When I was a boy, I loved our family’s celebration of July 4th each year. We hosted a family picnic for my father’s side of the family, pretty much the only day all year when we saw many of these relatives. Unlike my mother’s side of the family—she was an only child, so I had no maternal cousins—my father’s side of the family came with lots of cousins! July 4th was a day of kids and kids’ games and what I thought was “cookout extreme!”
In memory, the day always began with my putting out the flag. In our small house, we had a room in the front gable—a room with pitched ceiling and a small window overlooking the street. On the sill of the window was a brass flag holder, where I would lean out and insert the flag pole and tie down the line to display our U.S. flag. At the ages of 8, 9, and 10, I felt very official—but was probably officious—hanging the flag for the day. July 4th had begun!
Next, some of us would climb in the station wagon for the short trip to the Clementon Ice House, a big warehouse-of-a-building where we bought a few huge blocks of ice. My father would pay the man and then he’d open a big insulated door and frost would swirl out into the humid July air, he would disappear into the building, and return with two blocks of ice hanging from his ice clamps. We’d load them in the car and continue to the liquor store, where my father picked up a heavy keg of beer and its mysterious hoses and pump and tap. Then we’d race home as the ice blocks and cold keg started to glisten with a watery surface. My father had an ice clamp—God only knows where it is today—and he’d carry each block to the metal tubs set-up in the backyard and then chop it into chunks with a pick and then add water…it seems like a different world to remember it.
My father hefted the keg into one tub and we’d load soda cans into the other, soda cans that were heavy tin and required a “church key” to punch two small triangular holes around the rim. The can opener hung by a string from the tub handle to keep it always at hand; without the opener, the soda cans were impervious, and on those hot July days, we freely ran through cases of soda! I can remember fishing into the bottom of the tub late in the day to find the flavor soda I wanted, and how the icy water quickly hurt my hand.
Guests began to arrive midday and our backyard quickly filled with energetic kids and the picnic table was surrounded by adults smoking cigarettes. The older kids organized games of kickball or threw a football, the younger kids ran endlessly around the yard and bothered the parents to light sparklers or set off firecrackers. Our house, in those far-ago days, was not air conditioned, so there was no temptation to go indoors…we spent the day in the shade of trees, cooling ourselves with soda or beer.
Finally, my father would load the grill with charcoal, spray on lighter fluid, and throw in a match…woof! The flames exploded in and rose from the grill and the children were recruited to carry dishes and napkins and silverware and a huge bowl of my mother’s potato salad and a huge bowl of my mother’s macaroni salad and jars—not plastic squeeze bottles—of mustard and ketchup and relish and pickles and olives. Then the burgers and hot dogs hit the grill…and they couldn’t grill fast enough. Kids ate first and sat at the table where the grown-ups had moved away, moms huddled around them fixing each plate. Soon the kids were again running around the yard and the adults moved back to the table and the meal continued.
As evening started to descend on the backyard, we were called to scour the edges of the yard for good marshmallow-roasting sticks…long enough to protect our hands from the heat, thin enough to stab the marshmallows without ruining them, green enough not to snap when used. Marshmallow toasting is a delicate operation, too delicate to be left to young children. Young children aren’t patient enough to let marshmallows toast properly nor dexterous enough to hold them close to the coals without touching. But a well-toasted marshmallow…slightly browned and slightly sagging as it melts…is the essence of a cookout.
Before actual sundown, my father would remind me to take in the flag…he was a stickler for flag etiquette. But sundown also meant that we’d head to Silver Lake, a short walk downhill, where we could sit and watch the Clementon Lake Park fireworks. The Park was a mile away, but the fireworks could be seen exploding into the open sky above Silver Lake. We’d wait in the darkness, tortured by mosquitoes despite our burning punks, lighting sparklers and throwing them into the water seconds before they’d burn out. Finally, the fireworks would start and the whistle of them rising in the dark and the dazzling light and loud bang of their explosion dazzled us for a time that was always too short…before we wanted it, the finale would start and fireworks would rise and explode rapid-fire and I’d have to hold my ears against the booms.
As a child, I celebrated July 4th as a family-picnic day…never understanding the Americanism of our freedom and liberty, never understanding the strong statement I made when I hung the flag out the window.