What were they called again — caps?
It’s a roll of pink and white paper. Set one on the curb away from the grass. Take a toy cowboy gun (the kind with the handle made of fake mother-of-pearl), hold the barrel, and whack the handle down on the cap paper so it makes a loud pop. Our parents thought those were safe enough even for small girls. Small girls were also allowed, when the adults were standing right there alongside, to hold very still with their arms straight out and hold up a sparkler. It was scary but it felt like a magic trick, to handle something beautiful like fire, and all we had to do was hold still and not be afraid.
(Safety interjection: Be afraid! Sparklers burn at 1200 degrees Fahrenheit. 900 is hot enough to melt glass. That’s according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. “Sparklers account for roughly one-quarter of emergency room fireworks injuries.” The Commission recommends handing the kiddos a glow stick instead.)
We girls didn’t set off firecrackers or any of that. That was only for the boys and dads, and we didn’t like the noise anyway. Besides, in the daytime we all had something bigger going on: Fourth of July was the Republican Day Picnic.
We kids were excited about the picnic, when the car with the loudspeaker and the flags drove through town the day before inviting everybody. We didn’t know what a Republican was, but maybe it’s from the Bible, like the Publican and the sinful man praying in the Temple, but you add Re- meaning “all over again” to show that these aren’t ancient publicans, they are modern day publicans. How do people know that they are Republicans? Dad said it is never polite to ask, because with that kind of talk people can feel hurt and upset. But the neighbors said right out loud that you can tell who are Republicans by looking at their sidewalk. They said the N. family up the street were the only Democrats around. We all liked the N. family, nice people with a good garden and the same American flag out front as anyone. But when the town made the sidewalks the workmen checked a list, stopped their wheelbarrow and cement roller at the N. family property line, and left the N.’s with an old sidewalk with moss and grass and tree roots growing through it so on a bicycle you have to be careful. But for all the other houses they made smooth white sidewalks cut into concrete squares like glittery fudge. So anyway, as far as we could tell, Republicans gave away sidewalks, and gave away food at free picnics.
The picnic was always the big news of the day. Before the picnic, Mom always got us up and out early before the sun was warm, to arrive before the traffic. The picnic was huge! Hundreds of people drove their cars in from everywhere to the beach park. (Was that Salisbury Park? They call it Eisenhower now. But our park was on the shore, and the map says that Salisbury doesn’t have a shore. There’s a text out to one of the relatives for editorial comment. Waiting to hear back. -m)
The picnic was a grand sight, with blocks and blocks of folding tables and umbrellas and transistor radios and volleyball nets and barbecue equipment and ice chests.
One year, the older boys waded out in the water and spread out a long net. Then they walked in holding up the net, to show us that it was full of tiny little silver fishes. It was amazing to find out that the water was full of little animals. We all ran up to look at the fishes and then the boys put down the net in the water and let them go again.
For the potato sack race, Dad pulled up a potato sack over his right leg and my left leg and held it up, and explained that we had to hop together. The parents and kids had fun trying to skip and hop together, but it was a lot of trouble for just a way to run a race. Then the men and boys played tug of war with a rope, and the boys and girl played volleyball. Then there were running races. The men went first and tried running, and their wives clapped and made jokes at them. Then the bigger boys had some fast races. Then there was a race for all the children. The adults lined us all up, and showed us that up ahead the boys were holding up a cord. “First one to reach the cord is the winner. On your mark, get set, go!” I ran and ran and ran and beat all the children, and stopped exactly right at the cord, and the whole pack of kids trampled right past me and past the cord, so I got knocked over and came in very last. People shouted at me “Why did you just stop and stand there? What were you thinking!” Well, I was thinking “Hey, I won at something!”
The men barbecued hot dogs and hamburgers on toasted buns, and corn on the cob wrapped in tinfoil. All the housewives brought food for a dozen people — watermelon and potato chips and pretzels and ice chests of lemonade with gnats falling in and chocolate cake with frosting and popsicles colored red white and blue but no devil eggs because they have maynaze mixed in and if they sit in the sun and you eat one, you are asking for trouble.
After lunch, everybody drove home. At home it felt unusual to have a holiday with no church at all, but on the 4th we really were allowed to just run around and have fun. The boys looked for ways to blow things up. They started with a special kind of paper; they could put it in the sun and aim a magnifying glass at it, and the paper started to smoke and then ashes crawled up out of it, twisting around like a live snake. Then they set off pink and blue firecrackers in the middle of the street. We girls went to the grass strip down by the corner and picked a lot of white clover flowers and wove garlands and ropes to decorate our houses for the day.
During the afternoon all the neighbors walked over to German Delicatessen for special foods for their celebration. That was one time when Mom said I could have chicken loaf. To her, chicken loaf didn’t make sense when we had real chicken in the fridge. But I liked chicken loaf; it was soft white loaf all ground up and pressed into pretty round slices with seasonings, and at German Deli I always put my nose on the display glass to look in at the chicken loaf. So every 4th of July Mom said okay already, she bought me my own little batch in waxed paper to nibble on under the cherry tree out back. And every year I read the Eleanor Estes story about the Moffats, and how Jane went to the beach on the 4th of July and the kids collected treasures to put in a cigarette-pack pirate chest, and they got Jane to give them her favorite blue ring, and when the kids buried the chest the tide came in and her ring was washed away and she missed it and wished she had it back.
At sunset the older boys took out their bigger fireworks, and they traded and swapped with each other and planned who sets off what when. At dark the families sat up on our steps and watched, and they set off their fireworks in the street. Most were firecrackers. Some were cherry bombs, and one of the guys set a cherry bomb in his family’s metal garbage can to make it sound louder, but he got in trouble with his Dad for denting the can and for making a ruckus. One time there was even a Roman candle that flew up into the sky like flowers. Maybe the people on planes to Idlewild Airport looked down and saw the colors too.
Finally our big day was over. But even lying in bed the kids could keep watch out the window. There were always sparks and lights from other people’s fireworks. The colors and flowers were beautiful even in dreams with snakes of ash and fishes of silver and Jane’s blue ring washing in, treasure safe and found again.