The last time I remember a summer heat wave that started in May I was living in East Los Angeles. A party was held every year during the month of May in the park that separated our housing development, Wyvernwood, from the one my best friends Lourdes and Rosa lived in, Estrada. We normally met every weekday in our elementary school, North Dakota Street School. I lived in that neighborhood until I was ten and have continued to count that yearly party as one of my earliest childhood memories.
There was a giant flagpole in the center of the weathered asphalt playground. There might have been a swing or slide or basketball court but I don’t remember them. There was a single, rusty water fountain. And a hopscotch game that had lost most of its outline.
There weren’t any trees to hide under when the heat made the black ground feel and look like melting tar. We girls wore pigtails or ponytails, the boys beanies or bandanas, to keep the sweat off our mutual necks. There was never a flag on that pole that I could remember, just the sound of metal tapping, like a tether ball without it’s player, when the wind waved by.
The flagpole was the center of everything for the May party. Someone organized and paid for giant rolls of streamers that had been torn in strips and taped to the rounded top of the pole. We were supposed to run above and then below the kids coming from the opposite direction, each of us holding the end of the streamers high over our heads. Kind of like a colorful square dance. There were so many ribbons of colors wafting around we each had more than one turn.
Sweat blended with the tears from our laughter. I was so tall that it was easy for me to dart above Rosa and then Lourdes, difficult to run below them. There may have been music but my memory replays it with only the sound of us children. And sometime later, the sound of yelling and cheering. That’s when the teenagers and grownups got into their own act.
The streamers were torn noiselessly away to reveal, at the very top of that hot metal pole, a hundred dollars. And after a specific amount of time, usually when the sun dipped below the old Sears store sign, it was time for them to start climbing. It wouldn’t be an easy climb for any of them. And in a few minutes I would learn why so many men wore heavy wool Pendleton shirts that day.
You could soon see that lard had been gooped swiftly onto the pole where only moments before our crisp streamers had lain.
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It wasn’t just a climb up; it was an excursion that could only be surmounted with the help of your buddies, and their thick shirts. A young man would climb on the shoulders of another man while still another threw his shirt up to wipe off some of the lard. More climbing, more plaid shirts thrown with acute precision, up the seemingly unyielding pole.
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I spent every May looking up at that tribute to strength, courage and friendship. I never lost interest in seeing who would reach the top, how long would it take, which would slip the furthest down only to be caught by the next friend in line. I stood breathless, alongside good friends, for about ten Mays.
My mom doesn’t remember the park or the party at all. She said colleges do the greased pole thing for different occasions. May Day parties go back even further, from Germany I believe she said. But we weren’t German or in college, we just did it for the fun and to help forget about the heat.
I thought about that old park party because of the unusually oppressive heat I felt today and the thought of the possible black outs to come. I can only tell you that in my own warped way I look forward to warm months, and the darkness we may experience, as welcoming. Because in the dark I can picture myself in the East Los Angeles of my youth. I can also see the young men and children that could care less about discomfort and more about making memories. And a hundred bucks divided among good friends of course.