Thursday, July 4, 2013

Memories of the 4th of July on the Plains

Growing up July 4th was always one of my favorite holidays, and for one very obvious reason: firecrackers.  It's a scientific fact that little kids of all stripes just love to blow stuff up, and the Fourth let's them do it with full social approval.  Until I was older, my hometown banned any fireworks bigger than sparklers and glow worms, which was a real drag.

That, of course, didn't stop the fun, it just meant that our patriotic blast-fests had to be held outside of city limits.  Often we celebrated Independence Day as a family get together.  If on my mom's side, we'd go to my grandparents' farm, where we could blow off whatever we wanted to our heart's content.  If on my father's side, we went to my aunt and uncle's farm, and did much the same.  Best of all, in the summer of 1984 on the way home from a family vacation to Kansas City, we stopped at a fireworks warehouse off of the interstate and bought a massive amount of bottle rockets.  These classic firecrackers/roof fire waiting to happen have long been illegal in Nebraska, prompting its residents to cross the border into the Show Me State to pick up some contraband.  My dad, who loved firecrackers, bought enough bottle rockets to last us into the early 1990s, probably well past the date they could have been safely used.  The open space on my relatives' farms made them optimal bottle rocket launching sites.  The occasional strays only ended up in my grandma's potato patch, rather than setting a neighbor's yard ablaze.

The farms were also great places for those dinky parachute bombs, and gave plenty of room for my cousins and I to chase the little piece of cardboard attached to a tissue parachute that seemed to get tangled in the cottonwood trees half the time.  We also had strategic methods of deploying our fireworks based on the tenacity of Nebraska's insect population in the summer time.  Come July mosquitos, grass hoppers, junebugs, crickets, locusts, lightning bugs and all other manner of six-legged critters swarm the countryside.  This was especially important at my aunt and uncle's farm, which sat down in a creek bottom that was a veritable breeding ground of creepy crawlies.  After our drive home from my aunt and uncle's house, the front grill of my family's van looked like a freak science experiment.  To hold the insects at bay, my cousins and I judiciously created a perimeter using smoke bombs, which were harmless enough that our parents let us use them without supervision.  They also wanted relief from these awful, dumbass june bugs that loved to fly straight into our foreheads out of either stupidity or spite.

While the smoke bombs and bottle rockets were a riot, my most cherished memories involve some quality time with my grandfather.  He was a gruff, hard man who had endured an abusive father, Depression-era poverty, and the loss of one of his kidneys during World War II.  If you happened to be sitting in his cigarette burn-holed recliner when he came into the room you'd better jump up and get out of the way.  He was a huge man with knuckles like doorknobs that testified to a life spent working on the farm.  Even in retirement he wore overalls and work boots every day except for Sunday, when he donned a severely out of date brown suit for going to church.  As tough as he was, he really had a soft spot in his heart for his grandkids, and loved spending time with us, even if we didn't say a lot to each other.  I still remember sitting with him on the back porch on the Fourth, with a big paper sack full of inch and a halfers.  My grandpa would light one after the other, holding each in his hand just long enough that when he tossed it out of his hand, it would explode before hitting the ground.  I liked just sitting there with him and watching, and each Fourth for the past sixteen years brings the sad thought that I'll never get to do that with him ever again.

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