest hits playing on the radio. We arrived at the beach, and sat on a break wall, looking out at the Lake, drinking beer, and talking until well after the sun had gone down.
It was a simple evening, and one that we would repeat many times over the course of the summer. A group of kids, a case of beer, and a remote rural spot where we could share a laugh, and some stories, and discuss our dreams for the future. We were a cocky bunch, like all 20 year olds are. We were chafing at the restraints of being stuck in Batavia for another summer, and looking forward to the day we moved away to somewhere important, and exciting, and did “real” work. I look back and laugh about it now. If we’d been told how lucky we were, we’d have never believed it. We were convinced that somewhere “out there” important things were happening, and we were somehow missing out on them. We were so eager to get out there and stake our claims in the world.
The time would come soon enough. It was the last free summer we had. The next summer was the interim between our Junior and Senior years of college, and most of us had moved on to internships, or “important” summer jobs in our fields that would prepare us to land that all important post college job when we graduated. It would be a time to lay the first brick for the foundation of that all important resume. But the summer of 1988 was one last fling. A summer to be spent in idleness, drinking in the cool of dusk, leaning against the warm hood of a piece of Detroit steel, watching the swallows dart through the twilight, chasing mosquitoes like so many dreams. I loved those days, even though I wished them away, and I miss those dear friends. And despite the times and distances that have grown like weeds around us, I love them still. God bless them all, wherever they may be.