The 4th of July is a favorite holiday of mine, perhaps because it was always such delicious fun when I was a kid. We’d spend the afternoon swimming at the Jewish Community Center with all of the other Irish Catholics (See the previous post A Catholic Childhood at the Jewish Community Center) and then bound for home to ride bikes and play until the giant picnic dinner was served.
Grilled hamburgers and hot dogs were standard fare at these gatherings with watermelon the sweet treat for dessert. My mom whipped up her famous potato salad, which my friends have always begged her to make and which I didn’t have the good sense to cultivate an appetite for until I was an adult. Brownies topped with powdered sugar, cole slaw, deviled eggs, popsicles, and all the soda pop you could drink rounded out the special day’s unusually kid-friendly menu.
Fireworks were illegal in the city where I grew up, but that didn’t stop my dad and his best friend from putting on a small but glorious display for their young families at the moment dusk turned to dark. We would line up our chairs along the railing of the marble patio my father had built and well away from the action at the back end of the yard.
My dad was an explosives expert by trade, so, of course, he delighted in entertaining us with his own little show of Roman candles. We wrote our names in the night air with sparklers under the close supervision of the dads. We lit tiny black squares that ballooned into “snakes” on the driveway where they’d leave unsightly smudges for months once their remnant ashes blew away. No one got burned or poked their eyes out.
When we moved into our house in Edgevale, I was 4 years of age; my parents stayed in this home for 30 years, long enough to see their four children grow up and move into lives of their own. As they aged, they enjoyed another round of life in this hood with the set of neighbors who moved in after my siblings and I had left.
The revels of this group included an annual day-long 4th of July block party which actually was set in motion by the original set of long-time neighbors when I was in junior high. After I married, my husband and I would attend as would many other families who had once lived on the block. This block had a healthy alumni contingent who often found their way back for the Halloween and Christmas parties as well as the all-day 4th of July celebration.
We have a photo of my son as a one-month-old tucked in the lap of an older child in the annual group shot of the kids and another snapshot from when he was 3 or 4, sporting blue twill Osh Kosh overall shorts and a red, white, and blue striped T-shirt as he took a break from running with the pack of older kids long enough to munch a hot dog.
Other photos show tables packed with dishes of food, grills in the street billowing smoke, adults and kids laughingly engaged in silly contests, kids riding decorated bikes and running through sprinklers, and smiling adults with a plate in one hand and a malt beverage in the other. A firetruck would invariably swing by early on before its riders were pressed into service on their busiest night of they year.
The summer after my daughter was born, we took her over to acquaint her with the homeland, but decided that our son was a bit too intrigued by the bottle rocket war the adult males waged in one yard. Good fences may make good neighbors, but bad handling of explosive devices does not.
My husband’s recollection of the end of that era of our 4th of July celebrations? “Duck and cover.” Funny how your perspective on revelry shifts just a bit when you become a parent. The next year we decided to stick closer to our home and cultivate some traditions of our own.
So what have these traditions been? Well, of course, they evolved over the years as the children grew, but one constant for us is the tiny parade sponsored by our small city. With the holiday falling on a Sunday and the economy still precarious, some festivities have been moved or altered or canceled.
The parade lives on, though it was held yesterday instead of today to avoid conflicting with church services. We met up with some good friends and enjoyed the coolish breeze and sunshine as we were pelted with candy and political pamphlets in this an election year.
Here’s an excerpt from a previous post, part of the Pool Chronicles series (The Pool Chronicles: Past as Prologue-Culture), which recounts the parade in detail and how we have typically celebrated the Fourth here at Flat Rock Creek:
Citizens turn out in droves for the small but satisfying Fourth of July parade every year and the attendant events throughout that week: an early morning run, a midnight bike race, a street dance, and, until it was eliminated last year due to economic woes, a mammoth fireworks display in the huge county park it shares with another mid-sized city.
The parade is held in Old Town, right next to the railroad tracks which bustle 24/7 with freight trains transporting coal and sundry other cargo. Patience is a virtue cultivated early in one’s residency here as motorists’ routes are regularly interrupted by the passing of trains whose horns punctuate the day, synchronizing the city’s businesses and piercing the still of night like a coyote howl.
We’ve watched the parade from the back of our minivan to keep from getting soaked by a thunder storm and watched it from lawn chairs we drug across the railroad tracks in the oppressive humidity that defines mid-summer here. A local group of Shriners, a mainstay of the parade, charms the children by racing tiny go-carts in circle 8s and tooting horns on their miniature Model Ts. Some of them prance good naturedly in goofy costumes to entertain the crowd accompanied by tunes produced by their kazoo-playing comrades.
Other music is provided by a horn band comprised of random area high school students trumpeting their only tune, “Louie, Louie,” throughout the parade route.
The city’s swim team is heralded like local heroes. Cub Scouts packs and Girl Scout troops pedal their meticulously decorated bikes as their leaders walk along and toss candy to kids. City officials wave to the crowd from the back of slow-moving convertibles.
Young girls from dance academies turn flips down the asphalt and the costumed players from a local Renaissance Festival engage spectators with their theatrical antics and hardy shouts of “Huzzah!” Local businesses advertise services through festive floats. Even a pristine garbage truck is part of the route, a nod to a local waste management company.
The only unpleasantness is the periodic invasion every couple of years of politicians seeking to solicit votes and shore up name recognition. But even that annoyance is so quintessentially American that it’s hard to be offended. Residents come from all over the city to watch and everyone gets a good seat curbside. After the parade ends, people head to their respective neighborhood pools to spend the day swimming and splashing and sunning.
We’ve been watching the city’s Fourth of July fireworks show since it was held on the easement along the railroad tracks in the 1980s. In the first years we lived in our house, we could actually view it from our driveway. But once it shifted to the large county park and shared costs with a neighboring city, my husband initiated a new family tradition.
We’d venture out to the middle of the lake in the big county park at dusk and watch from a canoe the brilliant display of fireworks ignite the sky and cast its massive reflection on the black still canvas of water. The lake effect, in this case, was the illusion that the trailing embers falling from the spray of fireworks were showering the water as each resonant boom echoed off the bluff on the other side of the lake. Two shows for the price of one and both free.
In recent years, I noticed an uptick of families celebrating with picnics at the shelters surrounding the lake. Typically, we’ve gotten together with family friends for grilled hamburgers and hotdogs at someone’s home to celebrate after relaxing at the pool all afternoon. It has never occurred to me to go to a park on that day except to see fireworks. But it has occurred to a fair number of recent immigrants to the United States.
So I’ve been privy to a most remarkable scene: the gathering of immigrants and native-born Americans—who would know which was which on the edge of the lake as they cluster around the dock and boat easement to get a good view of the night sky?
Right here, smack in the middle of the heartland, this: people of all ages and origins, Asian, Indian, Hispanic, Slavic, African American, European, and those of other ethnic backgrounds, all gathered in one place to celebrate the birth of these United States, a wondrous cacophony conjured by the sounds of different languages and dialects rising into the evening air as people descend the hill to reach the dock at dusk to watch fireworks.
Here’s hoping you find your way to a delightful and safe Fourth of July this year!