Sunday, July 04, 2010

My memories of the Fourth of July

David Seaton's News Links
Fourth of July, like Christmas, is something that connects a lot of us directly with our childhood.

Most of my Fourth of July memories center around summers spent in the little village in west-central Illinois where my maternal grandmother was born and raised.  A village where my Glaswegian great-great grandfather's gravestone is the only one in the older part of the graveyard that he didn't carve himself... He was a marble carver who spent his life carving angels, tiny lambs and fancy mausoleums, he built the family's red brick house with his own hands in the 1840s.

The village sits between the Illinois river and the Mississippi, a little over a half hour's leisurely drive from the hometown of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and Samuel Clemens: Hannibal Missouri.  When I look back on that part of my childhood I feel like a refugee from Walt Disney's "So Dear To My Heart"... which perhaps I am. I've been away a long time, but as they used to say, you can take the boy out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the boy.

And at the center of those Fourth of July memories is the county fair: the pie baking contests, the 4-H stock judging, where proud, water-combed, farm kids competed for best of show with the animals they had raised that year and then at night, when it got a bit cooler, the harness racing. The delicate arrogance and the mincing strut of the trotting horses pulling the whizzing sulkies and the subtle strategies  of the drivers in their luminous silks, played out under the moth besieged lights of the fairground race track.

On the last night of the fair, the grand finale was always (at least forever in my memory) "Jack Kochman's Hell Drivers": Jack and his drivers roaring stock cars down the track onto a ramp and then jumping a long line of cars or deliberately crashing them and the suspense of waiting for the driver to climb out of the wreck unhurt and wave to the cheering crowd. And then, after the dust settled and the lights lowered... bam, whooooooooooo, pop, pop, BOOM, pop, pop, bappitybappitybap... whoooooooooooo, BOOM... sizzle.

The fireworks.

From the melting ice cream on your sticky little fingers late on a sweltering summer night, to the "bombs bursting in air", the "Fourth" is something that overwhelms you with its sense of occasion even before you learn how to talk. These pre-verbal memories are the secret door to self-knowledge. And every year they roll around to remind you of how much time has passed. DS

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