The corn on the cob would stick to my teeth. The barbecue was accompanied with mild, hot, or sweet sauce. The potato salad was more than adequate if they went light on the mustard and the egg halves. The hot dogs were always a might over done. And the ketchup bottles were so sticky after the first five people went through that I wouldn’t pick one up for nothing! The drinks were iced down in No. 3 washtubs. And the dessert table took up a whole corner of the town square.
It was the same every year. And it was OK if you didn’t mind eating off a paper plates and weak plastic forks. And the ants stayed out of your food. I was a little confused as to exactly how corn on the cob equated to our nation’s birthday. But heck, back then a lot of things that grownups led us into didn’t make much sense to me.
The speeches were over-long and they were all the same. We were, or should be, grateful for living in this great land. I didn’t listen past the first minute. Bobby Brewer had that pea shooter thing he’d made and he was unloading some BBs upside my head! Between speakers, I’d mosey back to take a look at his firearm and craned my neck to see if I could get a clear shot at LaRenda Bradfield.
Mrs. Mitchum, who once dated Methuselah, would always find me as the festivities wound down. “Kesley, wasn’t this a wonderful celebration? We are such a fortunate nation.” She had the kindest face and for some unknown reason she took a shine to me. Of course, in our little town, everyone loved everyone on the Fourth of July.
The next year it was more of the same. Dad would swing by the ice house out past the American Legion and buy several ice cold watermelons. I wanted to tell him every year that me and Leon and David Mark could steal’em bigger and better from Mr. Archie Moore’s patch, but prudence (and self survival) clamped my mouth shut. Dad was almighty straight up about what was yours and what wasn’t.
Dad passed out watermelons as we headed up to the square for more barbecue, baked beans, cole slaw and corn on the cob. Bobby would have a pocket full of cherry bombs. We’d find Ricky Hale and Buddy Wiggleton and go looking for empty garbage cans. Listen, one of them cherry bombs would lift the lid right up in the air. ’Course, we hardly waited around for the lid to come back down. Fearing the noise might arouse a suspicious bystander we’d be back in the middle of the throng, wearing our innocent look and munching on a hot dog before the smoke dissipated.
The day was always the same. We played, we ate, we heard speeches, we sweated, the band played the national anthem, we honored America, we went home. You’d say it was pretty simple. And you’d miss by more than a mile.
We might have been young but we were not idiots. We were enjoying the barbecue and the corn on the cob for a reason. The whole town had closed up shop not to take a holiday but to honor its heritage. We didn’t necessarily equate throwing cherry bombs into trash cans as unadulterated acts of freedom but we full well knew that you couldn’t have this much fun in just any old country!
We observed the respect and esteem Mr. Ed Wiley and Mr. Jim Alexander and Mr. Jack Martin and Mr. Robert Hall and every other man in town showed for our flag, the guest speakers and the mere mention of George Washington, Ben Franklin or Dwight D. Eisenhower. It wasn’t lost on me that from the first crack of the drum on the "Star Spangled Banner" my Father’s hat was over his heart and he didn’t move, he didn’t flinch, his eyes didn’t waver from that big American flag waving in front of The McKenzie Banner until the last note drifted over the Tri-County Ford dealership. I hope and pray we’re still making men like I once had the honor and privilege of sharing corn on the cob with.
I didn’t realize it at the time but the interruption was permanent. Other ball games, jobs, life got in the way. I was never to celebrate another Fourth of July “on the square” in the little town where I grew up. And I believe that tradition slowly faded as the increasing speed of life caught up with small towns all across our nation.
I am saddened for the generations that came too late. They will never know the importance of red checked table cloths and bobbing for apples on a hot July afternoon. They would dismiss as silly a rally around the flag. They will never understand an ancient army officer in a well-worn uniform droning on and on about the price of freedom. They can never grasp a silent tear on an old truck driver’s face as he stands at rapt attention as the high school band plays his favorite song.