How The Wonder Years Shaped My Ideal Summer Evening

Thursday, August 12, 2021

When you're a kid, you likely have a perfect vision of what "adulting" is.  That one item or thing that you'd be able to point to when you grew up and say, "THIS is what being an adult is."

For me?  I found my ideal "adult" scenario in a theme song to a movie made 30 years before I was born and in a rerun of "The Wonder Years" when I was about 12 years old.

"The Wonder Years" means a lot to me.  Speaking of "The Wonder Years," did you realize that "The Wonder Years" was made in the 1980s depicting the 1960s, and we are further away today in 2021 from the 80s when the show was from the 60s?  Wow, we're all old.  

For me, when growing up, the perfect "adult evening" could best be described with a backyard summer barbeque.  

Picture it, Sicily 1945... no wait, wrong sitcom.

Picture it, beautiful Americana, 1960.  The sun has set, and it's now late into the evening, and the party is just getting going.  Which is funny because in real life, whenever it gets dark out, I tend to get all "let's wrap it up quickly and go home."  Paper lanterns hang from a string over large crowds of friends, family, and coworkers, all chatting, dancing, and laughing.  Children laugh and scream in delight as they splash about in the pool or run through the legs of adults.  

I'm busy standing behind the grill, flipping burgers as I chomp on a cigar while my friends and I share a laugh.  

I picture Tony Soprano meets Jack Arnold, Sopranos meets Wonder Years.  

Either way, picture every piece of tacky Tiki party decoration from a place like Party City plastered around the patio.  Flamingos, hula skirts, coconuts, palms, lanterns, and tiki torch overload.  

I'd be in heaven.  
  
Of course, the music in the background must be "Theme from A Summer Place" by Percy Sledge.  What other song could play as we all share laugh after laugh without a care in the world?


Where did all of this silliness come from?  

Episode 23 of "The Wonder Years" titled "How I'm Spending My Summer Vacation."  

"The Wonder Years" ran from March 1988 to May 1993 on ABC.  The show followed a young Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage) as he and his family live and deal with the changing society of America in the 1960s.  Through all of this, Kevin must deal with puberty, girls, friends, and changes to his family.  

It's the epitome of Americana during a "better time" from days gone by.  

As a kid, I was a few years behind "The Wonder Years" when it originally aired.  I would have only been about 4 when the show started, so I wasn't really around for the first run.  I can specifically remember my Uncle and parents watching the series finale in our living room, but I didn't have a clue as to what was happening and remember losing interest.  When the show ended in 1993, I was only 9, so it didn't quite translate well to my pre-pubescent brain.  

A few years later, in the fall of 1997, "The Wonder Years" returned to television through syndication on Nick at Nite, just as I was entering middle school.  The start of 6th grade brought a great deal of the "teenage angst" we've all dealt with.  I've written before about how important Nick at Nite was to me growing up (CLICK HERE), so when "The Wonder Years" debuted, it immediately spoke to young me.  


I watched a young Kevin Arnold deal with old and new friends, a new school, societal changes, and girls.  It seemed like there was an episode that dealt with everything I was dealing with.  Difficult teachers, losing or making new friends, the first time asking (and failing miserably) a girl to the school dance; if it was happening to me, there would be a "Wonder Years" episode to go along with it. 

I'd be remiss in failing to mention the soundtrack.  The show had an amazing soundtrack with classic rock songs from the time period.  This later made it difficult to put the series on DVD, but the songs spoke to me growing up.  If you read my recent Summer Music article (CLICK HERE), you'd know I'm not a "music person," but I have to say growing up, these old songs perfectly fit the scenes and become the soundtrack for my little middle school life.  I borrowed my Mom's "oldies" CDs and would play them over and over in my room, reliving the day's events as if I was Kevin Arnold and had a narrator.


One of my Uncles was a giant Wonder Years fan.  I think it spoke to his own childhood in a way that it spoke to mine so many years later.  It may have been HIS generation portrayed on the show, but it fit my generation just as well.  "The Wonder Years" became something my Uncle and I would connect with besides just hockey, and we'd quote the show and watch as much of it as we could together.  We'd tape it on the VCR, and when he'd come to visit, we'd spend a great deal of time watching it. 

Back in the fledgling days of the internet, we miraculously found a list of every episode and checked them off one by one to make sure we had seen them all.  Eventually, after years of taping episodes and searching the tv listings, we finally found the elusive Rolling Stones episode (Season 6, Episode 13.)  

This episode never seemed to air on Nick at Nite, even though the network broadcast the series in order.  It was like they always seemed to skip this episode.  Perhaps it was a contractual or legal issue using the Rolling Stones name or music, but whatever it was, it was a glorious day when we finally found it!  

As I grew up, "The Wonder Years" appeared on several channels, like Nickelodeon (Nick-at-Nite), Fox Family, ABC Family, and iON.  The entire series is available on Hulu now, as well as DVD.  There is a reboot coming later in 2021, but... nobody cares about reboots, do they?  

When I saw the episode titled "How I'm Spending My Summer Vacation" (Season 2 Episode 17), I knew I found what I never knew I was looking for.  


The episode starts on Kevin's last day of school for the year.  He's quickly upset when he finds out his beloved teacher, Miss White, is getting married.  While recovering from the heartbreak, a strange girl he didn't recognize asked him to sign his yearbook, so he wrote, "Have a neat summer."  He's then devastated to find that his best friend Paul is going away for the summer and won't be home until right before school starts.  What else can go wrong?  

Winnie finally gives him his own yearbook back, and he rushes to find her inscription.  It reads, "Have a neat summer!" 

Kevin sulks home to start his summer only to find his father waiting to make him clean out the garage.  Winnie Cooper stops by while Kevin is wasting time playing with a chair, and he gives her an attitude over her yearbook note and his disappointing start to summer.  She suddenly springs a kiss on him, becoming an iconic scene used in many advertisements on Nick-at-Nite.  


Then, the party starts.  Kevin gets himself cleaned up with a shower, nice clean clothes, and a bit too much aftershave.  The Arnold family arrives at the Cooper family's home, and Jack quickly loans Kevin out to mow a neighbor's lawn.  Kevin tries to get alone time with Winnie, especially after that unexpected kiss, but Winnie is busy running errands for her parents.  

When Kevin finally gets Winnie alone, he lays into her about how she's been ignoring him all night.  Winnie bursts into tears and tells him she's been ignoring him because she didn't want to tell him that she's going away to spend the summer with her Mom.  Selfish Kevin continues complaining until he slowly realizes that Winnie's family has fallen apart.  He quickly apologizes to her and offers to write to her while she's away.  Winnie finally opens up about how much she misses her brother, who died in Vietnam in the show's first few episodes, while we hear the soft dulcet tones of Simon and Garfunkel's "Scarborough Fair." 


As the show ends, narrator Older Kevin mentions that during that summer, without Winnie or Paul, he mowed lawns, went fishing with his Dad, and watched a man walk on the moon.  Neil Armstrong walked on the moon on July 20, 1969, and this provides a date to the series' somewhat fluid timeline.

So, Winnie's family falling apart aside; when I was a kid, that party looked amazing.  Play some "Theme from a Summer Place" in the background, and I'd be in heaven.


Have I had that perfect summer evening yet?  No.  I likely never will since my wife (rightly so) thinks it's an insane idea to have such a tacky 60's BBQ and to be honest, the friends we do have would probably look at us like we had 10 heads when they arrived.  But hey, you never know!  

One last thing about "The Wonder Years," even if it doesn't relate to my perfect ideal adult summer evening.  

That finale that I couldn't care less about when I was 9?  I can't watch it now without shedding a tear (or three.)  I think the many life lessons written into the show can be summed up in the series's emotional final moments.  Older Kevin, the narrator (voiced by Daniel Stern,) has one final dialogue as the show comes to a close has stuck with me through the years.  

"Growing up happens in a heartbeat.  One day you're in diapers; the next day, you're gone.  But the memories of childhood stay with you for the long haul.  I remember a place, a town.  A house, like a lot of houses.  A yard like a lot of other yards.  On a street, like a lot of other streets.  

But the thing is, after all these years, I still look back... with wonder."  

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