Tuesday, June 30, 2015

My family's Fourth of July celebrations were.....desultory, at best. Most years, my parents would haul the family to my maternal grandparents' home in Watford City, North Dakota, (population 1,250) the last week of June. I had few cousins living there, and almost none of them my own age. My parents mostly went so that they could see my dad's two brothers and my mom's aunts, uncles, and cousins.

Watford was a small town with nothing to do during the summer. My parents were terrified that us kids would go down the hill below my grandparents' house and run into the high-speed traffic on Highway 85. Just why they thought we'd be so stupid is beyond me...

There was, however, a really old, decrepit Dairy Twist stand down at the bottom of the hill (a good two blocks from the highway), and sometimes my parents or grandparents would give us a dollar to go down and buy ice cream cones.

The real high point of Independence Day in Watford was fireworks. North Dakota had one of the most lax fireworks laws in the nation, and they permitted M-80s, firecrackers, lady-fingers, bottle rockets, Roman candles, much more. (That's no longer true, but it once was.) Fireworks were cheap, but my parents' income was even cheaper, so we kids mostly had to hoard our cash for months in order to afford them. (I got $2 a week for vacuuming the back stairs, taking out garbage, and mowing the lawn. My next-younger brother did nothing, and also got $2 a week.)

The fireworks stand opened 10 days before the Fourth of July, and stayed open until July 5.

On Independence Day itself, we'd sleep in late. There was generally no lunch, as my grandfather would start up the grill about 3 PM. It was a brick grill he'd built himself in the back yard. Around a tree in the front yard, he'd built a picnic table. Hamburgers, hot dogs, grilled buns, and grilled ears of corn would come off the grill about 4 PM. My grandmother would make potato salad, green salad, and apple pie. The hot food had to be carted around the house to the picnic table, which usually meant that a couple hot dogs and burger patties fell to the ground (where our dog gorged on them).

Dinner was done about 6 PM, and we got vanilla ice cream with apple pie.

Then it was an interminable wait for dark, as my parents and grandparents sat around on lawn chairs and enjoyed the summer heat, after-dinner coffee, and conversation.

We'd start lighting off firecrackers and explosives about 8 PM, and the fountains, Roman candles, and bottle rockets about 9 PM. It was all over by 11 PM.... We'd get another small piece of pie and a small scoop of ice cream, and then it was off to bed.

In my late teens, my parents would sometimes delay the trip to Watford until after Independence Day, largely because they were concerned we'd blow off our fingers with fireworks. (During one such stay-at-home Independence Day, my next-youngest brother decided to set off a Whistling Jupiter rocket with a match. It severely burned his hand, and he had to be taken to the hospital.) By this time, I had a part-time job and could afford a lot more fireworks. My brother was wheedling a hundred dollars a month out of my parents, too, so we always had stuff to shoot off.

Montana had stricter fireworks laws, but still permitted things like smoking capsticks (if you opened them up, you could retrieve the lady-finger inside), smoke bombs, black magic snakes, endless kinds of fountains, and rockets like Jupiters and Silver Jets and parachutes (smoking, Army man, and fizzing). Montana used to allow firework stands to open 14 days before the Fourth, so we had plenty of time to buy stuff, blow it off, and buy more stuff. The best firework stands were on the outskirts of town, where they sold stuff that really pushed the limits of the law.

Beginning in 1976, my home town of Great Falls, Montana, started having an annual fireworks display. My parents would generally ignore the Independence Day holiday, refusing to cook anything except the regular fare we had in the house. If I wanted to, I could fire up the gas grill on the deck and make hamburgers, but that was the extent of our food preparations.

Just before dusk, my parents would then load us into the car, and we'd drive out 38th Street N. until there weren't any houses (there are tons there now), pull off on the west side of the road, and sit among the hundreds of other cars to watch the fireworks display.

Then it was back home, to light off the remainder of our fireworks in the driveway and street until 1 AM.


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