I’m a fireworks kind of girl.
I love sitting on a blanket and watching the sky explode into a myriad of colors and shower down toward earth. I oooh and ahhh with the best of them, and I love the multi-color explosions that fall into showers of colors.
This year, though, there weren’t any fireworks I could attend. Rain, distance and the inability to drive after dark kept me bound to the television set for my fireworks displays. For years that meant the Boston Pops concerts on the esplanade on the river, finishing each year with the 1812 Overture soaring out, with cannons exploding in tempo and the fireworks blossoming over Cambridge across the river and filling the sky with light.
But the longtime conductor retired, and it wasn’t broadcast on PBS anymore, so I switched to the fireworks on the Washington Mall from the comfort of my couch.
Every year I remember all of the Fourths I have celebrated … from Upstate New York to the harbor in Baltimore with the tall ships, and they bring the same nostalgic memories and surge of patriotism that the familiar songs bring.
The earliest celebrations I can remember well where in a small New York farm village just miles from the Erie Canal and just past Mormon Hill, where I spent my early summers with my Auntie Kay and Uncle Jim. They had no children, and she was my mother’s sister, so every year when school was out in the mountains of Virginia, I was put on a plane in the charge of the stewardesses and flown off from Bristol, Virginia, to Rochester, New York. Since my Southern school always ended in late May, I arrived in Walworth, New York, while their school was still in session. Since my uncle was the minister at the only Baptist Church in town, and the parsonage was right across the street from the grammar school, I was invited to finish the year with my correct class.
I met every kid in the small farming town and participated in all of the end-of-year activities, like sports day and the trip to the great lake for a swim party. Knowing everyone meant I was welcomed into the group that rode in the Fourth of July parade.
For weeks we decorated our bikes with crepe paper festoons. (My bike was a second-hander that I painted flat blue with some old house paint.) In addition to the crepe paper, we put good old playing cards in the spokes with snapping clothes pins, so we sounded like a congregation of chattering fences as we rode in formation the four blocks of the parade. Down the street, around the corner by the churches, down the main (and only street) of town, past Grange, the post office and the grocery store, around the corner and up the hill to the school yard, where the volunteer firemen shot off Catherine wheels and other safe fireworks. Watermelon at the Grange and home to bed made it a perfect day. How I hated to undecorate that bike!
In Ohio, we went to corn roasts, where my children ate their weight in fresh picked corn drenched in fresh churned butter. Everyone in the small town sat on the bank on the road while the volunteer firemen supervised the fireworks and the high school band played “It’s a Grand Old Flag.”
In El Paso, Texas, we played patriotic music and ran around the yard with sparklers (we were grownups) that we finally threw up the bare mountain in back and watched as they sizzled out.
In Georgia, we went out and sat on the rocks and watched the fireworks that were shot off the top of Stone Mountain.
Always there was the music, familiar patriotic songs that we all knew the words to and would sing along. Tears would well up with “America” and “You’re A Grand Old Flag.”
I think the most spectacular and memorable Fourth of July was our last one in Baltimore, in 1976. The tall ships coming into the harbor, going out to watch them come into the various spots along the town, seeing the strange uniforms and greeting sailors from all over the world.
Our teen-age daughters were perpetually busy, and they even met some of those handsome young men. A French friend took them down to the harbor, and she introduced them to pom-pom capped boys, and they swooned. They visited the Israeli Navy ship and swooned over covered artillery guns. Everywhere you went there were “foreigners.”
On the evening before the Fourth of July, we all went out to Fort Henry, where we spread our blankets, watched famous acts on the stage and ate our steamed crabs like everyone else. We spent the night, and as a slightly foggy dawn rose, a huge barge came floating down the bay, shooting off fireworks and playing patriotic songs.
The deck was covered by politicians and the biggest birthday cake you ever saw! The barge was tied up, and everyone got a piece of Old Glory’s birthday cake. The several hundred people got sleepily on buses and went home all over the city. We spent the day eating crabs and watching patriotic things on television. That night, all nine of us went on a bus to the old Oriole stadium, watched a ball game and stood and cheered till we were hoarse as fireworks shook the stadium and we sang patriotic songs. We surged onto the streets with all our new friends and laughed as we streamed in different directions to catch the buses home.
Old No. 8 took us to our corner, and we all collapsed onto the swing and chairs on the porch. The sky still exploded with random flares, and the dog was inside cowering from all the noise.
Sleepy, weary, we all trudged up to bed, content in the knowledge that “the flag was still there ...” and we truly lived in the home of the brave.
I like those memories that “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” conjures up. And I am not ashamed to shed a tear.
I can still hear those bicycle wheels rattling.