The Best Of The Fourth Of July

When I think I back to our Fourth of July celebrations in the 1960s and 70s, it’s really a wonder anyone in our family is still alive.

We had what you’d call an old-fashioned holiday picnic at our cottage across the lake, and friends from near and far would pull up in their station wagons (their kids not fastened in seatbelts), with enough snacks and treats for the week to feed an army. No one had any intention of making a dish that involved vegetables, and if it weren’t for corn on the cob, I’m sure we would have all died of a nutritional deficiency by the end of the summer.

The most important task on the Third of July was to make the potato salad. This was the crowning dish on every Fourth of July and the only way to make the quantity we’d need was to use the vegetable drawers from the refrigerator to act as serving dishes. My mom and a family friend would start that potato salad first thing in the morning and the kitchen turned into a moving assembly line that would have impressed Henry T. Ford.

You have to remember in 1976 the average salary was a tad over $9,000 a year, so if you had a grill, you’d had that grill for 20 years or more. And most of us weren’t very fancy. The grills of my childhood were charcoal kettle grills with wooden handles and metal wheels that squeaked when my dad wheeled it out from the dilapidated garage out back.

The grill was composed of 60 percent rust and 18 percent spiders and the rest was gunk hardened from the food of past barbecues from as early as 1964.

He’d have to light the grill early in the day since charcoal really never wants to burn, but he never remembered to do it, so our hamburgers were always a little on the underdone side, the patties always sitting on the grate kind of laughing at our attempt to kill them.

We were more Pepsi people back in those days, and there were always tall glass bottles of the stuff, decked out in their red, white, and blue logo and placed in styrofoam coolers-16 ounces of sweet joy for all the kids playing on our front lawn.

In fact, sugar was the theme of the holiday week every year for the kids at our cottage. Our parents would hand over all the money they had in their pockets to us and we’d go on a long hike to the post office in Greenhurst where they sold candy and other things.

The wonderful people at that post office — I can picture them clearly now– must have loved us. Our gang of kids must have bought $10 worth of candy a day from them which was a lot of money back then, considering candy was a penny.

We’d cut through a tall field of wild flowers behind Sheldon Hall, and then hop our way over a little creek and then through a half dozen backyards to get to the store. To us it was a magical walk, full of Queen Anne’s lace and buttercups and always colorful butterflies darting about. We were as free as a bunch of kids ever could be and it was a beautiful thing.

We’d go crashing into the post office, each holding a fistful of dollars, and buy Bit-O-Honey, Jaw Breakers, Atomic Fire Balls, Sky Bars, Bazooka bubble gum, and Tootsie Rolls. The nice folks behind the counter would patiently count out our loot and then we’d be on our way again, holding little brown sacks of candy in our hands as we made the magical trek in reverse.

We had a motorboat that would only work if you put a penny in the engine to serve as some kind of conductor, and an old Sunfish sailboat. When we were done eating all our candy, we spent the day in the water, trying to tip over the sailboat in the strong afternoon winds, hoping our old orange life vests would actually keep us alive.

When the adults rolled out the picnic dinner, we’d serve ourselves potato salad from the vegetable drawers, and heaps of corn on the cob, the underdone hamburgers, and by-now-cold hotdogs and to all of us this was a special feast.

My mother always ordered a festive sheet cake from Super Duper, and one year, as she paraded it down the long front lawn alit with candles, she dropped it, and that was the end of that.

At night, my father would light off his small cache of fireworks, which by today’s standards would be a big yawn. But we loved them. Bolstered by fermented beverages, he’d light the firework fuse and scurry away, while the rest of us sat on pins and needles until the fuse would dramatically sputter out. This would continue for several more tries until finally, the fuse would burn down and we’d get a small puff of smoke and a single ball of blue or red shooting into the sky. And that was the dramatic finale.

Simpler days back then, my friends. And oh, how I miss them. We were simpler people living in simpler times.

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