Showing posts with label fourth of july. Show all posts
Showing posts with label fourth of july. Show all posts

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Independence Day Belongs To Small Towns

I moved away from my hometown more than twenty years ago. I live in a leafy suburb that has nothing but houses and a store scattered here and there. As I write this on July 4, I am sitting inside my house, listening to the air conditioner kick in. Independence Day is just another day. It could be a generic Monday, or a Wednesday. 

In celebration of the holiday my suburb features live orchestral music on July 10. July 10. Why not July 23? Or August 17? They do things differently here in Minnesota. They also outlaw fireworks, so only the outlaws set them off, generally at two o'clock in the morning outside my window. I'm still perplexed by the irrational fear of fountains and Roman candles -- but then, Minnesotans seem to be afraid of a lot of things. Maybe it's because my big brother sold fireworks from a home-constructed stand for years that pyrotechnics are simply everyday life for me. My little brother and his friends blew all their savings buying bottle rockets and spinners they'd nail to the wall; then beg Mom and Dad for "just five dollars" so they could buy more. Sure, one might have to dodge a wayward rocket shot from a pop bottle occasionally, but so what? No fires ever ensued. Life isn't necessarily risk-free.

The Fourth of July was always my favorite holiday back home. My town did it up right. It didn't matter if the holiday fell in the middle of the week and I'd need to get up for work the next day. Everyday life stopped for the Fourth. The highlight was the parade, a procession that went for miles and miles -- my high school marching band, lines of farm implements, floats upon floats populated with waving riders. Clowns on stilts throwing handfuls of candy to the little kids. Polka bands. Military vets. THE FLAG, which every parade-goer reverently stood for. And every single cheesy display one's imagination could conjure. In fact, the cheesier the better. My family would laugh and mingle, my sister and I parked on the curb, within reaching distance of our kids so they wouldn't wander too close to the action. Snapping action photos with actual cameras. Getting sweat-drenched and sunburned, and not caring. Then, once we were certain the parade was over, peering down the long street to ensure no one else was actually coming, gathering up our kids and our blankets and our lawn chairs and trudging in the hot sun back to our cars wedged in a supermarket parking lot (By the way, business owners were completely, patriotically on board with people claiming their parking spots. They, too, were off attending the parade.)

We'd head back to Mom and Dad's and plop down on tufted chairs in their COOL living room, a couple of the guys stretching out on the carpet. Mom would be in the kitchen putting the finishing touches on her potato salad and arranging her relish tray. Once everyone arrived back at the meeting spot, we'd eat and eat and eat. And drink tons of iced tea. 

As the sun set, we'd gather on the front steps and await my brothers' home-crafted fireworks show. They'd take turns running out to the middle of the street, touching a punk to the latest pyrotechnic. And we'd alternately marvel and continue our gossip session, careful to ensure our kids didn't wander into the dark street.

Then we'd finally head home and flop into bed, red-burned and exhausted.

THAT was the Fourth of July. 

As I glance out my window today, my street is deserted. Everyone is either at the mall or still sleeping. Hard to know. I don't know any of my neighbors. We're not real cohesive here. "Minnesota Nice" is a nice catchphrase that native Minnesotans utter to obviate their true, insular nature. 

But I have my memories of REAL Independence Days. 

Memories will suffice.



Thursday, July 4, 2019

My Holiday

Most people get sentimental at Christmas time. For me it's the Fourth of July. It's the time when I miss my mom and dad the most. So many of my memories are tied up in Independence Day. It didn't start out that way. As a little kid, I vaguely remember my dad lighting a sparkler with a red-tipped punk once darkness had settled across our homestead, and me gingerly waving it around as my parents offered suggestions like, "Make a circle with it!" I was scared to death of sparklers and only appeased my mom and dad because they seemed so invested in the experience. I much preferred the strips of red caps that one could snap with a toy gun or explode simply by stomping one's foot atop them.

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 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.

Like these:

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.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

The Fourth of July

State Capitol Building, Bismarck, North Dakota

July 4th used to be my favorite holiday. Now it's just a day -- a day off from work; a day of watching TV and if the stars align, taking a nap. 

When one lives in a small town, summer holidays are joyful. The early morning sun beaming through the kitchen window warms your skin; your sinews tingle with anticipation.You rise early to stir up a peach coffee cake and lean against the toasty oven door to twirl the dials on the kitchen timer. The kids are still snuffling softly in their beds.

The heavy air hints of a coming sunset thunderstorm; my cotton blouse clings to the plumb between my breasts and hips. The radio on the kitchen counter thumps with John Anderson croaking out Swingin'. The phone on the wall rings and I flip the volume low on the transistor. My little sister is calling from Mom and Dad's. "What time are y'all coming over?" she asks. She's flown up from Fort Worth with her little son the afternoon before, because she, like me, knows how much the Fourth of July means. "No one's up yet," I say. "Give us a couple of hours."

I rap on bedroom doors. "Let's go!" My sons stagger out of their rooms and woozily flick shower knobs to scalding. Then they dump all manner of fireworks -- Roman candles, bottle rockets, "inferno" fountains, M-80's -- hey, how'd those get in there? -- out of paper grocery bags onto the living room floor and argue over which belongs to whom. I twist Saran Wrap around my coffee cake and grab my Minolta SLR off the bedroom bureau; snatch my purse and herd everyone and everything into the car.

At 9:00 we pull into the driveway. The garage door is wide open and Dad is sitting inside on a lawn chair nursing a stained mug of coffee and flicking his cigarette into a sand-filled coffee can.  Upstairs Mom's slicing hard-boiled eggs with a paring knife, dropping the yellow-white rings into a Tupperware bowl of boiled baby potatoes. Apple and cherry pies rest on cooling racks on the counter. She swabs her damp forehead with a tissue.

My sister is parked on the sofa in front of the TV where Cyndi Lauper's bee-stung lips are warbling Time After Time. "What time you think we should leave?" she asks. "It's gonna be hell getting a parking spot...and it's hot," I say. Lissa, the transplanted Texan, reminds me that I have no earthly idea what "hot" is.

We have to finalize transportation arrangements. Since my older sister and her husband won't saunter over until three p.m. or so, they are not part of the equation. My little brother and his boys like to go their own way -- they'll get there when they get there. Mom has long ago sworn off sun, plus she's hoping to grab a snooze once everyone vacates the premises. That leaves approximately seven people to pile into Dad's Lincoln to traverse the river and pray for a parking spot that isn't two miles and two hulking coolers away. Our ultimate destination is the curb in front of Mandan's McDonald's, where my sister-in-law works the breakfast shift and my brother loiters waiting for her to doff her McD's apron and join the party. We stake out our spot on the street's edge by parking our coolers and blankets and troop inside the joint to order up pancakes plunked inside Styrofoam containers and where Dad can get his coffee fix. We hover, waiting for one party of the three hundred clamoring hordes to depart so we can finally sit down at a sticky Formica table. I'm itchy to get out of there and get down to the business of snapping pictures. Finally my sis and I lower ourselves to the curb and commence to doing what we do best -- making smart-alecky comments about anything and everything around us.

Before long we hear the faint trill of snare drums and the bassy bray of trombones. The parade has begun. Viet Nam vets march past us hoisting the American flag and the black MIA banner. I stand and my chest tightens. Damn, I'm patriotic. The Mandan High School marching band follows behind and I nod in deference to my long-ago school days. My sister didn't attend Mandan High, so it's just color and pomp to her.

Dad and my brothers (little brother has made his way over, as he inevitably always does) stand behind us and comment on the line of farm implements and antique cars. "I had one of those," is Dad's clarion call. A polka band atop a flatbed squeezes out an accordion solo. I click the shutter on my camera with one hand while herding my boys away from the street with the other, when they venture a step too far to collect candy thrown by everyone participating in the promenade. They barely avoid the hooves of the draft horses in their quest to claim bragging rights to the biggest mound of candy.

I'm feeling a little queasy from the combination of sun fever and prefab pancakes, but I'm exhilarated.  We gather up our blankets and miscellaneous detritus and tromp, sunburned, the two miles back to the car. We never even comment on the spectacle -- it is what it is -- a part of us; a part of our essence.

Mom's face crinkles with concern as we alight the stairs; she searches Dad's face for hints of sun stroke. But Dad, like me, is exuberant. He lives for this day.

The burgers are sizzling on the grill; big bowls of potato salad and baked beans claim the dining room table. Dill pickle spears repose in the crystal relish tray. My brother claims the couch and stretches out to pseudo-nap. My sister and I sit cross-legged on the living room carpet and laugh at nothing. Kids do what kids do; rambunct the staircase and holler. It's now almost 3:00 and still no sign of my big sister and her husband. I'm mildly irritated because I'm starving and the food looks sooo good. My sister-in-law will eventually pity-eat a slice of my coffee cake; I found the recipe on the back of a can of Libby's Sliced Peaches in Heavy Syrup, and it's my go-to pot luck contribution, because it's easy to make and almost impossible to ruin. It really stands no chance against home-baked cherry pie with a lattice crust, however.

Dad is down in the garage smoking again. I'll join him as soon as I'm tactfully able. Dad is  anticipating my brother-in-law's arrival -- his smoking and BS'ing buddy. That makes at least two of us who are impatiently waiting.

My little brother is outside entertaining his kids and mine with all manner of mischief. My big brother on the couch squinches his eyes open, then closed again. Mom announces to no one in particular that "maybe I should give your sister a call."  My brother rolls over on his side and grouses, "let's just eat." Of course, Mom would never broach that notion.

By and by, the missing couple arrives; my sister toting a tray of deviled eggs. Mom gushes over this offering and declares that she needs to get the recipe, as if she (or even me) does not know how to pipe mustard-mayo into boiled egg crevices and sprinkle them with paprika.

The entire scattered family, their antennae quivering, descend upon the dining room table like ravenous raccoons, pawing and snatching food items with abandon. Chinaware plates piled high, they find the nearest folding chair, empty floor space, recliner arm, to perch on and savor the repast as if it's their final prison meal before the noose drops.

The bellyful re-energizes my brother. He badgers us to play a board game or at least break out a deck of cards.  My little sister and I sit it out. We'll go our own way, which is downstairs to the family room to watch Beavis and Butthead and giggle. My kids eventually saunter in and join our MTV party.

Unspoken, everyone is waiting for night to fall and for the pièce de résistance -- the lighting of the fireworks. Once dusk descends, everyone congregates on the front stoop -- Mom sips from a mug of coffee that will keep her awake until two a.m. Dad settles in beside her and fires up another smoke. My brothers become the kids in the clutch -- setting up combustibles in the middle of the street and lighting them afire. I hold out my arm to bar my kids from running out too close and suffering debilitating burns. A couple of houses down the block, someone is firing up bottle rockets, which zoom and whiz and pirouette. My brother-in-law scuttles out of the way of the flaming missiles just in time. My oldest son wants desperately to set off one of his showering fountains, so I pull out my lighter and touch it to a "punk", wait for it to glow red and carefully hand it over. He rushes into the street, lights the fuse and runs. Life is inherently dangerous. A little bit of risk gets one's corpuscles pulsing.

The family show continues for an hour or so. I hear the rumble of thunder in the western sky. Or is it fireworks? The horizon flashes orange. A nighttime thunderstorm is the perfect ending to a glorious Independence Day.

The clock ticks; the showers of sparks become redundant. My kids are beginning to wither. It's late. Time to lift their dozy bodies into the back seat and depart. We say our goodbyes, knowing we'll meet again just like this the next Fourth of July and we'll follow exactly the same routine.

I arrive home and spy my countenance in the bathroom mirror. My face is pale salmon except for two white rings circling my eyes. I change out of my sweat-dampened shorts and tank top and snuggle inside my living room rocker, light up a smoke and savor the bliss.

Today was perfectly perfect.

Friday, July 1, 2016


I don't think about home much anymore, and yet I always do. The pictures are faded, but they show up somehow almost every day, like a flashbulb that snaps, leaving a warm amber glow that lingers, then disappears.

I think about home most of all at this time of the year. It's most likely age, but holidays are just "days" now; time off from work. Those questions people like to ask when they don't know what to ask -- what's your favorite color? Favorite TV show? I don't know; ask me tomorrow and I'll most likely have a different answer.

What's your favorite holiday?

Fourth of July.

The Fourth of July is when I miss Mom and Dad the most. It's not as if our family had some written script we followed on Independence Day, but we had traditions. We would gather the kids and drive to Mom and Dad's place early that morning. Mom would be in the kitchen, slicing boiled potatoes into a big bowl for her potato salad, jangling baking pans from out of the low cupboard, tipping open the oven door to check on her cherry pie; Dad would be in his recliner sipping black coffee, jazzed and waiting for everyone to arrive so we could drive over to Mandan and stake out a prime viewing spot for the parade. Kids of varying sizes would tumble about, antsy for the real fun that would come later -- firing up those punks so they could sizzle off their fountain cones and bottle rockets in the middle of the street. Mom never attended the parade, but the rest of us did -- we locals and whichever far-flung sisters happened to travel home to enjoy the holiday that year.

Our prime spot was the Mandan McDonald's -- my sister-in-law worked there and we'd all pile in and push our way through the throng to buy a ham and cheese biscuit that we didn't really want, but we figured we needed to eat something. All the tables were long occupied, so we hovered and waited, and then sat down for approximately five minutes before heading outdoors to sit on the curb, everyone excited, yet playing it cool, waiting for the parade to start.

Mandan has an absurdly long Main Street, ripe for marching bands and cheesy floats -- a polka band riding by, pumping out a German tune on their accordions and snare drum, their butts parked precariously atop metal folding chairs. The Viet Nam Veterans of America marched past in a ragged formation and we all stood up and silently saluted. A clown whose makeup was melting in the hot sun paced down our side of the street and hefted candy out of a plastic pail, and the little kids darted out and scooped up as much as their hands could hold, while my sister and I tried to herd them back before the horse cavalry clomped them. The Mandan High School marching band with their uniforms of black and white came by, and I stood up and hooted and clapped -- my alma mater after all. The farm implements. Dad would be standing with my brothers behind my sister and me and would invariably say, "I had one of those." It became our running joke. "How about that one, Dad? Did you have one of those, too?" My sister and I snapped pictures of anything that struck our fancy, and of each other.

When the parade ended, we'd hike the mile or so over to where Dad's Lincoln was parked (last open spot!) and then wait our requisite half hour behind all the other cars revving up to go home.

Back at Mom and Dad's, Mom was cool as a cucumber in her air-conditioned living room, while the rest of us were dripping sweat and dying for a cool drink. Mom was no fool.

The guys would invariably stretch out on the couch or floor or whatever was available and snooze. Men seem to have some sort of switch that allows them to float into semi-consciousness anytime the mood strikes. We, on the other hand, were busy corralling our kids away from their most recent dangerous bright idea (ours was a family of boys).

Mom's potato salad and macaroni salad and hamburgers freshly sizzled off the grill were excellent, and we went back for seconds and thirds and topped it all off with a slice of cherry lattice pie.

As darkness fell, we settled on the concrete stoop with cups of coffee and watched the kids dart in and out of the street, setting off their booty of fireworks; the grown men unable to resist the lure; bounding out to "supervise".

The air was warm. Sometimes lightning would flash in the west, but it was far away and it only added a light touch of danger to an already electric night.

When all that was left was the soft scent of sulfur in the night air, we'd start to gather our things and linger for a final goodnight. 

On the drive home, the kids fell asleep stretched across the back seat, their breath puffing like sated kittens.

We'd carry them off to their beds and I'd settle outside on the step for one final smoke.

I didn't know that feeling wouldn't last forever. I never gave it one solitary thought.  

Now I do, when July rolls around. Remembering makes my heart hurt; makes me miss them more.

My favorite holiday?

Well, let me tell you...

Friday, July 3, 2015

God Bless The USA

Call me old-fashioned. I'm old and I'm "fashioned"?

I still remember attending the Fourth of July parade with my dad, and he loved it. It was pretty much the highlight of his year. And it was actually pretty cool for me, too. Everybody stood up when the flag passed by, and I inevitably got a lump in my throat. But I'm sentimental like that. Just like my dad got sentimental when the old farm implements trudged down Main Street, I was a sucker for the flag.

Because you've gotta stand for something, right?

I was watching a news channel this morning that shall remain nameless, because, you know, politically correct bullshit. And I saw Lee Greenwood. His song took me back to 1985, when both he and I looked a whole lot better, but he's still out there doin' it, whereas I have gotten old and I just miss my dad.

I can't go home, and even if I did, it wouldn't be the same. Dad is gone, Mom is gone. Mom always stayed behind while the rest of us went to the parade, because she had to nurse the potato salad for when we all straggled back home.

My sister Lissa and I would park on the curb with our cameras and our sunglasses and laugh about nothing and everything. My boys would be tromping around the McDonald's parking lot, waiting for the candy-throwers to finally show up, and then they'd lurch out onto the street and battle the other little kids for a piece of taffy to stuff inside their plastic grocery bags.

My big brother Rick would stand alongside my dad and offer prescient comments, while his wife Kathy was still inside McDonald's, chatting up the lunch ladies. My little brother Jay was sort of like ether; here one moment, gone the next.

Lissa and I snapped pictures of the Mandan Braves marching band with their high-white headdresses and black-and-white MANDAN banner. We hoo-rahed the stupid US Healthcare flatbed (me) and the Golden Dragon Restaurant float (her). I applauded the truck that towed the local country band, because, you know, country. We snapped pictures of the same stuff year after year, but we didn't care.

 The Fourth of July is when I miss my dad the most. We shared the same corny patriotic sentiments. We were both sentimental that way.

So, here you go, Dad.

And I still tear up. I can't help it.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Happy Birthday, America

Let's keep looking for America.  I think she might still be there.

Let us be lovers we'll marry our fortunes together
I've got some real estate here in my bag
So we bought a pack of cigarettes and Mrs. Wagner's pies
And we walked off to look for America
Cathy I said as we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh
Michigan seems like a dream to me now
It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw
I've gone to look for America

Laughing on the bus playing games with the faces
She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy
I said be careful his bow tie is really a camera
Toss me a cigarette I think there's one in the raincoat
We smoked the last one an hour ago
So I looked at the scenery she read her magazine
And the moon rose over an open field

Cathy I'm lost I said though I knew she was sleeping
I'm empty and aching and I don't know why
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
They've all come to look for America
All come to look for America
"America" as written by Paul Simon, Bruno Lauzi