An imbecile wrote this in the local daily paper on July 22: “Today, the dog days of summer end and football begins.”

I don't like seeing football rushed in before its time. It needs a hint of fall nip to get me and Seymour Butz back in the bleacher mood or mode.

That's my opinion, anyhow, and it's an opinion that goes back through many Augusts to some traumatic long-ago two-a-days presided over by a coach who was a genuine sadist.

This was a man who didn't enjoy much in life, but he did like working his players — boys 15, 16 years old — in full pads through the hottest hours of the hottest summer days until they literally fell out from over-exertion and dehydration.

He thought it was babying those boys to permit them the merest sip of water between the start of the 3-hour morning session and the conclusion of the 3-hour afternoon one. And all day he would walk among us ostentatiously swigging ice water from a big jug.

There was an assistant coach — a dim bulb who was also the physics teacher — whose only apparent job at these practices was to make runs back and forth to the locker room to refill that jug.

The crazy coach also liked whacking his players upside their helmets with a two-by-four — no sissy concerns back then about concussions and such — and the sight of blood gushing (from an ordinary broken nose, say) was such a turn-on to him that his nostrils would begin to flare like Seabiscuit's.

True facts. Useless old memories.

It's a wonder he didn't kill the lot of us. I'll always believe it was a big disappointment to him that he wasn't able to. But he not only couldn't kill us; he couldn't even demoralize us. I guess we were just tougher finally than he was sick.

Maybe that's what youth is for — to get you over such humps.

But it wasn't the newspaper imbecile's false start on football — jumping offside six weeks before a kickoff --that I found irksome in the quotation above. It was his trivializing of the dog-days period, truncating it into something almost negligible, as fleeting and insubstantial as one of those Indian summer or blackberry winter mini-seasons, already come and gone with only three weeks of July having elapsed.

And those three weeks were milder, pleasanter, more temperate than just about any in the 60 or so Arkansas Julys that I can remember. The earth didn't go brown and sere. There wasn't much humidity. It rained every Tuesday. Half the nights you could sleep with the window open.

That's not dog days, whatever the almanac or Wikipedia might say about it.

By tradition the dog days don't end in July, they only start in July, and they last from the Julian ides last until the sumac starts to turn in September. But they can and usually do hang on longer than that, often slouching through the equinox and onto the front-porch steps of October.

It's not dates or a span of dates that define the period. It begins on the summer day when a year has established its identity and has nothing left to prove. A year emerges from the spring thaw to make its way through the planting, the budding, the leafing, and the fruiting, and, having then done its do, it gives up ambition and yields up the whole undertaking to judgment.

No longer impelled, it launches no additional initiatives. The scaffolding starts coming down the day following, and that's the first dog day.

The remains of the year then are for reckoning, for assigning the year a place and a reputation among all the other years.

All that was rife about a year becomes stagnant during the dog days. There is a growing fetor, a decomp that announces itself in portents and prodigies: two-headed calves, and galls and buckeyes that look like Nixon smirking. The roadkill assumes a problematic grotesqueness. Ponds turn over, and the scum nits and gnats and morphs into a single giant wiggly that can levitate and scud off like a nimbus. Strange howls come up from the ravines. There are rogue bats and mysterious nighthawk convocations.

The dog days of yore had more mad dogs going out in the noonday sun. They had more locusts leaving their creepy dry shells on your window screens. More floaters and more owls. They had more wells going dry, with homunculi crawling up out of them. More cows going dry, too — a dire turn that required prompt propitiation of the meadow nymphs.

And more snakes thrashing through the ordeal of shedding their skins — a procedure usually accomplished by our nowaday serpents in the privacy of those narrow, elongate temp porta-cabanas built expressly for the purpose of discreet quick-change molts. 

In the moonglow over cypress swamps you could see the yester miasma rising, bearing along the rider particulates that were thought to cause the black and yellow fevers that were dreaded so. Bad air indeed.

The caniculares dies menaced then in a way they no longer do. But they still lurk out there with two-by-fours of their own, and will continue to until their time runs out again. Imbeciles might hooraw them  but I wouldn't want to.   



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