Boomers Judged Labor Day By Its Cover

It’s that time again. The time of year when kids count the waning days of August with lament and a not-so-quiet desperation. Although many kids begin the school year in August, the vast majority return to school within a day or two after Labor Day. For Mister Boomer and his neighborhood acquaintances, Labor Day was designated the Most Unwanted Holiday of the Year.

Since the school year began after Labor Day, the weekend was and is often referred to as the unofficial end of summer. As such, it’s a time when families try to cram in one more weekend of quality time, which usually includes a barbecue. For Mister Boomer, one of two things would occur on Labor Day: either the family would gather with relatives at a state park for an all-day picnic, or they would remain at home, mow the grass and fire up the backyard grill — weather permitting.

Mister B always enjoyed seeing his cousins at holiday picnics, but very often Labor Day was rainy and chilly, so even if the chosen park had a lake with a beach, it was like adding insult to injury. It was never much fun to have to wear a jacket on Labor Day, or bring a change of clothes to switch from shorts to jeans if the weather turned.

If the family remained at home, Mister B would get together with any neighborhood friends who were still around. Many were gone for the weekend, as Upper-Midwesterners are big on weekend cottages. Back in the 1960s and ’70s, the average union factory worker in a variety of manufacturing industries could afford a home, cottage and probably a boat, too. The holiday weekend for them was a last chance to enjoy their cottage and close it up for the impending winter. Mister B’s family never owned a cottage, but neighbors and some relatives did. Occasionally, the family would be invited for an overnight stay with a relative.

At home for the weekend, the remaining kids, walking slower and with heads and voices lowered, took one more trip around the neighborhood. There usually weren’t enough kids to have a baseball game, so instead, the boys — in this case without the girls — would visit the underground forts they had jubilantly dug over the summer; climb up into the tree houses made from construction scrap, where so many summer hours had been spent; toss a few rocks across the fields; walk along the railroad tracks and pick up a few sticks to drag into the dirt; with all the drama of Death Row inmates.

Once the sun went down, their despair grew even worse. Clothes for the next day were laid out, baths taken and time sped forward with increasing irregularity. They would awaken to find that, inevitably on the first day of school the sun would shine and the temperature would rise back to summer levels — it was still summer, after all. Somehow they would manage to get out of bed and walk to school, and somehow managed to make it through the day.

Old classmate relationships were renewed, new teachers introduced and assigned desks were occupied with no small amount of trepidation. A new school year had begun. On returning home, one of the first tasks that were given was to see that the books that were to be used had book covers. Text books were used year after year, so it became mandatory that each student be responsible to return it at the end of the school year in much the same condition as when they got it. Early on, usually around second grade, students were taught in the classroom how to make book covers out of paper bags. From that grade on, it was up to each student to create the jackets at home during the first week of class.

In Mister Boomer’s grade school, a local funeral home always distributed enough pre-printed book jackets that could be adjusted to fit most books, so each student could receive one. Mister B never liked to be the bearer of walking advertising (and won’t wear designer clothing for that reason to this day), so he often reserved the cover for his least used or least favorite subject, if he bothered with it at all. It was silly anyway, he thought, that kids would walk around all year with an ad for a funeral home on their books.

Mister Boomer rather enjoyed making the paper bag covers. He and his classmates would trade tips on edge folding so no tape was required, and most importantly, to assure the cover fit snugly against the book, so no slippage occurred on the trek to and from school. Once done, the paper covers provided an expanse of space that cried out for doodling. Whimsical and fantastical drawings of all types could be penned across the front and back, with no worries about ever defacing the actual book. For Mister B, it was a place to experiment with the billowing psychedelic shapes and lettering he was seeing rise from the rock poster of older boomers. What’s more, if a now-personalized cover ever became tiresome, over the doodle limit or torn, it was never a big deal to make another. With every store packing purchases in paper bags, there was never a lack of material available.

Labor Day and the first day of school were never a welcome sight, but once the denial was released and the the shock of the new embraced, paper book covers became a tradition as much as a rite of passage.

Did you make your own paper book covers, boomers, or did your mother or older siblings make them for you? Do kids still make them today?