Summertime. Some people have to look at the calendar or wait for somebody on television to tell them so before they know it for a fact. They should know better. It's pretty obvious. The daffodils and tulips have come and gone; the sunsets that were made so flamboyant with the dust of the wheat harvest have returned to their usual glory; there's the faraway rumble of thunder and the flickering of distant lightning most nights; there's a feeling of waiting as if all of nature were readying itself to see who and what will survive the full force of Summer; and there's a small voice saying that it's Wednesday evening and time to go to the concert in the park.
The concerts have always been held in the old bandstand in South Park on Massachusetts Street just on the edge of downtown. It was already South Park in 1863, although it was only a corn field back then. When Quantrell and his men came riding in to murder and burn, the corn was thick and tall enough that it saved a few men from certain death. I suppose that the horsemen were reluctant to ride into the forest of corn. It was early morning, and the tall corn must have been dripping with dew. Besides, the blades of tall corn make tiny cuts in even the toughest hide, and the Missourians were depending on their horses to carry them away when help began to arrive. So a few men were able to hide in the tall corn and so escape the killings. South Park is, in its own unassuming way, a monument to life.
Of course, it didn't stay a corn field for long. They soon planted it in pecan and oak, and the trees were tall and thick-trunked a hundred years later. Folks used to sit over toward Trinity Lutheran Church, where the trees threw a deep shade, and, when the sun had gone down, sweethearts used to drift over to that dark and private corner of the park. It's different now, of course.
The wind didn't seem at all that powerful. It came out of the West in just one gust that tore the hydrangea from the garage wall where I had tied its new growth year after year until it seemed almost ready to bloom; it blew a tall poplar onto Ray Nichol's roof; and it scattered branches along the streets all about. But it wasn't much different from other winds that have come out of the West. Protected as it is on the West by more than half of the town, South Park should have been sheltered as it had been sheltered from the such winds for a century and more. It wasn't though. People went down to look at the oaks and pecans that had been lifted up, roots and all, and laid out neatly side by side on the ground, and they wondered out loud what in the world had been so different about this particular gust of wind.
But they planted new trees and, if my son's grandchildren ever come to Lawrence looking for my grave, they might see South Park as it was when I used to take their great-grandfather to the concerts in the park. There may even be the descendents of the roses that the ladies planted West of the pavilion. It's not very likely that they'll see the pavilion itself, although there might be still be some sort of a pavilion there unless the city and county continue to encroach on the park . For all I know, all they might see is the South Parking Center. If that's what happens, I don't know what they'll do with that old fountain that Teddy Roosevelt dedicated as horse trough a long while back. For that matter, I don't know if there will still be concerts in the park on Wednesday evenings. But that's all in the future, and now is now. It's Summertime, and, on Wednesdays, you can hear a small voice saying that it's time to go to the concert in the park.
Some people begin to gather at about 5:00 for their picnics -- clubs, churches, softball teams, family reunions, and all kinds of other groups. The scent of strawberry ice cream and sweet pickles lingers through the evening, but maybe it's just because some of the young ones have gotten away before having their faces washed. The rest of the crowd begins to come about 7:30. There are a lot of old folks, but there are also couples bringing their infants and toddlers, sweethearts, the retarded and homeless, businessmen meeting their wives, boys and girls with spiky orange or blue hair (or both), girls with hair down to their waist and dressed all in black, farmers with straw hats and faded khaki clothes, and all sorts of other people, all carrying their blankets or folding chairs, or being pushed in their wheelchairs or baby carriages. There are no benches, but no one has every suggested that there should be. The problem with benches is that someone puts down a row of them and there they stay. You can never find an empty seat near whoever it is you would like to chat with, and the benches always seem to be facing forward, as if people didn't care about looking at each other and had come just for the show. But there are no benches and there are not likely to be any benches, so we can forget about them.
By 8:00, the concert is ready to begin, the windows of the nearby jail are opened, and the inmates lean out to listen to the music and wave to their families who have seated themselves three stories below. The musicians have taken their places on the bandstand. The bandstand isn't big, and there are so many who want to play with the band that the musicians are crowded so close that they have to duck when those with the trombones hit a low note. The announcer makes a short speech and a few announcements to which none of the two or three hundred people listen, the musicians tune up, and then begin to play.
Everyone is changing their locations because by now they have seen relatives or old friends, and they want to sit together and talk. Some of the old folks are complaining because their children have placed them facing into the sun, which is now low enough that it will shine through under the trees for the next quarter of an hour. The cheer-leaders from the high school are still selling lemonade and iced tea, although they have forgotten to bring sugar for the tea again, and brownies. Children have begun to complain that they are so hungry that only like a brownie will stay their pains. The brownies make them thirsty of course, and some are soon asking for money to buy lemonade, although most are joining the long lines of children at the water fountains. After their drink or sometimes instead of it, they begin to play tag, running through the crowd and shrieking with laughter.
The evening's music is now well underway, and people walking their dogs or children, or pushing their bikes, their grandmothers, or their children, begin to promenade along the complex of sidewalks that runs through that part of the park. There is a steady murmur as people chat, and an occasional uproar when a couple of the dogs manage to find enough room at the end of their leashes to try and begin fighting. The band members don't mind at all. They're too intent of their playing. Besides, up there on the bandstand, they can't hear anything but their own music.
Every year, they play arrangements from the Music Man, The Sound of Music, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, West Side Story, South Pacific, Oklahoma, and Bye, Bye, Birdy. There are also Rossini overtures, Glinka, Grofe, Brahms, Smetana, Elgar, and others of that sort. Most bands play marches by John Phillip Sousa, and so does ours, but the Lawrence band, for some reason, has always favored the works of the prolific, but relatively unknown, John Fillmore. A few years ago, the band received the National Service Award from the John Fillmore Society, which no one had ever known existed. Even now there are some people who would swear that the Society is composed entirely and anonymously of former members of the Lawrence city band. Every now and then, a guest conductor appears, and the folks are all treated to his own arrangement of Mahler's Kindertotenlieder for tuba, kettle-drums, and saxophone. These are only aberrations that make little change in things over the course of the Summer. Besides, for a number of years, a long time ago, Percy Grainger used to come over from England to lead the Summer concerts in South Park, Lawrence, Kansas. So folks tend to be tolerant, or even appreciative of the strangers who come their way from time to time.
By about 8:30, the sun has disappeared, and a breeze comes through the park. Everyone applauds the arrival of the cool of the evening, and the conductor sometimes takes a bow as if he had personally arranged the event. Although it's been repeated and endless number of times, the gesture always draws an appreciative chuckle for the audience. By this time, most folks have greeted their friends, exchanged the most pressing gossip, told the latest jokes, shown around the newest babies, paraded their dogs and bikes and baby carriages, and are leaning back, content to be where they are. Many of the children and some of the old folks have fallen asleep, and the sweethearts have gone off hand-in-hand, with that dreamy, swaying walk that lovers have. If it's not the Wednesday nearest the Fourth of July and the crowd has not been preparing itself for the 1812 Overture -- with its fireworks, church bells, howitzers, fire-truck klaxons, police car sirens, and general bedlam, thoroughly enjoyed by all, and followed by The Stars and Stripes Forever with its rhythmic clapping of hands, folks have by this time relaxed into a state of reverie. By 9:00, the concert closes. People fold up their chairs and blankets, pick up their sleeping children, gently waken the old folks, and begin to make their way home.
It's always been much the same, except that every year some of the old folks are no longer there, some of last year's sweethearts are seen pushing their babies in new strollers, and some of us find ourselves sitting with our friends, over where the old folks used to sit. Every year the band tries out a new piece or two, usually something from a musical only about ten years or so old. Sometimes a new piece takes root, and one of the old numbers is dropped since even concerts in the park can't last all night long. I was sitting with Don Timmons, an old farmer from east of town, a few years ago, and he was talking about how he was getting too old for things and had decided to put one of his fields into clover. Although he hadn't seeded it, the grains that dropped at the last harvest had been enough to cover the field thick with wheat. Just before the wheat could ripen and seed the field again, he had plowed it under. He said that it was like burying an old friend. Just then, the band was playing its arrangement of "Don't Cry for me, Argentina," and someone said that it was a right pretty piece and that they might make it a regular. Everyone listened with the air of expert music critics and agreed. Don remarked that the band would have to make room for it, somehow. "When they started playing 'Oklahoma,' they stopped playing 'Babes in Toyland,' and, in a few years, no one remembered that they had ever played 'Babes in Toyland'. If you're going to grow something new, you have to plow under something old." He was still thinking about his wheat field.
I was talking with a fellow last year, and I asked him if his place wasn't near the Timmons place. He said that it was and nodded toward a fellow pushing his fifties, surrounded by a flock of children who were probably his grandchildren. "There's Don over there." Young Don is getting to look more like his father every year. What made me think of the Timmonses in the first place was that the band was playing "Don't Cry for me, Argentina." It had become a regular fixture after all, but I don't remember what they had dropped to make room for it.