The scent of dry grass cooling in the night air, cold cream, and hot naked light bulbs. That’s my sensory memory of summer.
I spent my high school summers at May School Theater, a one-room school house that had been converted into a 90-seat theater. We’d stop at the A&W drive in, buy cone-shaped pints of root beer, and drive the five miles to May School Road, passing by the cemetery with the tree that looked like the devil at night, and into the suede-colored grass that covered the hills and fields in the country outside Livermore, California.
Summer 1964 was my first summer at May School Theater. I was part of Junior Theater, a city-sponsored theater program for high school students. Members of Cask and Mask, the community theater group, directed us in plays like The Reluctant Debutant, The Admirable Chrichton, and State of the Union.
Livermore was a blend of ranchers, cowboys, merchants who served the ranchers and cowboys, and the newcomers: physicists, chemists, engineers, and physical scientists who worked at Sandia or Lawrence Radiation Laboratory.
The newcomers brought with them cultural sensibilities nurtured in the universities they attended: Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, MIT, UC Berkeley. Many of the newcomers had gone to school on the GI Bill. Born and raised in towns much like Livermore, their horizons had been expanded by being in Europe and the Pacific, and then by their education.
And then, there were the other newcomers. Blue-collar workers like my father, who worked at the Lab, and teachers for the schools that outgrew their capacity as soon as they were built. The newly minted teachers brought with them the hope and audacity of the new generation for whom John F. Kennedy claimed the torch had been passed.
In the summer of 1966, after the July performance of Junior Theater’s State of the Union, our group of high school and soon-to-be-college students decided we didn’t want it to end. We formed the Auxiliary Players and produced, directed, and acted in plays we wrote as well as plays by the likes of Eugene O’Neill.
Cask and Mask sponsored us. Our high school teachers encouraged us, basked in our brash willingness to take on whatever we wanted to chew, even if it was more than we could. Failure was an option, but not trying was not.
I thought this was normal. When I went to college, I learned that in a town the size of Livermore (population 10,000), that kind of encouragement was usually reserved for sports.
After high school, I moved to San Francisco to go to college. I came to love San Francisco summers. There would be the day I would feel the cool moistness of fog on my skin and know that summer had arrived. The warm days of October signaled that summer had ended. I didn’t miss the hot days of a Livermore summer, though I would sometimes long for the cool evenings.
I stayed in San Francisco for 15 years, then moved to Mill Valley. The summer days were less grey, but pleasant. I’d see the temperatures rise to 90 plus degrees in Livermore and be grateful for the 75-degree sunny days.
In 2001, after a 34-year absence, I moved back to Livermore. The population had grown to nearly 90,000. May School Theater had burned to the ground in 1980. Some say it was arson.
I drove out to May School Road, which is much closer to town, now that town has sprawled out towards the freeway. The tree that looks like the devil is still there, but the A&W drive-in closed years ago. I think I know where May School was on that road, but I’m not sure.
When the temperature reaches the 90s, I yearn for the San Francisco, Mill Valley summers. I am not a hot weather person. But on a night that follows a hot still day, if I am out amongst the suede-colored grass of the hills and fields, the scent of grass cooling in the night air reaches me. It brings with it the sensory memory of cold cream and the hot bare lights that surrounded the makeup mirrors at May School Theater.
It is the scent of abundance. The abundance that comes from biting off more than I can chew, trusting that failure is an option, but that not trying is not an option.