On the farm we didn't have access to a wondrous fireworks display. My big brother managed to secure a stash of fountains and cones that he set off in the middle of the yard. I did like those, but the experience was short-lived and then I went to bed.
It wasn't until we moved and my brother, indulging his love of all things explosive, set up his own fireworks stand that I began to take an interest. I was at that odd age, twelve, when I was all legs, and didn't know that guys were beginning to ogle me; as I padded barefoot across the asphalt between my brother's stand with my baby brother and his best friend hanging across the counter trying to talk my brother into giving them free bottle rockets, and the swimming pool, where I slathered myself with Coppertone, dropped white-framed plastic sunglasses over my eyes and stretched out on a chaise.
In my state fireworks were legal and folks didn't feel compelled to don a suit of armor to touch them, so all manner of Camaros and Pontiacs whipped into our driveway and their owners made a mad dash to my brother's stand to purchase their Deluxe Assortments. My brother hit upon an idea to increase business ~ he'd hold a drawing for a jumbo-pack. All one had to do was scribble their name and phone number on a slip of paper and drop it in the box. Like most giveaways (I suspect), no prize was ultimately awarded. In those days, the independent businessman had lots of competition. Little wooden stands were cropping up everywhere ~ there was even one directly across the highway. My brother trash-talked that other stand at every opportunity. "They sell duds," he'd murmur to potential customers who were eying the plastic-flag festooned plywood sarcophagus on the other side of the road.
KFYR played songs by Procol Harum and Scott McKenzie and The Rascals, and mostly by The Doors:
The thermometer outside my mom's kitchen window read 83 degrees. My chubby five-year-old sister and her best friend toddled down the concrete steps to the pool in their one-pieces and flip-flops, and proceeded to annoy me, while I did my best to ignore them. Mom was minding the motel office and surveyed the entire scene through the vast picture windows.
Dad kept cool in his own particular manner, by moseying up to the bar next door and downing copious glasses of whiskey sevens. Around six o'clock he'd stagger home and want to play a round of lawn darts with whoever'd agree to take him on. My entire family was essentially together in one spot, albeit lost in their individual endeavors, so it all felt comfortable...like home.
But I was by then crispy-red from the July sun and in no mood to witness the potential sharp-pointed dart injuries, so I'd grab my striped bath towel and ascend the steps back to my air-cooled room, dodging hot rockets that zipped over the motel roof.
By the mid-eighties, I had children of my own and shorter legs. Dad was many-years sober and his drink of choice was coffee slurped from a white-handled mug. He and mom had sold the motel to save their sanity (and marriage) and retired to a colonial split-level in the city. The white house with its black roof was "our" house. Everybody showed up willy-nilly and walked in. Family reunions occurred around the Fourth of July ~ one or two sisters and assorted kids arriving from Texas; my second oldest sister and her husband having long ago ensconced themselves in the same town showing up fashionably late for any gathering. My big brother had kids of his own and only a tiny remnant of pyromania. My little brother, too, had young boys; and he schooled them in the finer points of firing up the by-now puny Roman candles and comets.
All that occurred long after the requisite Fourth of July activities and long past sundown.
The ultimate highlight of July 4 was the Mandan parade. The parade was an enormous undertaking, and that was just for the attendees. The day would begin around nine a.m. when sundry family members would congregate at Mom and Dad's house with their coolers and sunscreen and dicker over who would ride with whom. By ten, wedged into a distant parking space, we'd disembark with our essentials and trudge down to Main Street to claim our viewing spot on the grassy berm. We'd generally end up smack-dab in front of McDonald's, where my sister-in-law worked behind the counter. Our group generally consisted of my dad, two brothers, my little sister and me, and all our assorted kids. Mom couldn't take the heat, so she stayed back to mix up potato salad, toast dinner rolls, and whip cream to top her home-baked pies. Once my sister-in-law's shift ended, she'd stroll out to join the family gathering. My sister and I parked ourselves on a curb with our cameras, the men would loll behind us, and we'd throw out an occasional arm to stop our kids from traipsing out into the street.
(This is my school!)
The parade was a cornucopia of horses, marching bands, military veterans, kitschy polka bands atop floats, all manner of business establishment representation, and of course, farm implements. "I had one of those," Dad would exclaim so often that it became a running joke. We'd all stand for the American flag as it passed, and no one threw a tantrum about it.
Getting home was a mini-nightmare, but we'd turn around and do it again the next year. Mom and Dad's house was an oasis to our sweaty bunch of wayfarers. In her recliner, Mom snorted awake at the sound of the first pack of rag-tag parade revelers returning. My sister and I would ensconce ourselves in front of the basement television and watch MTV videos.
Our kids played outside...and inside...and back outside...then inside (they were boys and had indefatigable energy). My brothers dozed in their living room chairs and Dad smoked out in the garage. Mom fretted over when to send someone to KFC to pick up a bucket of original recipe ~ my second oldest sister and her brood still hadn't shown up (we guessed that their regular wake-up time was sometime around noon). Everyone was starving and someone broached the notion of simply eating without them, but Mom wouldn't hear of it. Finally around five p.m. the lost travelers would appear and we'd chow down like we'd never in our lives tasted food.
When dusk finally settled, we straggled outside to sit on the concrete front step, nurse a cup of coffee and await the mini-show. My big brother, the long established expert, set up various explosives in the middle of the street and tried to coax the boys of the next generation to run out, barefoot, and fire them up. My little brother, not to be outdone, dragged out his purchased stash and started a parallel display. No sparklers made an appearance.
I wasn't all that impressed ~ been there ~ but I cherished the nearness of my family and their familiar scents.
I didn't know how soon it would all end. Too soon.
The Fourth of July is so different now. Somebody's lighting firecrackers outside my window as I write this. And I don't actually care, although I wonder where they laid their hands on them, since this is a scaredy-cat state.
My family (those that remain) won't read this, but I want to say that I love you and I miss you.
And my heart aches today for those ordinary, precious times.