No wallflowers at America's birthday party

Fourth of July — Independence Day? Not for Mom, it wasn't.

If anything, for her, it was a day of incarceration. Sure, we youngsters were on our summer break from school, and Dad did not have to go to work. She needn’t get up at 4 a.m. to cook his breakfast and pack his lunch. It meant she could sleep in a bit later, but what a trade off.

All eight of us would be clustered around the breakfast table simultaneously, and it meant a full-blown meal at lunchtime.That was no picnic.

We never celebrated the holiday by going on a picnic or having a cookout. Remember, Mom and Dad grew up at the start of the turn of the last century. Daily mealtimes were a matter of roughing it. No way did Mom want to cook over a hot stove and tote the midday meal outdoors to a picnic table to be out in the open air and harassed by insects. Open windows, without benefit of screens, and fly tape dangling over the table from the ceiling were all-too-recent memories. No way was Dad going to fire up the grill — we didn't even own one.

To tell the truth, Fourth of July for our family was a pretty dull and ordinary day. Mom spent as little time as she could cooking lunch. In the warm-weather months, especially July, if Mom turned on the oven the kitchen was like a furnace. Dad still liked hot bread, so Mom bypassed baking biscuits and cooked cornbread cakes in the cast iron skillet instead.

Dad worked hard five days a week at the shipyard, and you'd think that come a holiday he might want to sit back and rest. But no, the Fourth of July found him out in the garden working in the hot sun.

I couldn't figure him out. Why didn't he want to go somewhere and have fun? I sure did.

My prayers were answered in the afternoon when Dad brought the '38 Chevy out of the garage and started waxing and polishing the midnight black vehicle. That Chevy was his pride and joy, and when Dad started to polish it, it usually meant he was planning to take us for a drive.

Dad announced that we would indeed go for a drive, but where? Dad had a way of keeping details to himself. Whenever we would go out, it would be late afternoon near sunset after the oppressive heat of the day had subsided. Mom preferred that waning hour of the day.

But when Mom, Dad and we youngsters climbed into the Chevy, the day had not cooled down noticeably. Sometimes on a summer day, Dad took us by the High's ice cream store, where we each got a double-dip cone. Mom usually chose Butter Pecan. My flavor of choice was Butter Brickle — yum!

Dad would return to the car from the ice cream store, give us our cones and drive toward the water's edge on Chesapeake Avenue. These were the days long before home air conditioning, and way before air conditioning in cars. Naturally, we drove with the windows down. The result was disastrous.

The warm breeze blowing into the car at 30 mph or so promptly melted our frozen treats and ice cream ran in streams down our arms to our elbows. What a mess. It sort of worked. The ice cream cooled us both inside and out.

On the occasional summer Saturday evening, Dad steered us toward Buckroe Beach Amusement Park. The park faced Chesapeake Bay, and there was usually a good chance an offshore breeze afforded us a refreshing respite. My brothers enjoyed riding the roller coaster — we called it the Dips — and trying their hand at driving the bumper cars.

I, a timid little fellow, found riding the merry-go-round too much excitement. Mostly I tagged along with Mom and Dad. They were fairly sedentary and drifted from park bench to park bench, finally ending up at the open-air dance pavilion. They didn't dance but sat and watched the other, much-younger couples as they fox-trotted across the dance floor. And, yes, so did I. Watch, not dance.

We were spectators taking in the sights, like wallflowers at a party, living vicariously through the performance of the fun-loving dancers. Perhaps the young men and women were more interested in the fun of loving than dancing, but I was young and oblivious to that possibility.

At times, we sat facing the bay. The water so close and yet so far away. None of us could swim.

For me, the sea was a mysterious product of creation. I thought it beautiful, and I both admired and feared it. Once, I tried wading, knee-deep, in the surf. Suddenly a wave rushed in and just as quickly pulled back away from the shore, and I was certain that it was pulling me out to sea along with it. I felt the sand sliding away beneath my feet. I was afraid. I never went into the bay again.

On other summer afternoons, Dad took us down to the train depot to watch the passenger trains arrive from and depart for Richmond. I felt a safer on dry ground.

Sometimes on the Fourth of July, Dad would kill two birds with one stone, so to speak. Then, he would head the old Chevy toward Old Point Comfort, which was quite a treat for us. Old Point was the home of Fort Monroe, and the huge Chamberlin Hotel loomed majestically over the land/sea scape.

And if that weren't enough, it is also where the paqueboats of the Old Bay Line tied up and discharged travelers from Baltimore. Only a short distance from the dock was the Fort Monroe bandstand and a perfect venue for listening to patriotic songs played by a brass band.

Shortly after sunset, all of a sudden POW, BOOM, BANG! The fireworks show began. I felt excitement to the max.

Now my family and I weren't wallflowers at the Independence Day party. We were part of the vast crowd of spectators.

We were thrilled and we were proud, too.

We were Americans, and we were collectively celebrating our birthday. Up fluttering on the flagpole was the flag, the Stars and Stripes.

"And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air."

Awesome! Happy Birthday, America.

Whipple is a Williamsburg writer who has published several books and countless essays.

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