04 July 2008

The Best 4ths Ever!

Every person, every family, every community and every region of the country has its own way of celebrating the Fourth of July. For some it’s the annual fireworks display; from noisy kids in the backyards with sparklers after the family barbeque to community-based, professionally prepared, half-hour fireworks shows drawing in viewers from miles away—some include concerts and laser light shows. Whatever the specifics, the annual ritual unfolds.

My favorite Fourths were when I was a child, spending my summers with my grandparents in the rural settlement of Springerton, deep in the black-dirt area of Southern Illinois known as Little Egypt. Summers there were as hot as hell’s hub and nearly as humid as a teenage boy’s breath on the occasion of his first arrival at second base in the back seat of dad’s car.

But, long before girls and cars, my cousins and I celebrated the Fourth with a carefree spirit and near martial élan, which would have made our forefathers burst with pride. Lafayette, we had arrived…with contraband. You see, firecrackers were outlawed in Illinois, except as part of a legally sanctioned community display. But, each year, the cousins and I would gather enough pennies, nickels, and dimes from tasks, the selling of scrap-metal and soda-bottles returns to lay in a fair supply (from the traveling John Deere salesman’s trunk) of Black Kat firecrackers, cherry bombs, torpedoes, M-80s, Silver Salutes and some lady-fingers to use to torment girls.

A few lady-fingers tossed behind, and, at the feet of, a gaggle of snotty girls were always good for squeals and screams. But, that was mere prelude to the cannonade and bombast, which was to follow throughout the morning. Dogs and cats, wise to way of boys armed with firecrackers, vanished under cars, burrowed under corn cribs, and crawled deep and out of reach into grottoes formed by the wisteria bushes shading porches. Chickens took to the highest rafters in the barn. The only thing missing was a wild-eyed, terrified peasant lad running through town screaming, “The Visigoths are coming, the Visigoths are coming!”

A disquieting stillness would settle over that small town of two hundred gentle, Christian souls as my cousins and I, and six or seven other town boys made our way to the elementary school playground and well away from adult oversight.

It should come as no surprise that it was my generation, which first launched solid metallic objects into earth orbit and landed a human on the moon. These deeds were the direct result of early experimentation with two cherry bombs ignited simultaneously under a Del Monte pineapple can. The principle was laid, we merely had to refine the fuels a bit, but, earth orbit was ours from that day! Applied science and empirical research at their finest.

Cherry bombs launched tin cans skyward, M-80s shattered Royal Crown and Orange Crush soda bottles into sub-atomic particles, and torpedoes strung across the nearby road to Mill Shoals and Fairfield exploded as unwary motorists ran over them and slammed on their brakes thinking they had blown a tire. And, the richer among us, with more than one pack, would set off an entire string of Black-Kats as we staggered about, clutching our guts, and falling and rolling on the ground as though we had been machined-gunned by invading hordes of “Commies”.

By mid-day, our arsenals expended, each suffering some sort of injury; bleeding and scarred by glass and metal shrapnel or suffering powder burns and impaired hearing, we parted, good-fellows all, bonded by boyhood codes and primal combat brotherhood, to our separate holiday repasts. The cousins and I would make our way to grandma and grandpa’s where all the uncles, aunts, spouses and older cousins would be gathering for the feast.

We’d wash up out on the porch pumping water into a metal basin and scrubbing with hard lye soap that grandma had made. With knowing winks at each other, we'd half-listen to the dire promises of our parents of ass-whippings to be rendered later in payback for our rowdiness of the morning. “You think we didn’t hear that carrying-on." "Poor old Mrs. Clingbitter like to of died of fright from the ruckus and carrying on." "Her cat is so far up the tree it might never come down." "You boys will be the death of someone." "The hens ain’t gonna lay for a week." "I’m gonna take the skin off your back mister.”

Grinning and smirking like French diplomats, we’d grab a couple of plates to load up with food that had been laid out on tables in the main room for the adults. The kids would eat separately out on the screened porch on card tables covered with oilcloth; and we knew by the time everyone had full bellies, smoked cigarettes, and told their stories and jokes we’d be forgotten about.

The main tables were straining under the weight of plates and bowls filled with roast beef, fried chicken, baked ham, fried perch and blue-gill from the mill pond, corn-on-the-cob, sliced tomatoes, mashed potatoes, potato-salad, coleslaw, radishes, fresh garden salads, green onions, onions and cucumbers bathed in vinegar and salt water, snap beans, black-eyed peas, cooked carrots, boiled new potatoes with green beans flavored with a slab of fat-back, cornbread, huge soda biscuits, candied sweet potatoes, fried okra, fresh peach ambrosia, and cakes, cookies, pies and cobblers of every description.

We wash it down with iced tea sweetened with store-bought sugar poured in so heavily that there would be a thick layer of un-dissolved sugar on the bottom of the glass.

After dinner we’d loaf around, read comics, or play cards and board games, and stay utterly the hell away from the adults (just in case) until that golden hour of evening, when we’d close out the day playing kick-the-can while hearing the occasional distant sound of a cherry bomb going off, or that staccato, rapid fire sound of a string of Black-Kats being set off.

I’d give a bit, to get to do it all over again, just that way.

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