You can feel the mud between Barbara Nielsen’s toes when she describes summer visits to Francene Pomeroy’s house following a monsoon rain shower in the 1930s.
"The streets were silt. It was dusty, dusty when they weren’t watered down," Nielsen said.
Her father, Paul Crandall, drove the water truck that attempted to keep the soil in check. And sometimes nature, too, worked in the children’s favor, creating wonderful bogs that demanded exploration.
"No one wore shoes in the summer," the 77-year-old native said. "We had Sunday shoes, but we all went barefoot the rest of the time."
Nielsen sits in the central Mesa home where she grew up, describing the summers of her youth. Some experiences are different from those of Ena Nielsen, 10, who lives a few bicycle pedal strokes from her grandmother’s back door.
PlayStation 2, motorized scooters and an air-conditioned environment are differences.
Ice cream, swimming and seasonal city-sponsored programs are similarities.
"The thing that always comes home," Barbara Nielsen said of regular reunions with Mesa High School classmates, "is how marvelous a place Mesa was to grow up."
Her childhood summers included rope swings, movies in downtown’s evaporativecooled Nile Theater and strolls past toy counters at Woolworth’s or Newberry’s.
Ena, on the other hand, launched her first hand-built wood raft recently in the family’s backyard pool. The vessel’s wood was scavenged from nearby alleys. Movies are a car ride away, to theaters at Stapley Drive and U.S. 60. And while her brother enjoys the new PlayStation 2 "War of the Monsters," Ena prefers the latest Harry Potter book.
Mesa’s population in Ena’s childhood — 439,000.
In Barbara Nielsen’s youth: 8,000.
While the numbers may vary, not so, it would seem, the summer spirit of a child.
THEN AND NOW
The sun has been up for some time when the ice cream truck turns the corner onto Ena’s street. Loaded with coolers of frozen treats, the truck blasts the "Popeye" score as it inches down the burning asphalt. Ena and her 7-year-old brother, Asael, delight in an afternoon snack, tearing from the house with dollars in hand for an ice cream sandwich and a Hulkshaped frozen dessert.
In Barbara Nielsen’s day, the ice cream man was Tony Tselentis, a Greek immigrant who sold three flavors from a horse-drawn wagon.
"We would hear that bell and that was our signal to start begging," she said, smiling. Vanilla, chocolate and sometimes banana were the choices. A nickel got you a single; a dime, a triple.
Earlier in the day, Ena and Asael spent time in citysponsored swim lessons at Kino Junior High School. Ena, looking forward to the cool distraction, wears her swimsuit to the breakfast table. She pulls on a pair of shorts for the bike ride to the nearby pool.
When Barbara Nielsen was young, she had two nearby pools from which to choose. The Crystal Pool, located south of Main Street off Center Street, was operated by her great-uncle Gove Phelps. Its unusual feature was a sand bottom.
"It didn’t seem quite as clean as the other pool," Barbara Nielsen said.
The other pool, the Rendezvous at University Drive and Center Street, was emptied twice a week. The old water was used to irrigate the surrounding park.
Ten dollars bought families a summer pass at the Rendezvous, and the Crandalls got their money’s worth — and then some. Today, family passes to public pools sell for $120.
"My five brothers lived at that pool" — as did many of the town’s children, Barbara Nielsen recalled. When the Crandalls weren’t there, they could perhaps be found along the canals swinging from ropes tied to giant cottonwood trees.
Beginning in 1936, Mesa’s children had another amusement to look forward to. Parks and Playgrounds, the forerunner of the Mesa Parks and Recreation Department, was formed.
Barbara Nielsen was the organizer of the city’s first children’s summer program. In a downtown park the children gathered five days a week for activities that included games, dance, geography lessons and crafts.
"I think every house in Mesa had two plaster of Paris plaques hanging on the wall," Barbara Nielsen said.
Today, Ena and Asael spend part of their afternoons in the city’s Boredom Busters program at Edison Elementary School. Activities, held in the air-conditioned gym, include games, guest speakers, crafts, movies and swimming. Afterward, riding their bikes home, Ena and Asael might play in the street with neighborhood kids before supper.
Barbara Nielsen, too, remembers street games — particularly baseball, where girls were relegated to the outfield. As with her grandchildren, there was the inevitable call to dinner.
"We ate meat on Sundays," she said. During the week, the menu was simple: Homemade bread and milk, plus an accompanying food like tomatoes, squash, corn and, for dessert, watermelon.
Ena and Aesal’s summertime meals often come from the backyard grill and include vegetables-in-a-pouch, marinated chicken, pork shoulder or New York strip.
After some family time, the brother and sister fall asleep in separate rooms as an air conditioner pumps cool air into their rooms.
Barbara Nielsen, on the other hand, spent her summer nights on a cot fashioned from Union Oil canvas. Her mother built the frames for the cot and stitched the canvas. Before bedtime those cots would be sprinkled with water, a cooling function, while the family covered themselves with citronella to ward off the mosquitos.
"You could stand in your back yard and look down the block and see everyone sleeping on cots," she recalled.
Today in Mesa, kids call that camping out.