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Back to the Fourth

August 5, 2011

This year the Fourth of July was a hot sunny one like when we were kids, a day of real excitement back then. Since I’m not a kid anymore, the festivities of the day have become limited to a barbecue with family and then home again for a quiet evening of TV.

My wife and I took a walk in our neighborhood since the night air had cooled off somewhat, and as we walked, we could hear the sounds of fireworks in the distance and see their occasional flashes on the horizon just above the tree line. And these sounds brought back such memories of childhood when the July 4th fireworks were a huge deal.

Living across the street from Memorial Park on New Bridge Road in Bergenfield had some distinct advantages. I could always get there first before the freshly fallen snow had been besmirched by footprints (there is nothing like a snow angel made in the middle of a virgin field of snow). In the summer, I was bound to find used but still serviceable sports equipment lost in the weeds at the fringe of the woods: cracked baseball bats that a little electrical tape would fix up just fine, baseballs with the cover coming off (back to the electrical tape), well broken-in mitts minus most of the padding (that’s what old socks were for), rosin bags, and even, on a lucky day, an umpire’s ball-strike counter.

But the biggest advantage was on July 4th, for it was there, right across the street from my house, where the fireworks display would be. The buildup was intense, with neighbors jockeying for favor in the can-we-put-our-lawn-chair-on-your-front-lawn sweepstakes and decisions to be made about the snacks and the debate about on which block the Good Humor man would be parking his boxy white ice cream truck.

The crowds would begin arriving shortly after supper even though dusk was only just beginning to creep in. Families would stake out their spots with blankets on the field behind the temporary fences. Kids would lean their bikes along the backstop of the baseball field and proceed to run around, raising dust and the eyebrows of disapproving adults. Some older kids would manage to set off a few firecrackers of their own in the woods just to whet our appetites for the real thing.

As darkness began to gather and all but the   had settled in, the first of the test rockets would go up with a BOOM and a puff of dark smoke, setting off the barking of dogs and wailing of children too young for such things. My sister and I would nervously fidget, engaging in animated discussions over how soon the real thing would begin.

And finally it did. At first, the rockets were paced, launched separately so the crowd could savor each in its own glory: the star bursts, the flying fish, falling leaves, and willows, each with its array of colors and sounds — bangs and crackles and hums and whistles. Next would come the ground displays interspersed with the sky rockets: the whirligigs and Roman candles and fountains and the perennial red, white, and blue American flag. Then the pace picked up, and we all knew what was coming — the Grand Finale! Multiple rockets going up at once, the sky filled with sparkling colors and the tremendous thundering of the final barrage that always brought the show to its rousing conclusion.

Some years there was added excitement if the breeze was blowing south, for it would carry some of the glowing embers across the street and onto the roof of our house. The frantic dash for the garden hose was unnecessary since they would quickly fizzle out on their own, but the prospect of having a fire at your house caused by the fireworks would make a great topic of conversation amongst your friends for the rest of the summer.

I’m now “too old” to worry about such matters as going to see fireworks on the 4th, but as we strolled down the block back to our house that night, the little kid in me stirred. Though some of the details may change, the essence of tradition lives on. It is a matter of choosing to stay involved in that tradition or let it die in you. My thoughts on this night told me it was still alive, if only an ember. But even just an ember can be fanned back to life. Maybe next year we’ll pull out the lawn chairs and make our way over to a neighboring town and remind ourselves that the good old days are still available for those still willing to believe in them.

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