I have written about Memorial Day, but the summer had another big day, the Fourth of July. When I was a child there was a Fourth of July parade each year. This parade was a bit different since school was not in, it generally had more of a community feel, and a military feel. There was lots of patriotism on display, including ROTC members from Central State and Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops waving small American flags. Red, white and blue were the theme colors and the theme was carried out from the crepe paper woven between the spokes of the boys’ bikes riding in the parade to the hoop skirt worn by some of the women marchers representing Liberty I presume.
This parade was not very integrated except for the CSU ROTC, there was no ritual joining of the black part and white part of the parade like on Memorial Day, because this parade formed at the Armory, not at the Fire Station.
The parade was much more popular before the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement when patriotism and social movements and peace protesters sometimes clashed either literally or ideologically. When I was a small child the waving of the flag was almost universal on the Fourth of July, but with the rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement–” We did not land on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock landed on us” and the anti-war movement, “War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing, say it again!” some people began to retreat a bit from the rah rah America is great pageantry.
Nobody, however, hated the main event of the day, the fireworks at the Fairgrounds. The Greene County Fairgrounds were always one of the jewels in the crown of the city of Xenia. With old, huge trees and freshly painted outbuildings and barns it was a snippet of Americana. On hot July 4th evenings people would begin to gather before dark to get a good parking place. You had to find one that was close, but not too close to the fireworks, because you did not want to get caught in a traffic jam when it was time to leave, and, if you came early you wanted to be near the big trees for shade, but not under them so much you would not be able to see through the branches to the open area in front of the grandstand where the fireworks would be set off in a few hours.
The country folks, who dressed differently, talked differently and acted differently than us townies, would frequently bring pick-up trucks for the fireworks. I was impressed with the fact they could pull the trucks up and turn them so that the bed faced the area where the fireworks would be set off, which was the infield of the horse race track ( how many of you know the difference between a pacer and a trotter?) so that the family could watch the fireworks. Sometimes, particularly if they had an older family member with them, they would put folding lawn chairs in the truck bed so that grandma and grandpa would not have to sit on blankets. If the family was not well off they might press wooden kitchen chairs into service.
The kids would frequently want to lie on the hood of the truck on a blanket or a piece of burlap.These families hardly ever mixed with the townies and if they ate or drank anything they brought it with them rather than buying lemonade or Popsicles or some of the other treats that were on sale by various organizations and groups.
We made massive fun of these families, of course. The irony that we were from a town that had a train track running down the center and a grain elevator on the fringe of downtown and were making fun of “country” people did not intrude on our consciousness. We were sophisticated!
As the sun went down and the sky darkened everyone began to anticipate the main event, the shooting off of the fireworks. Shortly after full dark there was a sound like “whooomp” and the night sky lit up with colors and shapes. Everyone oohed and aahed and the night began to have an acrid smell that came from the chemicals in the fireworks burning off. The boys, of course, loved the ones that did not have any display of colors, but instead just sounded like a cannon shot or explosion.
Some years, when the town was wealthy we had long shows and on occasions the show even ended with displays on the ground, the American flag and Niagara Falls fireworks. When we were poor the show was short and there was no ground display.
Although it was, for many years, a free event, and of course was put on by county money and therefore open to the public, there was a kind of caste system to the 4th of July Fireworks. And, for once this was not based on race so much as on class. The country people usually parked in a certain area and kept to themselves and the townies who came were decidedly of the middle class. When I was a teenager that changed. All of a sudden folks from the wrong side of the tracks so to speak, began to come to the fireworks. All of a sudden there was some sign that beer was being brought in, young men in jeans and no shirts began to be loud and impinge on those who considered themselves more genteel.
In response they began to charge for the fireworks. By then I believe the area Lion’s Club had taken it over. A fee, they obviously thought, would keep out the riff raff. It kind of worked, but the riff raff would adapted. They simply pulled their vehicles up on the other side of the fence that surrounded the Fairgrounds and watched the fireworks, and drank their beer and cursed at each other from there. Of course, that meant those of us inside the fence still got the benefit of their rituals.I guess they just did not know their place, so to speak.
After a few years the county, city and civic organizations all cried poor mouth and quit having the fireworks, but I will forever believe that it was not lack of funds, but unwillingness to expose their precious children to the unwashed masses that killed our lovely fireworks.
I hope you all have at least had a few July nights where you spread a blanket on the grass, unpacked some cupcakes and Kool-Aid and watched the summer sky erupt in beauty while the crowd around you all looked up and oohed and aahed in unison. I truly think if the town leaders had given the rougher denizens of our town a chance they would have discovered that everyone can appreciate a soft summer night full of communal pleasure while pretending the starbursts and fairy dust displays will last forever. Even if they do have a beer while they are watching.