Summer of ‘42: A Novel

Summer of 42 book cover

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by Herman Raucher
P. Putnam’s Sons (1971)

Okay, one of the all-time great beach reads for a beautiful summer’s day.  That’s a given. But as winter comes whistling around your windows if you’re looking for something to cuddle up with—try Summer of ’42—it will make you laugh, make you cry, take you back to a day when the world wasn’t as complicated.

’42 will warm your heart.

Simple story—three adolescent boys in 1942 are stuck with their families on a New England beach for the summer. They’re too young to fight in the war and yet waging a horrible battle of their own against the Number 1 enemy of youth—-puberty!

Here Raucher introduces his characters:

Oscy was tousle-haired and strong, not looking like a city kid at all, but more as if he had run away from Iowa country. He featured an indelible smile. Only on rare occasion did it not appear. In pain, sorrow, anguish, despair—the smile was Oscy’s flag, and he was never known to strike his colors. He was a month older than Hermie, and he wielded those thirty-one days as a weapon of superiority and supremacy. Oscy carried with him an air of mischief, and unassailable warmth, and a private kind of boyish manliness that presaged a confident and rugged man. Oscy was something.

 Benjie was something else. The youngest and scrawniest, owning the physique of a run-down John Caradine, he was more noticeably a child. He obeyed Oscy’s directives because he was nobody’s fool. And he wore an Ingersoll wristwatch that was more important to him than his penis, which, if you must know, he’d yet to discover the true use of.

Hermie was fifteen with unruly sand-colored hair and a couple of teeth that leaned on each other right smack in the front of his face. Bigger than Benjie, he was still no match for Oscy, which was why he so deftly convinced himself that it didn’t matter who the leader was. At that moment in history Hermie was painfully astride the barbed-wire fence that separated boyhood from manhood. Which way he was to fall might have been screamingly obvious to a psychologist, but to Hermie the issue was very much in doubt. And he would lie awake nights worrying about responsibilities of approaching age, like lumbago, and arthritis and how to drive a car and how to put a razor to his cheek and sinuses and migraines, and should his mother continue to buy his underwear, and when would the pimples come, and how in the world would he be able to screw, when and with whom, and would the police break in. Hermie was a worrier and a sufferer. There never was a greater worrying sufferer. It was beautiful.

Following these three along the beaches and streets of the little vacation town will take us back to a day when we fought our way through adolescence , bringing back memories that may have softened over the years but hit us where we live and how we lived, making this Raucher novel a wonderful read, one loaded with references to WWII: the music (White Cliffs of Dover, As Time Goes By, Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy), the movies (King Kong, The Pride of the Yankees, Gunga Din), actors (Lucille Ball, Bette Davis, John Caradine) products (Ben-Gay, Mum, Time Magazine, paddle ball), foods (dried eggs, dried milk, popcorn, Spam)  radio shows (Jack Benny, The Shadow, Major Bowe’s Amateur Hour).

Here as the novel opens Raucher (we presume) returns as an adult to the beach where Hermie walked, played and then grew from a child to a man.

“He stopped the car and stepped out, listening to the affluent sound of a Mercedes slamming its door. He looked down at his Gucci loafers, forty-five dollars. He had come a long way, and none of it easy, but all of it worth it. He headed toward the beach-side dunes, leaving the road to walk along the high-rising crests. When his Gucci’s filled with sand, he removed them, plus the corresponding socks, which he then stuffed into their respective shoes. He had done that before around there, a long time ago. He sank his feet into the good sand, and his toes flexed like a cat’s paws. He took off his navy blazer and slung it over his shoulder, and in this manner did he walk ahead toward the house on the horizon—and back toward the last painful days of his once-glorious innocence.”

A lot happens in this novel and not much at all. The boys play, they fight, they avoid their families, they try desperately to have sex and in the end one of them grows from a child to a man—one out of three—which ain’t bad for a summer’s work.  They hide in a chicken coop and study a How To sex manual Benjie found in the house his parents are renting, which proves to be his one meaningful contribution to this endless summer.

After Oscy refuses Hermie the use of the rubber his brother entrusted him with (which he refers to as a “family heirloom”) Hermie and a druggist spar over the buying of Hermie’s first prophylactic.  Oscy studies Hermie’s mood swings, pronounces him insane on a daily basis all the while continuing his quest to get both of them laid. Benjie manages to stay underfoot, say stupid things and time everything the threesome do with that Ingersoll wristwatch of his—-from walking to the same dreary boring locations to eating double-dipped ice cream cones.

Speaking of timing, here Oscy and Hermie review Hermie’s workman like effort with his theater date, one of the girls they’d picked up in line to see New Voyager, starring Bette Davis and Paul Henried.  It seems there’s been a misunderstanding. Hermie is under the impression—there in the darkened theater—that he’s held his date’s breast during the movie for a new record (they time everything!) but confused by the fact that it—for some reason—had no nipple.

As they leave the theater:

Oscy: “You timed it. Wow.”

“Yeah. Longest I ever got was eight minutes with Lila Harrison. And that was with hands on top. This was with hands underneath.”

“Bare boob.”

“Right.”

“And you broke your record.”

“By three minutes.”

“What’d it feel like?”

That kind of stopped Hermie. “Whaddya mean what’d it feel like. It felt like a boob.”

“Didn’t feel like an arm?”

“An arm?”

“Yeah. You know—-an arm.”

“No. felt like a boob.”

And on they go debating the “record setting event” until Oscy lowers the boom or boob as it were.

Oscy stopped and faced him. He spoke as softly as he could. No sense in getting excited over a little misunderstanding. “You were feeling an arm, Hermie. I was looking. That’s what I was trying to tell you. You were squeezing an arm for eleven minutes.” And he added, “You schumck.”

And of course when a friend sits in the dark of a theater and watches a friend squeeze a date’s arm for eleven minutes and that friend thinks he’s just topped his boob squeezing record, well it doesn’t end well between the two friends.  Finally Oscy says, “What do I care if you spend your whole stupid life squeezing arms! I just thought you oughta face reality! Especially if you’re puttin’ a clock on it and goin’ for records.”

And then finally, the boys laugh at the sad reality and become friends again.

They resumed their long journey home, laughing and whacking and generally screaming into the night such observations as: “It was an arm!” An eleven-minute arm!” Lila Harrison, your record is safe!” Their voices trailed in and out of open windows, and some of the people beyond them didn’t even know who Lila Harrison was.

The misconception about the boob holding record is inconsequential to Hermie.  He’s smitten, love sick over (Dorothy) a beautiful older woman, a war-bride spending her summer there on the island while her husband is fighting overseas. And Hermie’s passion for her drives this wonderful story.

Here Hermie by chance meets the woman of his dreams coming out of the local grocery store, the one he’s been watching sunbathe on the beach.

Then he saw her, and his stomach dropped from behind his belt and filled up his sneakers. She was radiant. It was the only word. Radiant. With her long legs and flowing hair and green eyes, soft and limpid green eyes, how in my dreams you haunt me—but look. She was in distress. She had more bundles than she could handle. The damsel was sure as shit going to drop them. It was the job for Super Hermie. For extra strength he bit into the last jelly doughnut and immediately felt all 129 pounds of him harden, really harden.

One of her bundles tottered and began to slip, but she somehow managed to ease it to the ground before it could break open. But then, when she bent down to get a proper grip on it, another bundle began to teeter. It was a losing fight, and finally, all the bundles slipped out of her arms, and she stood there all forlorn indeed. Sadness in a pleated skirt. Helplessness in a gray cardigan.

Super Hermie took a deep breath, wiped the jelly from his mouth, and tossed the empty doughnut bag to the winds. . . .But when he arrived at her side and opened his mouth to speak, he addressed her in so arch a manner as to sound immediately stupid even to himself: “May I offer some assistance?”

And as he helps her carry her groceries to that little white cottage on the beach a young man’s dream, smattered with nightmarish attempts at conversation (“Laughter becomes you!”), begins.  With Oscy and Benjie hot on his heels in the coming weeks wondering if Hermie is going to lay her, he helps his friend Dorothy with her with projects around the cottage—which is both thrilling and exasperating as it isn’t easy for a fifteen-year-old love-sick boy to carry out mundane tasks with a tied tongue and an embarrassing erection he can’t seem to control.

Here’s a bit of Hermie’s visit to the cottage where he’s been summoned by this innocent beauty merely to help her move some heavy boxes to the attic.

“. . . Her voice came gliding out of every crack of the house. It came as a song of love. “Is that you, Hermie?”

“It is I.” He struggled with the thought of bad grammar at a time like that, wondering if it shouldn’t have been “me” and not “I.”  Pronouns had never been his strong point. Especially when they were proper pronouns or possessives or other things along similar lines.

“Come in. The door’s open.”

The door was indeed open. She hadn’t lied. Fortified by that knowledge, Hermie went in. Again, here was the photograph of the handsome soldier, smiling at Hermie. Or was he laughing? Her voice fluttered out on a butterfly’s vapor trail. “I’ll be with you in a minute. Why don’t you sit down?”

“I certainly will.” That sounded wrong. “Shall,” he then said. That seemed worse. So he just sat down on the sofa and tried not to sweat, remembering this words to Benjie on that very subject a hundred years ago at the movie house. Still, he could smell the goddamn Mum coming out of every armpit, and he knew he was using up his protection rapidly. Again, he considered running. Maybe, if she hadn’t really seen him, she might think it was some other boy who’d run away. And the next time he’d see her on the beach he’d explain to her that his division had been called up. But hadn’t she asked, “Is that you, Hermie?” And hadn’t he said, “It is I,” And hadn’t that been when all the trouble started in the first place? A magnet pulled him to his feet because there was sudden music in the room.

She was standing there. No, she was walking toward him. No, she was floating, carrying a tray with coffeepot and cups, entering the room like Ali Baba on the magic carpet. He had to blink his eyes to get to her feet, down to the floor where they belonged and the Mum under his arms was so hot that it sent sputters of steam through which he could barely make out her incredible face. He was on fire, a five-alarmer. Somebody save the children.”

The ending of that summer for Hermie, Dorothy and Raucher’s readers is both bitter and sweet.  Far more than a wonderful Kodak snapped of a young boy’s WWII summer.

Summer of ‘42 is a love story, one for the ages.

For a copy of Summer of ‘42, ask your librarian, order through your independent bookseller or try Amazon.com where you can buy Herman Raucher’s 1971 novel for less than Hermie paid the druggist for that well-negotiated prophylactic of his. Simply click on the book’s cover.