Terminal August crushes the life out of summer


By August, summer lies crumpled in a heap.

August is the limp linen dress with the mystery stain that worsens with every washing. The broken and bored-with-them-anyway Jurassic Park toys always underfoot. The drought-addled corn and exploded tomatoes emblematic of how summer begins as radiantly as a Burpee's catalog but ends as ingloriously as a compost pile.

"The peak is in early July. By the end of July, it starts going down. And August," says Brian Gapsis, "is a continuing decline."

He is talking about snowball sales -- Mr. Gapsis is president of Koldkiss Corp. in East Baltimore, purveyor of the ice shaving machines and wildly colored syrups so essential to summertime survival here -- but he very well could be talking about summer itself.

Summertime doesn't officially end until Labor Day, but August is barely an interruption in the inexorable process toward the inevitable end. Phew! That's how we start talking in August, cranky and dark.

If July is endless summer, August is terminal summer. August is reruns of reruns that you saw the first time. August cheats you of a little more daylight with each subsequent evening. August is too much zucchini.

By August, you've already done it and moved on, or you haven't done it and it's too late to do it. If your tan lines don't match up

yet, forget it. You're stuck with patchwork skin, proof through the winter that you spent more time this summer in your (baggy) shorts and sneakers than in your swimsuit and bare feet.

But then, that's summer, isn't it? A myth that never quite lives up to its advance billing. You were going to eat healthy (Grilled fish! Vegetables from the garden!) instead of junky (Thrasher french fries! Two scoops -- and in a waffle cone, please!). You were going to find the perfect beach house of sea breezes and crisp cotton sheets instead of the usual musty rental of rickety plaid sofas and the neighbor with the bass-enhanced boom box.

Myths are great until you realize they're myths -- like the cartoon characters that don't fall until they realize they've run off the edge of the building. And so summer is great until August. By then, the credit card bills come in and summer becomes real rather than mythical. It's over. Another summer has passed you by. You never made it to the Mozart festival, you never got past the same first 25 pages of Proust that you start every summer, the Orioles never traded for that one player to take them from probably-not to perhaps status.

Yes, even the boys of summer are showing their August-ness. The Orioles' brief shining moment in first place (July 21) was exactly that -- Camelot, and vanished by August. Rick Sutcliffe's knee is busted, Cal Ripken is just now returning from his summer stock tour of Hamlet and you might as well put down the deposit for that October fishing trip.

State fairs happen in August. Is there anything more fin de saison than a state fair? All those canning jars with the fruits of summer in suspended animation. The livestock picking up blue ribbons en route to slaughter. And those oldies rock acts.

"I know why you're calling," says Dr. Peter Creticos. "It's the ragweed."

For some allergy sufferers, summer is a comparatively allergen-free zone between the tree pollen of spring and the ragweed of fall. But yesterday commenced the sniffling-sneezing syndrome of ragweed season in this area (actually, ragweed sprouts in mid-August, but it takes about 10 days for its irritants to accumulate in the air and for its victims to become sensitized to them), says Dr. Creticos, a medical director at the Johns Hopkins Asthma and Allergy Center.

"To an allergist and persons with allergies," Dr. Creticos says, "summer ends when the ragweed hits."

But even more than ragweed, there is the surest sign that summer is over: Bill Clinton, the man late for everything, is finishing up his vacation now.

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