The Death of the American Picnic

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My cousins Dave and Dave, my cousin Bonnie’s husband Tom and your humble narrator at my last family reunion five years ago.

I don’t know when it died. I have a pretty good idea how though. The American picnic appears to be dead. At least the ones that I remember are dead. Am I too nostalgic? Have times changed that much? Or am I just pining for days gone by that I’ll never get back?

Most deaths are traumatic, sudden. This has been slow, glacial.

I’m not talking about family reunions, which I am sure take place on the regular. Heck, I helped organize one a few short summers ago. I’m talking about holiday weekend and spontaneous treks to the park – state parks and county parks. You know the ones I am talking about. You load up the car with dishes to pass. Everyone has their assigned bring-alongs – aluminum foil, buns, potato chips, potato salad, hot dogs, hamburgers, deviled eggs, charcoal, lighter fluid, beverages, condiments. There was sports equipment and games to bring too. Ball gloves, baseballs and softballs and bats, frisbees and lawn darts.

Comedian Jeff Foxworthy tells a great story about the dangers of lawn darts.

In my family, like it was/is for many I’m sure, Memorial Day was the kickoff to summer. My parents and I packed up the car and piled in it. We drove to the agreed upon park and met up with my father’s sister, her husband and my first cousins. I wish memory served but I think my Uncle Freddy would show up way early, by himself, then complain for 30 minutes that everyone else was late.

Somebody would scrape the community Hibachi and then cover it with tin foil. The kids would get some game going and we would play and roughhouse until the food was ready. Tablecloths were draped over the wooden picnic tables and held down by rocks to keep the spring breeze from turning the table covering into an erstwhile kite.

We’d sit and eat. Someone always got into something they shouldn’t – a mud puddle, a creek, a beehive (yes David, I’m talking about you). We’d go swimming in the pond or the lake – whichever that particular park featured.

Some of these late spring gatherings were large affairs, especially as we got older and folks got married and had kids. Memorial Day was just the kickoff, we’d get together for the 4th of July, and have a combo birthday picnic since many of my cousins were summer babies. We may have even had Labor Day picnics too, the memory fails on that.

But my parents were fond of intimate picnics as well. We’d fill up a carry-along jug with Kool-Aid, water or juice, pack sandwiches and chips, and get in the car and drive to a random state or county park. We’d hike or walk and find a shady spot to sit and eat. We’d bring the ball gloves or the frisbee or a Korean throw and catch game with a plastic ball and wicker rackets. We would do this on several weekend occasions during my summer vacations from school.

My parents continued this tradition after I graduated from high school and joined the U.S. Navy. They’d pile the dog into the car, pick up a bucket of chicken and drive to a park and spend the day under a tree while playing fetch with their yellow lab, Princess.

If I visited during spring or summer, there was always a picnic to go to. My activities may have changed – beer replaced pop, I smoked, I hung out with the adults – but it didn’t take much to drag me into a game of frisbee or softball or touch football.

I have opined on more than one occasion that I don’t see many people outside anymore, especially kids. We’ve become a society of shut-ins with our WiFi, cable TV, broadband Internet, binge-watching, gaming consoles, etc. This spring it seems more people are out, which has to be a good thing. I doubt it will last as temperatures in my Northern California town are starting to rise. Where I live, many of us have backyards, some have pools. I’m sure we can’t all possibly spend these beautiful, warm spring/summer days indoors, especially now that school is out for the summer for countless school districts, with many more to come in the coming days and weeks.

On a recent podcast, I discussed that we parents of a certain age don’t introduce our children to certain types of music, most notably jazz, like our parents did. I think this is true of picnics too. CBS Sunday Morning aired a piece this morning about how little vacation time we take, and the various reasons why. Have our occupations commanded so much of our attention and contributed to fatigue and miasma that we prefer to spend our weekends in our abodes? I am fortunate enough to have a pool. I have a relaxing body of water in my backyard. I suppose that’s my excuse.

I recently took my son to a park to play basketball. We have a hoop out front, but I tire of yelling “car” every three minutes so I like to go to a park with a court so we can play uninterrupted or without the fear of vehicular manslaughter. There was a man at the park and he was setting up for something big. He had the pavilion all to himself and he looked like he was getting ready for one of my old childhood family-style picnics. But he was there all by himself…for a long time. He had the tablecloths out, charcoal and the Hibachi going. I felt bad for him until folks started to arrive. But even then, some attendees showed up, dropped off their dish to pass, then left. We didn’t stay long enough to see how this all played out so I hope those folks came back. It still didn’t seem like they knew how to picnic. Everyone just kind of milled around. But who am I to criticize these people for how they get together?

Maybe I was a little jealous or envious that this family was going to have a day like I used to have with my family. I have hundreds of second cousins, most in New York, but numerous others up and down the eastern seaboard. So, I’d have to travel some, and it would take some organizing. Hence the family reunion a few years ago, it was our first full family reunion in 20 years and 100 people showed.

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Maybe the picnic of old has evolved into the backyard get-together. Maybe we did the parks because we didn’t have the room to have a large picnic gathering that included enough games and activities to keep the kiddies occupied. We entertained more last summer than we have the nearly nine years we’ve lived here. The S’mores wench was active, and I do enjoy the swim-up S’mores bar.

This is not to say that people don’t hop into a car and head to a nearby beach, we’ve certainly done that on a few occasions. But it seems like those excursions include eating at a local restaurant in the beach community. Maybe it’s California. Maybe natives of the left coast don’t picnic, maybe they never did. Maybe folks in the northeast or the Midwest or in the deep south still do it.

I threw a poll up for two hours on Twitter today and got no responses. I also flat out asked the question in a Tweet and got no answers. I asked the question on Faceboook, and although I didn’t get that many replies, it sure seems to me that the American picnic is dead. When it died seems to vary depending on who you ask. For some it was fairly recent, for others it died a long time ago.

Do I miss picnics? Do I mourn them? Those are not easy questions to answer, especially given my penchant for nostalgia. I have fond memories of my family picnics. I have some photos of a few memorable ones. Maybe that’s what I miss about them, the people. Most of the then-adults we’d picnic with are deceased, aunts, uncles…my parents.

It seems like the tradition died with them.

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