Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Song of Innocence

I almost didn't notice that today is the Fourth of July. You would think that for a cheerful expat happily living in the country from which America violently liberated itself over 200 years ago Independence Day would be a day of shame and regret, not pride and joy. And yet...

I don't have a lot of political associations with the day, but I do have a lot of memories of intense happiness, innocence, and frivolity. I LOVE the Fourth of July. For years it was my favorite holiday. The Fourth for me is a bit like Christmas is for people like, well, like me. The original intent of the holiday has been all but forgotten, but that doesn't negate the joy brought about by family traditions and celebrations.

This is what the Fourth of July was like in days of yore...

I grew up in a small city neighborhood. It was a dead-end street on the south end of town comprised of 23 homes and as many huge silver maple trees lining the street. The houses were built in the 1920s, and each home was unique. It was a quiet street, and as kids we used to sit on the porch in the summer eating watermelon and cherries (we weren't allowed to eat fruit in the house -- we lived in an agricultural state and fresh produce in the summer was so sweet and juicy you couldn't eat it without making a huge mess) and have contests to see who could spit their seeds the fartherst. There were no cars except the residents and the occassional idiot who thought he could use our street as a shortcut to dodge two sets of traffic lights, and would get really annoyed when he would discover the dead end. We thought this was endlessly funny and used to point and giggle and these directionally-challenged people (who invariably drove big huge Lincolns or Caddies and drove at 6 mph).

It was a close-knit neighboorhood, too. By the time I was 7 I knew every person on the street and they all knew me. Same went for all the kids. Most of the grown-ups worked either at the local utility (like my dad) or were teachers.* Us kids were allowed to play in most anyone's yard (we knew who the exceptions were), and if anything went wrong we would be looked after by whoever was nearest at hand. By the same token, if we ever misbehaved we were certain to be caught and recognized and a phonecall made to mom and dad before we even managed to get home.

*One year when the public school teachers threatened to strike our neighborhood had a little meeting and decided it wasn't a big deal because among them there was someone amply qualified to teach every subject at every level, so they were just going to open a neighborhood school and go at it the old-fashioned way. I always was bummed that the teachers' union managed to sort their problems out, because I reckon a neighborhood school would have vastly superior to the Catholic Prison I was attending at the time.

There were regular parties and get-togethers throughout the year. A "Progressive Dinner" at Christmastime, when each course would be served at a different home (no kids at that one), a corn roast on Labor Day to celebrate the harvest, a Graffiti Party on July 3 (more about that later perhaps), and the big one on the 4th.

The custom was that the newest residents on the street were put in charge of organizing the thing, which gauranteed that they had to meet everyone on the block and get involved. ("Welcome to the neighborhood! Guess what!") It was our equivalent of a hazing ritual, but it worked. And let me tell you, there were logistics to be worked out. (Though to be fair the 4th of July block party had been going on so long pretty much everyone knew their assigned role and did it whether or not the newbie organizers thought of it.)

  • Bob had to arrange for and collect and set up the barricades so the street could be closed off to traffic. (This was important because of the fireworks at the park in the evening. If we didn't close off the street it became a giant parking lot by sunset.) It was his job because he was the only one with a pickup.
  • The bed-grill had to be dug out and set up.
  • Someone had to buy a dozen bags of charcoal, 50 pounds of chicken quarters, and 2 gallons of BBQ sauce
  • Someone had to arrange for, pick up, and tap the keg. (Technically open containers of alcohol are not legal on municipal property, which the "islands" were, but one of the residents was the county deputy sherrif, and he knew that no one ever got drunk, misbehaved, or served alcohol to a minor, so he didn't care. Although the minors did have to serve the beer. We were glorified gofers, and I leared to pull a pint at the age of 8.)
  • Someone had to get plastic cups, plates, cutlery, and napkins.
  • Someone had to bring out a big washtub for the pop cans and enough ice to last that day.
  • Someone had to get prizes for the kids' bike parade and make up silly awards ("Best use of pink streamers," "Best one-handed riding," that sort of thing.)
  • Someone had to get a giant pile of sawdust from the local lumber yard and a bazillion pennies to dump in it
  • Someone had to procure 2 big watermelons and hide them the night before, along with a trail of clues leading to their location. This was usually done at the graffiti party by our intoxicated parents the night before, and I can remember years when the clues were written and hidden when the poor volunteer had had a few too many, and the following day the clues didn't make any sense and the hider and forgotten where he'd hid the melons. Good times. :-)
  • And of course there needed to be water balloons. And tug of war (over a plastic wading pool, naturally.) And sack races. etc. And prizes for all of the above.
  • And everyone had to bring a passing dish to share. Joanne made the best baked beans in the history of the world.
There was an order to the festivities, an almost ritual-like adherence to tradition. The day started as soon a my brother and I awoke. Invariably it was a hot, sunny day. The pavement burned our bare feet (but who wears shoes when schoool's out?), and the grass was already getting prickly and dry. I insisted on wearing red, white, and blue every year. Marley (my brother) couldn't have cared less. The first order of business after a nourishing breakfast of whatever we could scavenge (usually Chef Boyardee and purple Kool Aid) was to decorate our bikes.

If dad hadn't already bought enough red, white, and blue crepe paper and scotch tape he got yelled at and had to rectify the situation immediately. I used to spend hours in the drive way covering every inch of my bike in the crinkly, patriotic toilet paper. Every bit of frame, streamers from the handle bars, and we'd weave it in and out of the spokes so the wheels were solid colors as well. If we were feeling especially ambitious we add things like pinwheels, action figures (G.I. Joe of course) or stuffed animals (in my case).

The hours between the completion of our two-wheeled modern art projects and the parade that began the party were the slowest hours of the year. Marley was a much calmer child, but I couldn't wait for things to get underway. I would run around the street making a nuissance of myself and trying to help everyone with everything and all the setting up. Slowly around lunch time people would being drifting out towards the center island with their lawn chairs and drink holders. Eventually, after a sizeable crowd had gathered, someone would give the signal for the kids to get their bikes, and...

... they're off!

Around and around we'd go, doing laps of the circular course until whichever dad was in charge that year had managed to formulate rediculous awards for us all. We would be called to a halt, line up our bikes neatly, stand at attention, and wait for our names. One by one we came forth, grinned at whatever corny honor was betowed upon us, accepted our brown paper goody bag with glee, and shook the hand of the presenter. The grown-ups clapped, and we took one more lap to give everyone a final opportunity to admire our patriotic velociped creations. And then we ran off to look at our loot and begin swapping the stuff we didn't want.

A variety of games then followed, including the water-balloon toss, which was remarkable organized. Dad used to bring out the water balloons in the wheelbarrow, all brightly jiggling in the hot yellow sunglight, a bouncing rainbow of cool wetness and squeaking rubber. Play proceeded as follows: Get a partner. Stand toe-to-toe along a chalk line in the road, all the pairs standing shoulder to shoulder. Pass the water balloon to your partner. Take a step backwards. Each time to throw the balloon, take another step. Keep passing the balloon back and forth between you, getting incrementally further apart. The pair who makes it the fartherst without breaking their balloon wins.

You wouldn't believe how much fun this is. And it's as much fun to watch as it is to play. When it gets down to 2 or three pairs the crowd starts going nuts and everyone yells "Oh!" when someone barely saves their balloon from breaking and the cringing runs through the spectators like a Mexican wave.

Slowly the game degernates into a free-for-all, with the remaining balloons being used in guerilla attacks and snowball-like water wars. My god those were the days.

Eventually it's time for dinner, and 4x8 sheets of plywood are set up on the saw horses to make buffet tables. Everyone brings out their folding card tables and plastic patio furntiure, someone has been slaving over a hot bed of coals (literally) for hours burning the chicken until it's perfect (perfectly black) which is now presented in a giant tub, and the kids are sent to wash their hands. The buffet becomes full of nacho salad, seven layer salad, potato salad, pasta salad, baked beans, fruit salad, and cole slaw. We all help ourselves to whatever we want and sit down somewhere, maybe with our own family, maybe at someone else's table.

Now, there is a particular order to the after-dinner games. The penny scramble is the last game of the day, but there's no point in doing that until all the kids have been covered in watermelon juice (ergo, sticky). But first the watermelons must be located! So the kids are divided up into two teams, each team is given its first clue, and they're off! Watermelons can't be inside houses, but short of that anything goes. Once they were even burried. First team to find their melon wins.

The watermelons are then sliced, seved, and eaten (with accompanying seed-spitting contenst, naturally). After the chillens are good and goopy, the penny scramble begins. A tarp is laid out on the ground, several garbage bags full of sawdust are dumped on the tarp, and giant piles of loose change are dumped into the sawdust. The smallest kids go first and get 5 minutes or so to dig around, then the older kids and so on. It's awesome. It's the modern equivalent of tarring and feathering, but instead of doing it to convicts it's done to children. It's not considered child abuse becase at the end of it, if you've been doing really well, you are $1.38 richer than you were before dinner, so no complaints!

As the sun turned orange and dipped below the house top it was time to fold up the lawn chairs, gather the remains of the potato salad, and begin packing it in. Kids were ordered to dust themselves off (outside), remove their clothes (also outside) and march inside and get the in the bath. Clothes were either then taken directly to the wash via a strategically held pitch-fork, or simply burned where they lay on the sidewalk.**

**I jest. Sort of.

All squeaky clean and in our jammies, it was time to lather up in carcinogenic insect repellent, grab the lawn chairs yet again, and wander up to the top of the street (grabbing a leftover piece of cold chicken from the tub on the way) where the neighborhood was once again assembling, this time to watch the fireworks. We had an excellent view from the top of the street, overlooking the park where the rockets' red glare lit up the indigo sky. We all shouted "Ooh" and "Aah" together and rated them on a scale of one to ten, Olympic-heckler style. Our towns fireworks were never all that great. They set them off one at a time to drag the show out as a long as possible, so you got to appreciate each firework individually. There were far more "2s" than "10s," but that wasn't the point.

The point was to spend time together as a community, and we were. We were a real community. We knew each other and looked out for each other and yelled at each other's kids and took banana bread to the new people. As kids we played in the street and never worried about a thing; the biggest danger we faced was falling off our bikes and getting a knee full of gravel. (No one wore helmets or knee pads back then.)

So the 4th of July for me was never about independence from the (now defunct) British Empire, or freedom from taxation without representation. It was never about self-governance, liberty, or flag-waving. It was a holiday of celebrating the summer with friends, family, community, barbequed chicken, watermelon, and sawdust. It was about being a kid, being barefoot, and, well, being free; free to throw water balloons at grown-ups, free to stay up past bedtime, free to play outside and eat cold chicken in your pj's, to listen to the drone of the cicadas during the day and the chirp of the crickets at night in total security, free to be completely innocent.

(click to make legible)

The block party doesn't happen any more. None of the annual parties do. By the time I was a teenager the character of the neighborhood had changed dramatically. The new families didn't want anything to do with block parties; they thought it was wierd. They put up tall fences around their yard and kept their children inside them. They installed air conditioning and sat inside all summer, instead of on the porch in the evening to catch the cool breeze and chitchat with whoever strolled by. They bought their kids nintendos instead of bicycles, DVD players instead of slip-n-slides, and the kids stayed indoors. They don't know each other. I don't know them. No one knows anyone. And everyone is afraid. They are afraid because they fear what they don't know, and they don't know their nighbors.

When I ws 16 I tried to organize the 4th of July party on my own. But no one wanted to come. The people thought "who is this stranger person at our door?" and told me they would be out of town. On the 4th of July I put my lawn chair out on the island and sat there for hours, hoping someone would join me, but no one came.

One final note: None of the above photos are my own. I nabbed them from tinternet because all my old pics of my family and memories are in albums back in the States, and thus inaccessible to me via compooter. Sorry if I knicked one of yours. It was with the best of intentions.


Angela-la-la said...

Excellent post; bittersweet and chock full of humanity. Brava, lady!

Ezri said...

heh. It's making me nostalgic for our annual family campout over the Queen's birthday weekend. All of my best friends and our families used to go for the long weekend to camp out at the beach with madcap traditions, swimming, yummy food and lots of hanging out time. In Bermy I guess the Queen's Birthday and Bermy Day are the 4th of July equivalents. I do miss those days. Now everyone's too busy to organize all that. What we need is to form our own country and reinstitute all the good stuff. No party poopers allowed.

Dave said...

I wonder that we don't also celebrate having allowed you your independence.

Frobisher said...

Great post, "community" doesn't seem to exist anywhere these days, which is sad.

Had a mental picture of you in your lawn chair waiting for people to turn up which made me chuckle.

Chaucer's Bitch said...

you guys didn't read that whole thing, did you??? wow.

lalalala: spank you very much.

ezri: i can't imagine getting worked up about the queen's birthday, but i guess ultimately it doesn't really have anything to do with the queen, does it? how are you, btw?

dave: you lost. admit it.

frobi: it was a wierd experience, at once defying the people around me and begging them to join me. tres paradoxical.

Geosomin said...

That sounds fantastic. I'm from a small town and I too miss the community stuff. When we moved into our house I went around the neighborhood and introduced myself and most of the neighbors looked at me like I was there to steal something...very wierd.
I'm wearing them down tho. I'm hoping that random offerings of baked goods will make them love me...:)

Chaucer's Bitch said...

geosomin: it's amazing what one can accomplish with baked goods. i use them to bribe my building maintenance man and the fellows down at the bike shop. chocolate chips = pure gold in the hands of lonely bachelors!

homo escapeons said...

Wow you should have this published.
It felt like I was watching a movie because of all the was so wonder years.

It is so cool to still be able to look at the past through your inner kid and yet decipher it as an adult. There is so much to plumb.
Loved the map! You need to do a story about the scary mansion.

It is terrible that the fences went up and the air conditioners went on..those kinds of neighbourhoods died and I don't see them ever returning.

Fabulous tour CB really..I think that this is the start to YOUR great American Novel. Thanks.

Mr Farty said...

You're right, CB - we live to read your blog. Almost anyone else's post, I would have given up after the second paragraph and skipped to the end, or just quit reading altogether.

But this was beautiful. Thanks.

ZB said...

Oh my GOD! You lived in the 1950's!

So the 4th of July for me was never about independence from the (now defunct) British Empire, or freedom from taxation without representation. It was never about self-governance, liberty, or flag-waving. It was a holiday of celebrating the summer with friends, family, community, barbequed chicken, watermelon, and sawdust. It was about being a kid, being barefoot, and, well, being free; free to throw water balloons at grown-ups, free to stay up past bedtime, free to play outside and eat cold chicken in your pj's, to listen to the drone of the cicadas during the day and the chirp of the crickets at night in total security, free to be completely innocent...

Yep. The ideological brainwashing worked then...

Da Nator said...

Wow, it does sound like your neighbourhood was temporarily caught in a 50s time warp. Great memories, though, and a lovely post. I'm jealous - never had that time of community growing up. From what I can tell, though, my Dad's neighbourhood in small-town Ohio is a bit like that, now. Apparently his pool is Kid Central for the area.

I loved the map, too. I second on the suggested post about the scary mansion!

llewtrah said...

Aaagh balloons. Much to Billy's amusement I have a phobia of balloons. Bad enough that I give them a wide berth, but not into screaming heebie-jeebies territory.

Chaucer's Bitch said...

Homo: thanks, mate.

Farty: wow. you guys are really sweet!

ZB: i know, i grew up in a cultural cliche'. it really was that great, tho; i'm not exaggerating. and while the nationalistic ideological brainwashing worked better than the Catholic version, it still didn't stick all that well. i mean, i DID move to another country in the end...

Nator: cheers. i'd do one on the scary mansion, but there really isn't anything to tell. i don't have any good stories about it. it was just a big, dark, creepy house at the top of the street where the school principle lived. that alone was enough to put the fear of god into us!

llewtra: i recently met a girl with a balloon-phobia. i had never encountered that one before. tell me, what is it exactly that scares you? does it make a difference that these were water balloons, and did not make a loud noise when popped?

llewtrah said...

I have no idea what it is that makes me avoid balloons. I especially hate it when they pop. There is no explanation, not even a traumatic childhood event (as a child I was already refusing to play balloon games). Maybe something from a past life.

PS: it's llewtrah with an "h"

Sal said...

cb: this is a... truly outstanding post. loved it beyond to pieces. the through-my-eyes picture of what it is about america that made it strong and made it rich, despite that same source being sneered at by most pseuds, and of what is now lost to such a great proportion of americans, and why.

if nothing else, these words have struck a sonorous chord in my heart, and when i get around to it, i will be blogging them [& this post] myself, with your permission:

> [Now] They don't know each other. I don't know them. No one knows anyone. And everyone is afraid. They are afraid because they fear what they don't know, and they don't know their nighbors.

Chaucer's Bitch said...

llewtrah: sorryh.

sal: very kind of you to say so, especially coming from such a talented writer as yourself. feel free to do as you please with the post.