The ritual was the same each July 4th. Dad would rise early and make the rounds preparing for the family's combined celebration of our nation's birthday, and Mom and Dad's July 3rd wedding anniversary. First order of business was to bring out the galvanized trash can and hose it out. This trash receptacle was different than the others that sat along the back of the house. The July 4th can was shiny and new. It was kept stored away in the former wash house all year, and only made it's annual appearance on July 4th. That's the day that Dad would brag to all his friends that we were going to "eat out of a garbage can".
Finding a cannonball watermelon was the next task. When I was very young, we would go to the old City Market on Third Avenue at the foot of the 6th Street Bridge to find the perfect melon. Dad preferred the round cannonball melons. Other watermelons were acceptable substitutes if a cannonball could not be found, but he was never quite as satisfied with the lesser melons. From there it was a trip to any number of neighborhood markets, to find the soda pop. July 4th pop was different from the normal RC, Pepsi, or Coke that usually graced our refrigerator. On Independence Day, we had a variety of soft drinks. There was Orange Crush, Grape Nehi, Cherry Soda, Frostie Rootbeer, and Seven Up - along with the regular colas. The drinks were all in glass bottles - no cans in those days.
The final stop was the City Ice Company, where Dad would purchase a large block of ice. We had to stop there last so the ice wouldn't melt away before we got home. Once back at the house, the watermelon and soft drinks were placed gently in the trash can, and Dad brought out the old red handled ice pick that was only used on July 4th (and occasionally to aid Mom in defrosting the old white Frigidare refrigerator). He would place the huge block of ice on a towel spread out on the table and would chop away. The chopped ice would then be placed in the trash can and the can filled with water from the garden hose.
Then we waited, for what seemed to be an eternity.
Eventually, around mid day, the best July 4th celebration on Gallaher Street would get underway. The grandparents would usually arrive first. Many times Uncle Bob, Irene, and our cousins from Logan would come. Assorted Aunts and Uncles who lived in town (or were here on vacation) would also come by. Dad told us to get the word out to all the neighborhood kids, and Ricky Hall, Donnie Smith, Joe Peck, Paul Turley. Rusty Watrous and his brothers would usually arrive before the melon was sliced. Most years, our Pastor, Carl Vallance, and his wife, LaVerne, would come by before the day was over, as would assorted other friends and neighbors.
Looking back, I sometimes wonder how everyone was fed and hydrated from the contents of that 30 gallon can. It was a far cry from 5,000 being fed from 5 loaves and 2 fish, but I allowed it was somewhat of a minor miracle in itself.
Eventually the ice cream freezer was brought out. This was Dad's favorite part of the day. He'd call for the men and boys to gather round and take their turn at cranking the handle, as he would add the ice and salt required for the mysterious process. "You don't eat if you don't crank!", he would call out with a grin. We kids always wanted to get our cranking in early, before the mixture began to solidify and the cranking became a real labor. We usually worked up a pretty good sweat and got sore in the biceps, but all was forgotten when the delicious frozen desert was spooned out into the waiting cones!
There were badminton games and lawn darts. Some of us guys had our gloves and would toss a baseball around, others might take part in a game of touch football. The adults sat around in folding chairs and talked and laughed about the things that adults talk and laugh about. The younger kids would play on the swing set. One of the favorite contests was a test of endurance in which some of the braver kids would see who could immerse their arm in the icy water of the trash can, and keep it there the longest. Eventually, as the day came to a close, Brother Vallance and Dad usually caught one of the unsuspecting kids and dunked them in the icy water (you know how those preachers are about baptising folks!).
Folks came went all afternoon, and by late evening, usually it was only the immediate family and a few of the neighborhood boys left for the fireworks. Back in those days, you couldn't buy fireworks in West Virginia, so Dad would always load up in Tennessee or somewhere when we were on vacation and put them away for the next 4th of July. Firecrackers popped away, and Dad would light the Roman Candles and Bottle Rockets as we "oooh'd and ahhhh'd at the beautiful colors splashing across the evening sky above our yard. We usually finished up with the kids running around in the dark trying to create patterns with the lighted sparklers we held in our hands.
Tomorrow, Linda and I will spend the morning in worship with the congregation of Westmoreland Baptist Church. From there we will visit my brother Bruce's house as he carries on the family tradition. He'll have a couple of big wash tubs filled with watermelon, pop, and ice water. His and Sandi's blended family will be there, and he has invited his neighbors. We'll also celebrate the beginning of Mom and Dad's 62nd year together.
Our kids and their families will be far from us tomorrow. Jay's family will watch the fireworks in New Orleans from the levee along the Mississippi River. Benji and his family will enjoy the fireworks in the coolness of the top of Snowshoe Mountain. Linda and I will view the display in downtown Ashland with a number of her friends and coworkers from the college, and another Independence Day will draw to a close.
Seems the memories of those days back on Gallaher Street get more precious each year.