Glorious Fourth

by

07/02/2009

Kensington, Brooklyn 11218

Neighborhood: Brooklyn, Kensington

Before the City got so strict about it, Brooklyn used to be flooded with fireworks every summer. On the Fourth of July the little blue pieces of paper from firecrackers built up in drifts on the street corners in Kensington where people spent the whole night setting them off.

Not me, though. I was in front of our house with two neighbor kids, chubby-cheeked Robert and his baby brother, waving sparklers – those silver sticks you light that shoot white stars, stinging your hand, burn down in a minute, and that’s it – while all around us a crackling gun battle raged. You could hear the bangs and crackles and pops nearby and faraway, up near Dahill and down past 36th Street, over on Tehama and back by Greenwood Cemetery. We weren’t the kind of people who knew where to buy illegal exploding things (neither were our fathers). We were good kids …controlled …safe … civilized. Nowadays that whole neighborhood sounds civilized on the Fourth, but then we were a sparkly little island in a sea of rude noise.

I don’t like loud noises. Thunder, fireworks. I’ve never heard a convincing explanation for this phobia but I guess it fits someone who like things controlled. Firecrackers weren’t much problem (unless they came in the window of the bus you were riding), but an ashcan going off under a passing car – with a giant racketing BOOM off the building fronts – that had me halfway up a tree. (An ashcan was like a cherry bomb, an M-80. Big, scary, blow-your-hand-off noises.)

So boy, did I ever love Independence Day. Like I said I usually stuck close to home, but on Saturday the Fourth in 1964, we were invited to my Uncle Alby’s special Fourth of July gathering in Roslyn, Long Island.

Al was military, genial, shiny-scalped, hawk-nosed, prosperous. We drove out there with contraband for the party – boxes of those wussy sparklers, of all things, because the local ordinances in Roslyn were the exact reverse of the City. You could blow up pretty much anything, but sparklers near dry grass made people nervous.

Going to Alby’s meant seeing his two middle sons, Dennis (one year older than me) and Jimmy (one year younger). They were both fun kids, athletes and jokers, but Dennis was special – blond, rangy, quick and unpredictable, and a natural comic. My sister had a serious crush. (And he was bald as an egg by age 30.) Jimmy was the follower – if Dennis decided jumping off the roof was a good idea, Jimmy wound up with the leg cast.

So we ran around that afternoon self-entertained, while the adults gradually got their suburban cocktail thing cranked up. There was this odd game where you hit a small white ball along the grass with a stick; eventually by accident it rolled into a little hole in the lawn, which freaked me out so much I went running to one of my uncles, who explained that was sort of the idea. There were no firecrackers but there were Roman candles in the street out front as night came on, and another uncle who turned up with a pistol (from a movie set) that shot loud blanks, until somebody complained (which was fine with me.) And of course, sparklers.

As the light faded Jimmy and I ran with the star-shooting wands, waving them back and forth to see the bright zig-zag after-image, and finally started whipping them over the back fence – higher, farther – making comets against the dark blue sky. There was a big empty lot back there, called for whatever reason the “sump,” and finally it occurred to one of us to take a look over the fence…the ground fire was small but steady, in the middle of a weedy depression.

I ran clueless after Jimmy, who ran for Dennis, and of course he was heroic. Up over the fence, trotting down the slope, stomping out smoldering sticks and crabgrass – I remember watching him back there and thinking, he’s just a kid like us, shouldn’t he be shouting for help like us? And when he came back up, eyes tearing from the smoke, it never occurred to him not to tell his father.

Alby stood stern over him – the oldest takes the blame – until Dennis felt so driven into a corner he burst out, “but it was them!”

I said yes, it was me.

Alby looked at me, a good two seconds, and then started in on Dennis again. I wonder if this prompted Dennis to get a little back on me later.

The last act was out on the front lawn, the three of us. Grownups were all in the backyard getting bombed. A car pulled up full of eighteen-year-olds who said c’mere, wanna ask you something. Dennis didn’t move, Jimmy just a little. I went up and then stood there, patiently, while the front passenger gave me a headful, a ziggurat, a towering Mardi Gras headdress of shaving cream. As they drove off chuckling Dennis asked me – why didn’t I step back? I didn’t really have an answer. Like golf, or guns, the whole thing was just out of my depth. I had no category for being shaving creamed from a car.

So we started back toward the house, but – no, Dennis said, let’s go around the back. Why? “It’ll be better.” As he led me around the side – I couldn’t see above my feet – it occurred to me to wonder what I looked like; but by instinct I was walking carefully, balancing, so as not to dislodge the huge creamy mass on my head. When we turned the corner into the backyard, the general reaction was everything Dennis could have hoped for.

For Mom this was not, not fun. It turns out to be a lot harder getting a canful of shaving cream out of an eleven-year-old’s hair than it was getting in. All the way home she was asking me did it get into your eyes, did it hurt, and so on.

I had fun.

It’s the kind of experience that tends not to repeat itself. If only life could be like that, except more…controlled.

 

Tony Longo is now a middle-aged middle manager with local government. He still lives in Brooklyn, which is much quieter now.

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