Fourth of July, 1950-something

July 04, 2006 by barbara

by barbara

When I was a kid, we sometimes traveled to rural North Dakota over the Fourth of July. That's where my father's side of the family lived.

Grampa had already given up farming. He and Gramma bought a house in town. It must have felt like being funneled into a baby food jar, though the population was barely 1,500 at the time. Aunt Margie and Uncle Millard and my three girl cousins continued to live in the country, on the site of Grampa's defunct silver fox farm. (PETA would have had a field day with that.)

Maybe it was because Grampa's birthday was July 5 that his blood ran red, white and blue. Maybe it was because he served in the North Dakota legislature. Or maybe he just liked big noise. Whatever the reason, Grampa loved the Fourth.

On the Fourth of July, the whole family descended on the fox farm. Gramma, my mother and my aunts cooked up a storm. There were platters of chicken, potato salad, hot dogs, bread and corn and my personal favorite, homemade rhubarb sauce. There was lots of chatter and frequent ripples of laughter.

As the sun sank toward the horizon, we kids rose to the occasion.

"Now can we? NOW can we?"

"Not yet," they'd tell us. "Pretty soon." I never learned the precise measure of time that "pretty soon" reflected, but I used it on my own children.

I imagine there was conversation among the adults about the propitious moment. The men (Grampa, my uncles and my father) would leave the house, heading toward the field together. I never actually saw who brought the fireworks. That was a mystery.

By the time the children and women joined them, our men-folk were to-ing and fro-ing, shadowy figures deploying pyrotechnics. They would wave us off, warning us in big fatherly voices to stay back, out of harm's way. "We don't want you to get hurt," they'd say. It was thrilling to imagine being that close to deadly danger.

From time to time, Grampa would back away, too, his aging eyes scanning the project. He was the general. Finally, he gave the signal. Pretty soon was now.

Sparklers were distributed to the children. We started gingerly. But by the second or third sparkler, we were dancing and twirling and waving our sparklers until finally, the last one sputtered out.

We lined up with the aunts and Gramma. Mother was back in the house, holding my little brother in her lap. He was terrified of the noise, the lights, the not understanding that this was all great, good fun.

Our rockets' red glare was pretty tame by today's standards. There were some roman candles, bottle rockets, whistling rockets, cherry bombs. But ooh and aah were part of Fourth of July language even then. And when it was over, we talked about our favorite parts, reliving our brief fireworks experience. It was still the center of conversation the next day '" Grampa's birthday.

Grampa has been dead for more than 30 years. Sometimes I wonder what he'd think if he stepped back into the world right now for a peek at how things are. He was a Republican, my grampa. Staunch. Nearly all my family is Republican, even now. He'd like that, I suppose. And we might have a long talk about how I grew up believing something diametrically opposed to his political philosophy.

I have a hunch Grampa would be deeply distressed by the rancor and meanness of politics in 2006. He was a Republican, but he was a fair and just man for the most part. It was possible to be both when he was alive. I don't know how I would explain to him the evolution of the now-pervasive viciousness and vitriol that characterizes our nation's bitter partisanship. When you're living it, it's hard to pin-point just when it was that the trolley left the tracks.

There's a lot of chatter about the relative simplicity of the 1950s. I guess that's accurate. There have always been political hacks. There have always been back-room deals. There has always been division between parties. Maybe it's because we'd just come off a horrendous war that rocked our nation to its foundation. But it seems to me that in those days, the first order of business was to protect the freedom of all Americans, to do what was best for the greatest number of people and to celebrate our independence.

Simpler values, simpler times. Happy birthday, Grampa.

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Fan4 (not verified) | July 4, 2006 - 11:29pm

Lovely memory. I also remember the feeling of being safe, the adults in such firm control; women holding us in their laps or lying next to us on blankets and the men disappearing into the shadowy foreground, crouching to light a wick, then scuttling backwards to get away.
Once my older brother jabbed me in the ear with a sparkler punk, I think by accident, and although it burned a bit it didn't go in far enough to cause real damage. But it was enough to make the grown-ups put an end to our sparkler fun for that night. Jerk.
Later, as an adult and parent, I was apalled to see those firecracker men, now my age, were clueless about the danger of what they were doing, and often full of beer and bravado. And I wondered if the big brave men from my past were too. Naw, couldn't be.