Summer Series: Sounds Of The Season

All Things Considered introduces summer sounds — short essays about things we hear that evoke the season. Today, it's Mister Softee ice cream truck, beer bottles, skateboards and thunder.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. Get ready - we're about to jump into a new ALL THINGS CONSIDERED summer series.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) It's summertime.

(Soundbite of whistles)

BLOCK: Today we introduce "Summer Sounds," short essays about things we hear that evoke the season. And we begin with four people and four sounds. First, here's writer Susan Jane Gilman.

Ms. SUSAN JANE GILMAN (Writer): I grew up in a rough New York neighborhood without air-conditioning. In summer, our windows stayed open. Hot wind blew in from the river, along with endless noise from the streets: police sirens, garbage trucks, the thwuck thwuck(ph) sprong(ph) of basketball games, transistor radios, people shouting from fire escapes, car alarms.

But wafting over this was always a sign of incongruous delicacy, an unearthly music box, an overlay of calliope poetry.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. GILMAN: The Mister Softee ice cream truck.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. GILMAN: As it threaded through our neighborhood, its trademark jingle drowned out the chaos, and drew in the children like the pied piper of ice cream.

The truck seemed to hail not from some garage out in Queens but from the very heartland of America; from a place of wholesomeness, of creamy happiness and comfort. And it always it came to us heralded by music.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. GILMAN: Mister Softee promised not just ice cream but a sort of deliverance. Its arrival felt heroic. On scorching afternoons, the kids in my neighborhood opened fire hydrants illegally. They stole bicycles and started fights while junkies nodded off on the stoop.

A gang of girls once beat me up in the playground over a swing. But the moment Mister Softee was heard deedily deeing down the block, everyone stopped. And on those late summer nights when the truck continued on after dusk, playing its creaky, wind-up jingle over the dirty rooftops, I'd lie in bed as the sky turned burnt orange, and listen to it like a lullaby.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ELIZABETH TANNEN: This is Elizabeth Tannen. I'm an MFA student in the creative writing program at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

(Soundbite of thunder)

Ms. TANNEN: In New Mexico, we don't have thunderstorms. We have wind and sun, and lots and lots of dirt. But occasionally, crossing some bald, dusty surface in summer, I hear it - the distinct, sudden whack of a thunderstrike.

(Soundbite of thunder)

Ms.TANNEN: And immediately, I'm no longer in Albuquerque. I'm in Freedom, Maine, population 701, in the rustic, wood-paneled mess hall of Hidden Valley Camp.

I'm surrounded by dozens of my fellow pre-teen campers, all of us tottering between terror and thrill, our sunburned faces pressed to the glass windows, counting the Mississippis between clap of lightning and boom of thunder.

(Soundbite of thunder)

Ms. TANNEN: We pretend we're eager for the storm to stop and get back to our bunks. But really, we fantasize about spending the night trapped in the cafeteria, lined up like breakfast sausages next to buckets of whole-grain cereal.

(Soundbite of thunder)

Ms. TANNEN: We are city kids. During the school year, we play on the hard, gray concrete of New York and Boston. There, the throbbing, constant noise of the street engulfs nature's sounds. We hardly hear a thing.

But now in this Maine summer, we listen to the thunder close, and it makes us feel wild.

(Soundbite of thunder)

Mr. MARK ACITO (Author) I'm Mark Acito, author of the novels "How I Paid for College" and "Attack of the Theater People." And I grew up breaking laws in Westfield, New Jersey.

(Soundbite of beer bottles clinking)

Mr. ACITO: We were still too young to drive. So we'd have to walk to the woods, taking turns carrying the case of beer, a case of beer which had been purchased by an unscrupulous stranger we dared to approach in the parking lot of the liquor store.

We wrapped the case of Heineken or Molson in a shirt we'd brought for just that purpose, but the shirt wouldn't muffle the tell-tale clink of the bottles as they knocked against each other.

(Soundbite of beer bottles clinking)

Mr. ACITO: We may have been young, but we already knew that beer from a bottle tastes livelier than beer from a can. And with each step, the sweaty bottles sang to us a song that promised the sweet oblivion of cold beer on a hot summer night.

Ms. VERONIQUE LaCAPRA (Science Reporter, St. Louis Public Radio): This is Veronique LaCapra. I'm the science reporter at St. Louis Public Radio. And for me, summer is the sound of a skateboard.

(Soundbite of skateboard)

Ms. LaCAPRA: The noise of those wheels grinding over the hot pavement reminds me of the skateboard I had when I was a kid. It was big and clunky, orange and ugly, and I pretty much thought it was the coolest thing ever.

(Soundbite of skateboard)

Ms. LaCAPRA: I couldn't do any tricks on it or anything like that, but it did have a kicktail - the part that goes up at the back of the board. I remember spending what seems like hours just playing around with it, trying to get the thing to turn in the direction I wanted it to go.

This would have been in the late '70s, I guess, so no helmets or kneepads between me and all that blacktop. And I loved that feeling of flying around my neighborhood - hoping like hell not to fall - with that sound underneath my feet.

(Soundbite of skateboard)

Ms. LaCAPRA: The thing is, I told my mother all this the other day, and she says I never had a skateboard. My dad says he never got me one. And my friends from back then say they don't remember me having a skateboard, either. So I don't know - maybe some of the best summer memories are the ones that never really happened.

BLOCK: Stories of summer sounds from Veronique LaCapra, Mark Acito, Elizabeth Tannen and Susan Jane Gilman. If you want to tell us a story about a particular summer sound and what it means to you, please go to npr.org, click on Contact Us, and please put summer sounds in your subject line.

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