That Last Wholesome American Summer Night

Some people wanted to grow up to become doctors, lawyers or businessmen. Others waxed poetic about teaching, research or accounting.

Me, I always knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wanted to be 17. I still do.For me, it’s always been fairly simple for the graphic calculator in my skull to compute my life’s zenith. July 29, 2000. For a long time, it wasn’t even close.

It was in a driving thunderstorm on a moonlight night at a concert in a suburb of Albany, New York. Covered in rain, flanked by four best friends, I stood shirtless, being cuddled and clutched by my beautiful lifelong love (at that time) while the Red Hot Chili Peppers played “Breaking the Girl” nearly in the ballpark of on-key.

I was in the best shape of my life, nearly carving out a “Situation”-like six-pack in the abdomen region, a barren desert long since ignored by modern civilization or a crunch machine. I had just run 9.3 miles in less than 90 minutes.

My life’s work; my only dream and every waking fiber-optic moment spent tirelessly pursuing Syracuse University’s prestigious S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.  Nobody doubted who’d become the next great sportscasting star, or that he’d rise from the ashes of a Central New York town of brawlers, boozers and inbreds. This elephant was always too big for the circus tent.

What happened leading up to that rainy evening in July is the stuff of personal legend. That very weekend, I threw an epic graduation celebration involving nearly 60 of our closest friends (and some random unaccompanied minors to be sure) throwing caution (and good taste) to the wind with a suburban extravaganza featuring a couple cases of beer (and several more procured by outside sources), whiskey, vodka and those rebels who brought the bong to the non-smokers’ party.

There were 15 year-0lds (Hey, Trish!) crashing from down the street, kissing on the couches. There were Trans-Ams parked on the front lawn. There were visitors from two area-codes away (which is quite far in Upstate New York, just thought I’d clarify for you city-dwellers). There were pukers and dancers and fighters and lovers. It was the party of the year.

The night before the epic party, there was the (shall we call it) the beginning of our adulthood. It involved three months of meticulous planning, carefully stolen bottles of wine, an empty apartment, a long movie, a starlit patio and several blankets. We trembled; she shivered.

The end of our beginning lasted all week long.

Our friends – including our original bromance pardner whom we convinced to stay an extra summer before moving down the seaboard, a kid whom we would later meet again under different circumstances in a different town by chance, and the most loyal and compassionate friend for whom any human being could ask – accompanied the lady and I (it’s important to read this as “they accompanied us” as it was our idea and our car and our baby at the time – yes this is crucial to the construct of the story) – were amongst the finest people we’d met and we would ever meet.

Then there was her. Just … her. A slice of human perfection warmed in a brick oven with a sunset’s glow and an ocean’s calm. Eyes radiant and vibrant. Her future lying straight ahead. A good girl looking for a little edge, and a little adventure. She’d been seeking us out for years for both. We’d never underdelivered.

You can imagine what two young, attractive teens in full-on puppy-love is like, can’t you? Double it. Triple it. Factorialize that nonsense into the 94th zero. You’re almost there. A vulnerability shoots straight through you when she holds you around your waist, clutching your bare back as you brush back her hair and gently kiss her lips. You hold onto that moment in the mind’s retina for as long as cataracts don’t coat your limbic system.

Stone Temple Pilots and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Long before we ever knew what “real” music was. Long before we hit up “festivals” or “indie shows” or read Pitchfork or Slate or anything of the sort. When it was just us, and the campy fun of what felt so earnest and life-affirming at that time. Interstate Love Song is poetry. It still is.

I’ve photographed that image, re-cropped and auto-tuned it roughly 400 times since then. I won’t let my mind lose track of her smiling eyes, of the scream of the crowd, the way the high-fives felt between four brothers, the way her kiss melted my shivering cold. I’ll always smell the hamburgers from the parking lot, and the unleaded erupting out the back of the 1991 Pontiac Bonneville. A young man grows from days like these.

Except for when he doesn’t.

For when you hold onto that moment, and the world around you shifts, and the plate tectonics drift you and your bros and hos apart, and your dreams become floating docks come unhinged in tempest waves, and you suddenly realize that moment can’t be duplicated, replicated or ingratiated or mitigated …

Then you realize you’re free. You make some dumb decisions. You find newer, shinier friends. You find a newer, shinier girl. You find newer, shinier drugs to appease newer shinier, people. And a newer, shinier career at a newer, shinier school. The places  you REALLY wanted to go. Then you realize you’re free.

Except for when you aren’t.

When you realize you’re a slave to all your past. When you’re a slave to the money you don’t have. When you’re a slave to other people more important than you. When you’re a slave to newer, shinier women and to your job and your career and your school. The places you REALLY want to go aren’t all that green or sunny, often times they don’t exist.

Then you begin to take it back. You take back everything you did. You start fresh once again. You get “back to your roots.” You become the classicist version of yourself, trying to remember each and every thing you once so-loved, every value you held dear. You come back to what you know. You get comfortable again. You release yourself into the tame and cautiously calculate your next move. You come home and hope to open that door again.

Except for when the locks have changed.

I lost that shape I was in. That washboard turned into a tumble-drier. The hair on my head has slowly retreated.

I lasted one year at Syracuse before bopping around in other exotic locations. My “surefire” career leading toward fame and fortune turned sour the moment I walked out Brewster Hall for the final time.

The one friend I made stay all summer made me promise I’d visit him in Carolina. To this day, I’ve still never been. He’s married now. Another friend started his life with a lovely wife. His little brother, with whom I still connect, ain’t too far behind. And the most loyal, compassionate friend of all-time? Finding many new avenues to share his gifts for patience and ethics with the world.

And, finally, there was her. The lady. The woman. The baby. Newer and shinier won out, and we drifted in and out like feigned interest in real conversation.

She used to complain endlessly to me about her chosen field. “It’s too hard, I’ll never make it” she’d moan to me while I offered support. Well, one of us has reached upper-management at a F500 company, living in a condo overlooking the Manhattan skyline.

Coincidentally, that same one of us is also is working on 18 months of no contact, after love and romance flickered and burned nearly just as recently ago.

Except for when it doesn’t.

That night is everything one can aspire to in life. It’s companionship, comradeship, a bright future and stirring past, fun, food, cars. Accomplishment. Diversion. Warmth in the cold, shelter in the storm and company along a lonely journey. No duty too great and no responsibility to damning. It was just perfect. A culmination of nearly 18 years of effort, journey and risk and the final coda on our youth – a worthy preview of what we’d pictured for our adult lives.

Now, there’s nothing left of that old picture. That one I’ve photographed ad infinitum to remind me of that last wholesome American night, when innocence were still alive and possibilities were still endless. When we were young enough to not know better yet wise enough to know we had the world by the hand and looked it square in the eye, clutching and grabbing it in the pouring rain on a hot summer night in the apex of our lives.

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