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Going Forth for the Fourth

by Julia Sneden

When my son took his small children to their first fireworks display, he noted that his daughter was more frightened than thrilled. Standing in the dark beneath all those shimmering, falling bits of fire didn’t suit her at all.

I can understand that perfectly. She was only about five years old, but the first time I saw real fireworks on site, I, too, was terrified — and I was almost eleven. My father and stepmother had taken my brother and me to one of the first displays of fireworks after World War II, thinking it would be a real treat for us. Alas, I hated it.

Perhaps my reaction was occasioned by having seen one too many wildfires on the hill behind our house. California in summer is, as current news can attest, tinder-dry. Back in 1944, my father spent one long night up on our roof with a hose, protecting us from sparks that blew from the field fire behind the Miller’s hilltop house. The line of eucalyptus trees behind their barn had gone up with a single whoosh, on account of the large amount of oil contained in eucalyptus leaves. Firefighters finally managed to stop the blaze, but not until it had burned Miller’s barn and killed a couple of their horses. It was a terrifying lesson to all of us children that sparks from above weren’t a bit fun.

Of course during World War II, we kids didn’t know what fireworks were, at least not in Redwood City, California. All forms of gun powder were requisitioned by the military, and even if fireworks had been available, the entire west coast of this country was under strict blackout conditions. Our windows were covered with black shades at night, and the headlights of all vehicles (including our parents’ car) had black hoods affixed to the top half of the lens. A fireworks display would have been unthinkable.

We didn’t even have firecrackers, something my older brother and his friends bemoaned. They described to me in great detail the thrill of lighting a string and tossing it into the street. It didn’t sound like much fun to me. I mean, all that noise, and for what? (Come 1947 my suspicions were confirmed: firecrackers were noisy, dangerous, and frightening, especially if you were a little girl who had a big brother and chum who delighted in tossing them near you).

We did, however, find ways to celebrate the glorious Fourth during the War. In lieu of firecrackers, my mother handed us pot lids, with which we paraded up and down our long driveway, banging them together and shouting “Happy Fourth of July!”

Redwood City sponsored a Fourth of July parade, featuring our high school’s marching band, replete with drum majorettes twirling batons that flashed in the sun. There were children on bikes with red, white and blue crepe paper woven into the spokes of the wheels, and troops of Boy Scouts marching smartly. Patriotic bunting and American flags were everywhere, and once, someone costumed as Lady Liberty herself marched along, carrying a papier maché torch.

A small cadre of air-raid wardens wearing white hard hats and arm bands walked stiffly by, a few of them handing out pamphlets that stressed preparedness in case of attack, or listed the regulations regarding local civilian defense. The AWVS ladies marched by carrying signs listing dates for the next blood drive, or proudly announcing the tonnage gathered in the latest scrap metal collection.

A group of horse-loving men in cowboy shirts, bolo ties, Stetsons, and decorated chaps appeared on their beautiful palominos, the horses sporting tack with lots of silver decorations. And, of course, there was always an Uncle Sam at the end of the parade. At least once he was a stilt-walker of impressive ability (he had to be, walking behind the horses).

It doesn’t sound like much these days, but to us the Fourth of July parade was a bright, patriotic moment during the dark days of World War II.

In later years, we could sit on our hill top and look down at the firework displays from three different towns strung along the edge of San Francisco Bay. The sparkles were sufficiently far away to allay my fears, and the small clouds of colored stars hovered briefly below us. The occasional faint, distant booms didn’t bother me at all.

Many years later, my father told me about the Fourth of July that took place in 1910, when he was 4 years old. He grew up on his grandfather’s prune ranch, in thrall to a slew of young aunts and uncles. Each Fourth, the uncles staged a display of fireworks for the family and the working crews (and their families) that lived on or near the ranch. The uncles would fire their pyrotechnics from a metal, flatbed wagon which was, perhaps, normally used as a drying bed for the prunes when they were harvested.

One year, someone or something caused the wagon to up-end just as the display was lit, and instead of shooting up, the fountains shot straight at the crowd standing by the barn. My grandmother pushed my father to the ground, and fell on top of him to protect him as the sparks flew past. Apparently no one was badly hurt, and my father’s only reaction was anger that his mother had kept him from enjoying the fun. Obviously, I didn’t get my coward genes from him.

My own children seemed to be content with sparklers, at least when they were little, and a few (“keep them away from Mom”) firecrackers. Our town’s fireworks display took place in the stadium at the fairgrounds, but we learned that we could stand on a street corner nearby and watch the fireworks as they arched up over us. That was about right for me: they were close but not too close, and the crowd that gathered on the street corner was much smaller and more manageable than the crowd at the fairgrounds.

Being outdoors on a humid North Carolina night amid fireworks and fireflies has become my favorite July Fourth memory. Oh, these days I am happy to watch the various displays on television, in air-conditioned comfort, but it can’t replace seeing my boys’ awed faces, or the sound of their “oohs” and “wows!” or the relaxed, casual feel of the impromptu crowd.

It was Carl Schurz, a 19th century German immigrant who grew up to become a US Senator and later on was the Secretary of the Interior, who gave us the famous remark: “My country, right or wrong: if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”

That seems to me to be a sentiment that can be shared by Americans of any political stripe. Certainly they are words to hold close on this, the 232nd anniversary of the signing of our Declaration of Independence.

Happy Fourth!

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