It’s been a long time since the last post, but that’s becuase of all the summer fun going on, which should be the next post, actually. That said, as I see my son Jude and his peers head back to school, I’m reminded of this piece I wrote, called the “Last Last Fling.” There’s a magazine out there called Defunct (www.defunctmag.org) focused on all matters obsolete (the 8 track tape, the mimeograph machine, etc.) and I thought, well, in a way, the last week before summer is defunct, as we know it. They didn’t take the piece, but I still like it and hope you enjoy it…
THE LAST FLING
It’s the last of the Last Fling
In my hometown, the Last Fling was the best part of summer, a grand three-day send-off that took place over Labor Day weekend and signaled the end of dreaming. Even the Chamber of Commerce advertised it as a chance to “let loose” one more time. Boys and girls and moms and dads rode to the riverfront in twos, threes, and fours, ate elephant ears, spun on the tilt a whirl, and vainly tried to knock down enough milk bottles to win a portable 8-track tape player. Carnival music blared through the streets, fading as local rock bands took over the sled hill, playing for bemused families on blankets and starry eyed girlfriends who danced on the grass.
Whether toddler or teenager, kids felt a sense of urgency, as if they had been read their last rites, making the nights last as long as possible to squeeze every enjoyable second out of this final long weekend. The air grew colder by the minute and come Tuesday dawn, alarms would ring across the city, Wally Phillips would come on WGN radio, and bitter winds would drive us all into shorter days spent shivering behind chalkboards and desks.
Sadly, like a bird with blue feet stranded on the Galapagos Islands, the Last Fling faces extinction. Surrounded by encroaching interests, this bittersweet finale now takes place two weeks after school starts. Whereas it used to symbolize the beginning of school, it now symbolizes the end of summer…as we know it. Charlie Brown has had his baseball season cut short to ensure more standardized testing, longer school days, and the institutional determination that he and the gang must be able to compete for jobs in the 21st century.
Hallmark presents It’s the Balanced Calendar, Charlie Brown.
Linus and his friend lean on the brick wall, philosophizing, bemoaning what has been lost.
“It’s all politics, Charlie Brown. It’s so the superintendent of schools looks like he’s doing something to improve our scores,” Linus says, to the accompaniment of sad jazz music. “We lost half our summer and we only go to school three more days.”
“I could go every day of the year and I’d still get a C minus,” says Charlie.
Blue notes sound. Leaves fall. Snoopy sidles up and rests his head on the wall. Linus continues, holding his blanket in one hand and gesturing with the other.
“Charlie Brown, do you know that even the National Association for Year-Round Education says it would be inappropriate to suggest that the current evidence indicates that modified calendars have a significant positive impact on achievement, in the practical sense?” Snoopy yawns. “Furthermore, a University of Minnesota study reviewed three decades of research on year-round education and concluded that no conclusion can be reached on its efficacy, due to poor research designs and incomplete data.”
Lucy arrives just as Linus reaches this last bold statement. Charlie Brown appears distracted, and a little afraid, as if he’s hearing distant voices.
“I’ll guess I’ll never get to visit my dad at the barber shop anymore.”
“YOU BLOCKHEADS,” Lucy hollers, mouth open wide, “the balanced calendar is so we can all get good jobs when we’re older. And, maybe it’ll help my little brother get rid of his stupid blanket.” She draws her fingers together one by one, forming a fist.
“Yes, but the jobs we have when we grow up are the jobs we’ll create, the ones we’ve yet to imagine. Where is the time to dream?”
POW. Lucy clocks him. “THERE’s your time to dream.”
“Good grief,” says Charlie Brown.
Charles Schulz’ characters reflected his difficulties with school, as they struggled to find their place in a system that doesn’t always embrace the rugged individualist. In his television specials, they can only rely on each other, as teachers and principals drone on like disembodied megaphones, representing authority figures that clearly don’t understand children. Schulz once said that he thought Charlie Brown was a neat kid, someone he would have loved to hang out with as a child, revealing a depth of understanding in the cartoonist that is sometimes rare among adults.
Schulz’ characters also spend time creating elaborate make-believe scenarios, lying on their backs and looking at the clouds, and discussing everything from love to theology. It’s a world where contemplation is valued over competition, and the ideal is to have more time to do less, as opposed to the other way around. Their world is smaller by design.
By contrast, over the last half-century, my hometown has feverishly expanded, from a small Ma and Pa farming community at the end of the commuter line to a sprawling city of its own, drawing a new class of young professionals, chain stores, and fancy restaurants.
For now, attendance at the Last Fling grows in a similar fashion, like tropical flowers in time lapse photography, though the colors are different. Kids vie for IPod shuffles by shooting air guns at virtual targets, families gather to buy veggie dogs from food trucks, and the garage bands have been replaced by Blue Oyster Cult, Big and Rich, and Pat Benatar. First kisses are still exchanged under the bridge and fathers still take their sons to enjoy safer versions of the rides they experienced many years before. It is a fifty-year tradition.
But, school has already been in session for two weeks by the time Labor Day hits, so the urgency of years gone by is lessened, and at its heart, the fling has already flung. It is difficult to let loose and celebrate the summer when lockers have been assigned, class schedules posted, and homework is already hanging over the head of every attendee between the ages of 8 and 18. Worse yet, the promise is that soon there will be more intercessions, summer camps, teacher training, in- services, and snow days, adding another week here and there, until the school year winds up starting in mid-July. At this point the Last Fling will dwindle to nothing or worse yet, become a Back to School Kick-Off, as the disembodied voices of the adults become caught in an endless vortex of drop-offs and pick-ups. Our only hope for salvation lies with the children in the back seat, staring out the window as they’re shuttled about, the ones making up stories in their heads, dreaming of adventures to come, and letting their minds wander. They will remember. Some of them will return.
After all, knowledge may get you from A to B, but imagination takes you everywhere. Einstein said that. My guess is, he too, would’ve liked to hang out with Charlie Brown.