• Kathie Scalf

Wet Hot Tennessee Summer


It’s Memorial Day Weekend, the official kickoff for summer in the south. Every sparkling, blue pool will be filled to the brim with ice cold water, the grocery stores will be overrun with watermelons and the smell of sizzling burgers and dogs will fill the air. Between the lure of carefree summer fun activities and the never-ending stressors of adulthood, I’m feeling quite nostalgic about summer days past.

Hardly anything holds a candle to being a kid on summer break, but nothing could top being a kid on summer break in the late 90s. The teens and pre-teens today can’t fathom the idea of saying goodbye to some of their friends and literally not seeing them at all, not even a photo, until the first day of school 3 months later, but that’s how we rolled. The magic that occurred during those long, hazy, humid days between May and August was special and unique to every single person. We made new friends from far away on family vacations. We got our first kisses, first pimples, first cars; and the most exciting part was retelling it in vivid detail to our long-lost school chums on the first day back…of course while wearing a brand new fancy outfit.

Some of my fondest childhood moments were spent at the Elizabethton City Pool. As soon as those gates opened on the morning of Memorial Day Weekend, we all rushed in, threw down our blankets and fearlessly plunged into the freezing water. It took at least a month for that 12 foot pool to get above 60 degrees, but we didn’t care at all. We would race laps, do flips and handstands and jack-knife off the diving board with blue skin and chattering teeth ‘til our parents picked us up after work, only getting out to make prank phone calls from the payphone or eat cold cut sandwiches with potato chips. On really lucky days, the cool older kids would walk to Taco Bell and bring back sacks of greasy tacos, or someone’s parents gave them enough money to order pizza delivery instead of packed lunch. Not one of us had to watch what we ate; every calorie was burned because we never sat still.

The summer after 6th grade, my 16-year-old cousin got her license and first car. Every evening we would roll back the sunroof of her Mazda 626 and cruise all over Elizabethton, eating Pal’s Frenchie Fries with chocolate shakes and congregating in the Ingles parking lot with other high schoolers. We always had to be back to my grandmother’s house by dark, which was pretty late during peak summer months. My mom would pick me up and drive the short 8 minute route back home, but those minutes live forever in my memory. I would roll the windows down and stick my head out. The air was sticky sweet; wet with humidity and thick with the scent of honeysuckle. The chorus of hundreds of croaking bullfrogs who spilled out of the ponds along those country roads was almost deafening as we twisted and turned our way through the darkness, our only guiding light coming from the blinking cacophony of lightning bug butts.

When I got home I would drag the extra long phone cord all the way from the living room to my bedroom and lock myself in my room on 3-way phone calls into all hours of the night, gossiping and laughing with my friends and the boys we were crushing on. On the best nights, there would be sleepovers. My poor parents are probably still trying to recover the lost nights of sleep due to screeching girls playing dress up and trying to be the 9th caller for the Electric 99.3 Top 9 at 9.

The absolute best week of the year in Elizabethton was the first week of June, when the carnival rolled into town and aligned perfectly with the Covered Bridge Celebration. Being a small town, this was the one week of the year when there was actually stuff to do! Just strolling around, taking in flashing neon lights and the smell of frying funnel cakes, and bravely jumping on hastily assembled rides without a second thought was the biggest thrill of my year. Those days were an opportunity to mix and mingle with kids from outside your school and age group and the hopes for a summer romance were always at an all-time high.

These days I’m a grown up in a post-y2k world and there are no summer breaks. There is no reprieve from responsibility, no escape from the harsh realities of the modern age. I know exactly what every single person is doing at any given time thanks to social media. I’m burdened with the weight of inflation and aging parents and political chaos, and hardened by the experience of tragedy and heartbreak. There’s nothing I wouldn’t give to wake up in my childhood bedroom, walls plastered with posters from Tiger Beat, have my Daddy make me a ham and cheese croissant, and meet up with all those beautiful carefree kids for one more dip in that freezing cold pool. Too many of those kids are gone now, taken far too soon by the disease of addiction. I’d ride the ferris wheel at the carnival without worrying about who threw it together, and when my car stopped at the tippy top, I’d look down at all the tiny lights below as far as the eye could see and think this was as good as life could ever get, in that small town on a summer night. And when my Momma drove me home, I’d make sure to tell her just how much those drives and those bullfrogs meant to me.

There is no greater gift than the innocence of adolescence, and I wish we wouldn’t steal that from our younger generations. The simple joys of a childhood summer, especially in the south, can never be replaced by an iPhone. I hope this Memorial Day Weekend we’re all able to capture a small glimmer of those wet, hot days gone by, if even for just a moment. They truly were the best of times.