Holy Soda Pop and Firecrackers! It’s the Fourth of July!!

My kids didn’t grow up with extended family. And so they never experienced big Fourth of July picnics: baked beans and coleslaw and tubs of potato salad swarming with salmonella bacteria; coconut cake and burned-to-a-crisp burgers weighing down makeshift saw horse tables set up the night before under leafy oaks and maples. And they didn’t know about huge galvanized metal tubs with bottles of every kind of soda bobbing up and down in chunks of ice. Or sack races and scavenger hunts and whatever else most people do – or did – at those things.

But we did make memories just the same, grilling hot dogs, eating deviled eggs and s’mores under some scraggly Russian olive tree while our neighbors down the dirt road celebrated with tamales and enchiladas. By nightfall, all the kids were running around waving sparklers.

In New Mexico, schools let out in late May, long for before the Fourth rolls around. So for my kids, the holiday didn’t have the same punch that it did for me. I grew up back east, where schools let out in June and the last few days bordered on torture. The only movement of air was between the open windows and the transom over the door. You were lucky to feel anything except sweat trickling down your back. And then the last day arrived, always a half-day, along with the sayonara Dixie cup ice cream – half chocolate, half vanilla – and tiny wooden spade that left splinters in your tongue.

I didn’t even associate the Fourth of July with American Independence. Not until the fifth or sixth grade, anyway. What I did associate it with was my own independence. The Fourth of July holiday became my very own “end of school” party.

A few years ago I discovered my old report cards in a filing cabinet. The final comments were dated June 23 or 24, or even later, and announced the teacher into whose class I’d been promoted, giving me the rest of the summer to lament the prospect. But on the Fourth of July, it was suddenly summer, and there was no reason to think about history or math problems or homework until after Labor Day. And that was reason enough to celebrate.

Early on the morning of the Fourth, my father would take me to an ice factory called Arctic Circle, where he bought a few blocks of dry ice wrapped in butcher paper and set them in the trunk. The dry ice would keep the tub of sodas cold all afternoon.

He’d squeeze his lips into an impatient line and warn, “Don’t touch that! It’ll freeze your fingers right off.”

It’s one of the only memories I have of my father taking me anywhere, just him and me.

The picnic would be at a relative’s house, usually in a country setting. We never had picnics at our house. Probably because my parents didn’t think we had a good spot for one. We lived between two perpetually angry neighbors: on one side, a German piano tuner who my father swore celebrated Hitler’s birthday. On the other side was a retired railroad engineer, an old man when my father was a kid. Chester confiscated balls – baseballs, footballs, soccer balls, tennis balls – only to slink onto our porch on Christmas Eve and hand them back as presents. If you stepped over the property line they grimaced and batted the air with the backs of their hands.

Good folks, the kind you want to sit around and play canasta with.

After arriving at the picnic in fresh cotton shorts and sleeveless blouse I placed my chair close enough to the tub so that I could reach in and grab another pop without notice. Soda was a treat. My goal was to down one of each flavor: root beer, cream, orange, Coke, Yoo-Hoo, ginger ale, grape (my least favorite), and others that I can’t recall but probably drank anyway. I spaced my soda consumption throughout the afternoon, in between hot dogs and handfuls of potato chips. And I got away with it.

In those days children were basically ignored unless they said something disrespectful. Your hair had to be on fire or a foot caught in the lawnmower before anyone took pity.

By the time the lightning bugs came out we were back home and down at the bottom of our street waiting for the fireworks. Neighbors set up lawn chairs and craned their necks in the direction of state fair grounds. We could hear the announcer’s voice blasting over the PA system, alive with animation and completely unintelligible. After the special displays that took place on the ground, which we were unable to see from three-quarters of a mile, the big fireworks started. Rockets whistled high in the night sky and exploded with peels of color. “Pop! Pop, pop!”


Everyone oohed and aahed.

And then the grand finale: better than all the flavors of soda pop, better than anything that had happened that day.  Brilliant bursts of color sizzled overhead, crackling and exploding one after the other.  The spectacle marked the beginning of my summer. And like the trails of shimmering light that disappeared in the darkness,  summer always ended much too soon. FFG

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