The 4th of July is special. It is America’s birthday, and most people have fond memories of this wonderful summer holiday. These memories may include fireworks displays, family gatherings, parades, picnics, baseball games, or boating excursions. Some people might even remember a time when Americans would pause on this holiday and contemplate its true meaning: a group of citizens courageously risked everything they had to tell the most powerful nation on earth, “Thanks but no thanks for all your meddling and oppressive taxes. We’re gonna govern ourselves from now on.” (Something, in my view, the states ought to say to Washington, D.C. once in a while — but I digress.)
Contrary to what my kids think, I was NOT present at the original signing of the Declaration of Independence, hanging out and sharing a few beers with Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin, along with their wives, Weezy Jefferson and Aretha Franklin. From what I gather, Philadelphia in July, before the invention of Bermuda shorts, air conditioning, and flush toilets, was not exactly the world’s most comfortable summer vacation spot. Ol’ Tom and Ben surely had fond memories of the original 4th of July, but those memories probably did not include how lovely wool clothing and powdered wigs felt when the weather was 97 degrees and humid.
My most fond 4th of July memory dates back to the early 1970s. I was 13 years old, and my family had just embarked on a cross-country camping trip. We had one small camper and seven people, including five kids between the ages of one and 13. Five weeks and 8,000 miles later we returned home without losing a single person. (We did, however, lose our sanity, somewhere in South Dakota, I believe.)
We actually spent the 4th of July in Ontario, Canada, which was pretty interesting, because back in those days Canadians used a very special term to describe the 4th of July: “Thursday.” They celebrate our Independence Day the same way we celebrate their Victoria Day, that is, with a shrug of the shoulders and a puzzled, “Huh?” (Or rather: “Eh?”)
But the really vivid memory occurred on July 2nd, when we were at a rural campground in upstate New York. (The word “rural” doesn’t do it justice. This place was like “Deliverance” meets “Little House on the Prairie” meets the PBS documentary “The Violent Life of a Cro-Magnon Village.”) It was the first time I ever observed people doing two particular things: drinking whiskey straight from the bottle and blowing stuff up.
An especially boisterous group of campers seemed to have more explosives than Patton’s entire Third Army. In the evening, from dusk until 3 a.m., these guys set up shop on the shore of a small lake and went through about seven bottles of rot-gut liquor and seven tons of cherry bombs, M-80s, quarter-sticks of dynamite, and possibly a couple of low-level nuclear devices. The more they drank, the more they thought it was hilarious to toss lit cherry bombs at each other. It was an awesome show.
I clearly remember one guy who decided to do an exaggerated Bob Feller windmill windup before hurling a cherry bomb out into the lake. Just as his pitching arm moved forward — KABOOM! — the bomb exploded in his hand. I think the ump called a balk.
He stood there for a moment, staring in puzzlement at his hand, as blisters the size of golf balls instantly formed on his palm. Then he held out his smoldering hand toward his pals. Everyone, including the guy with the injured hand, started to laugh hysterically.
The 4th of July brings back fond memories. Especially for those of us who still have all our fingers.