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Remembering the Fourth of July through the decades

The Fourth of July is fast upon us, and so comes the time to celebrate.

Looking for that new recliner? Ottoman perhaps? Now's the time. Twelve months, zero percent financing.

How to resist?

It's also time to commemorate our country's independence with the usual backyard barbecues, parades and re-enactments of the "bombs bursting in air," albeit prematurely for some. Eager revelers have been stocking up at the roadside stands and holding a few practice runs, as evidenced by the "rat-a-tat-tats" I've been hearing in the distance.

Thankfully, some rather heavy downpours have been made to order in my neighborhood this past week. Life is good when it grants you a good soaking to top off the rain barrel, silence the practice-run booms and quell the neighbors' yapping dogs.

Killjoy, I know, particularly when you're living in a state where the right to bear and light your own fireworks has become a traditional way to ring in July Fourth and the new year, too.

It's a biannual dilemma of sorts.

The thing is I have nothing against fireworks — at least not the "professional" kind.

While I can take or leave New Year's celebrations these days (I typically sleep right through the Times Square ball drop), I do have great fondness for the Fourth of July. How can you not when you hail from the state of Massachusetts where so much of it began? The shot heard round the world. Paul Revere's ride. The battle of Bunker Hill. It all kind of runs through you.

So, of course, I'm left with a rich stash of memories — times spent celebrating the Fourth and New Year's while watching the rockets red glare, typically launched from some kind of roped-off stand flanked by a fire truck, or from a floating barge moored a safe distance away.

Some of those celebrations are the topics of "remember when" conversations held in later years. Picture a bunch of balding, pudgy, wrinkly types carrying on about the Fourth of July spent sporting bikinis and cutoffs while watching fireworks from a friend's boat in the Charles River, all while the Boston Pops Orchestra played Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture simulated cannon fire and all.

Or the frigid 1979 New Year's celebration, in the days before buckling up was the law, and we were young and foolish enough to brave a wild ride in an old, beat-up van with no back seats, no heat and a rather temperamental German shepherd, all so we could take in the ice sculptures and watch the sparkles burst in the sky during Boston's First Night celebration.

These are fond memories for me. As were the mosquito-bitten firework celebrations held at my hometown fairgrounds during the wonder years. Picture a passel of scraped-kneed kids racing around a field trying to catch errant fireflies before claiming a prized spot on a blanket or the hood of a neighbor's sedan. The taste of melting cotton candy and Simpson Spring birch beer warm in your mouth. The smell of insect repellent and the cloud of spent gunpowder hanging thick over the car-filled field when it was over.

Decades have passed. Birch beer is hard to find these days, and a few house-lined cul-de-sacs have cropped up at the old fairgrounds. But personal fireworks are still illegal there.

That's not to say we didn't have our share of amateur-hour shows. Neighborhood ne'er-do-wells set off cherry bombs and firecrackers. Outlaws trekked into New Hampshire where fireworks were legal, or into Chinatown's backroom alleys where they weren't, all so they could set the back yard on fire.

The later-in-life move to Florida brought the amateur fireworks show to new legal heights, where the combination of booze and gunpowder had me rethinking the whole spectacle. Did I really want my kids' lasting vision of July Fourth to be of dodging missiles from drunks who fired their stash from empty beer bottles after launching them with lit cigarettes?

So the Fourth, these days, has become a more subdued celebration for our family. A small backyard barbecue. Ribs, perhaps. Mom's German potato salad. Red white and blue cupcakes, too. The Boston Pops fireworks celebration captured live on HD. And the thought that a well-timed, late-night rain shower bouncing off the roof, rather than a barrage of bottle rockets, would make for the perfect finale.

Michele Miller can be reached at miller@sptimes.com or at (727) 869-6251.

Remembering the Fourth of July through the decades 07/02/10 [Last modified: Friday, July 2, 2010 8:38pm]
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