Dandelion Wine begins with twelve year old Douglas Spaulding lying in the roof bedroom of his grandparents' house in the pre-dawn hours of the first day of summer. One night each week Douglas gets to leave his family in their house next door so that in the morning he can make the town come alive. He pretends to be in control of the waking town, sending signals to the street lights to go out, telling people to turn on their lights and wake up, and finally beckoning the sun to rise. Douglas ushers in the summer of 1928.
Douglas knows that, inexplicably, today is going to be different. As they drive out to the countryside, Douglas and his ten-year-old brother Tom listen to Father explain that some days are good for different senses and that today is a day of smells. Even as they walk through the woods, searching for fox grapes, Douglas is aware of something else, lurking just beyond his perception. But he thinks that his brother and father have driven it away, briefly, by talking. Distracted, Douglas listens to his brother Tom describing the mental lists he keeps of everything, and he soon realizes that whatever it is that is coming for him, Tom's words are bringing it closer. Entranced by the approaching unknown, Douglas seems so far away that Tom jumps him and wrestles with him. As they briefly scuffle Douglas feels everything more acutely, he tastes his own blood and when he looks out on the world he is aware that he is alive! He lies there, content and overwhelmed by the beauty of the world and his existence. Tom asks him if he is all right and in response Douglas grabs him and wrestles some more, finally asking his brother if everyone knows that they are alive. Douglas sees his father looking at him and concludes that the trip to the country was set up for him to come to this realization. They head back to town, Douglas woozy with his newfound joy.
Later that same day Douglas and Tom are outside with Grandpa, who tells them it is time to pick the dandelions. The boys fill sacks with the flowers and then Grandfather presses them in the wine press. The boys go to get the bucket of rainwater—for only the purest, freshest waters can be used to make dandelion wine. And they would have a bottle for each day of the summer, for in those dark days in the middle of winter, when the August sun was but a fleeting memory, a sip of dandelion wine would bring back summer for a moment. For Douglas' family, even the words were "summer on the tongue."
The first three chapters of Dandelion Wine link two recurrent themes of the novel—magic and summer. Douglas Spaulding, from high atop his grandparents' house, beckons the town to awaken from its nighttime slumber and begin the activities of a new day. At twelve years of age, Douglas does not simply see himself as an observer in this process of awakening, but rather as a causal agent. He makes the town come to life. And his act of magic coincides with the first day of summer in 1928.
Then, in the company of his father and brother, and poignantly removed from the town into the countryside, Douglas makes a startling realization. He understands, for the first time, that he is truly alive. The magic of life has become clear to him. Douglas believes that their trip into the woods was orchestrated by his father specifically to help him to understand that he is alive. Only after grasping the beauty of existence itself, feeling the magic in all natural life, can Douglas comprehend his own life. At first all he can focus on are the other forms of life that surround him out in the woods, but only when he interacts with Tom is Douglas able to embrace the magic of life. Summer is the perfect time for Douglas to come to terms with the relationship between his own life and other forms of life all around him. Douglas's epiphany itself is an implicit foreshadowing of many other aspects of the book, for an understanding of life necessitates some understanding of death. The difficulties that Douglas will face are centered on an attempt to keep the magic of living alive in the face of the many sorrowful and trying features that life itself contains.
That same day Douglas, Tom, and Grandfather make dandelion wine. The drink represents summer itself, which makes it bottled magic to Douglas and his family. The name of this drink gives rise to the title of the book, and after only three chapters it already has much import. The dandelion wine is a little piece of summer, to be savored in the depths of winter when the magic of life can be hard to find. Bringing back the feelings of beauty, the smells and sounds of nature in July or August, the dandelion wine is a memory. The bottles are labeled, and so each one is not just a memory of summer itself but represents a specific day. Memory carries with it the concepts of age, change, and time, and these will be important throughout the course of the book. The wine is the metaphor that links together all of the other themes in the book, for Dandelion Wine itself is a memory, constructed out of bits of Bradbury's past and his imagination, just as all memories are.