My wife and I were reminiscing of Independence Days long past, when our children were little, some of our parents still alive and our families mostly living nearby. Backyard cook-outs scheduled around shifts at Beverly Hospital or the I.P.D., Betty Dorman’s Recreation Department Fourth of July Children’s Parade – thankfully still going strong, decking out our kids and their Big Wheels or Radio Flyer Wagons in red, white and blue. All of these memories have me waxing nostalgic, so read on at your own peril……
When I was a small kid – six or seven years old, as holidays went the Fourth of July was huge, not quite the size of Christmas or Thanksgiving, but definitely larger than Easter or Columbus Day. The dreaded Labor Day was still two months off, and we were in the warm embrace of summer and school was out ! Goodbye to white shirts, grade school bow ties, blue corduroy pants and all other accoutrements required by the good Sisters of Saint Chretienne at Saint Stanislaus Parochial School on Washington Street. Shorts, tee-shirts and sneakers were now the uniform of the day. Time was spent in long and languid laziness; my older brothers just a shout out the back door, and our mother either busy in the kitchen or her flower garden. There were endless games of baseball in Chris Pechilis’s field which was complete with a diamond, mound and back-stop, or trips through Rogers Meadow to Van’s Variety on East Street for a tonic or a Brownie Bar. A swim in the river was a daily routine, our feet caked in river muck and occasionally smarting form a cut from a mussel shell.
My oldest brother Kevin was an enterprising seventeen year old, and raised a hundred or so laying hens in two coops in our backyard. He set up a processing plant in our cellar equipped with an old refrigerator, a candle lamp and an egg scale; and went into the egg delivery business with characteristic diligence. Once or twice a week, Kevin would load dozens of fresh eggs into his Morris Minor and deliver them around town. Sometimes he would take me along if ordered to do so by our mother, but this didn’t always work out as I was clumsy and prone to drop a carton or two on the ground, cutting into the bottom line and causing my brother unneeded aggravation.
The neighborhood I grew up and still live in seemed vast then; with fields and woods to explore, neighbors backyards to cut through, the salt marsh to scavenge and always, always, the Ipswich River just a stones throw away. When I wasn’t riding my bike (finally free of those embarrassing training wheels), loafing on the porch, or playing ball, I would try to tag along with my older brother Denis and his gang from the Newmarch Street. These families were the Gallant’s, Marcorelle’s, Emery’s, Skeffington’s, Bowen’s, Healey’s, Riddles and others; all living in the beautiful summer weather in what seemed then the most wonderful place on earth.
The Emery’s lived on Jurdin Hill Road and Mr. Emery was a kind and genteel man who worked for Sylvania downtown. In the early summer he also ran a Fourth of July store in his native Newburyport. It was a great place to hang around in and look for trouble; which was often dished out by the local youth of Newburyport’s South End neighborhood.On the evening of the Fourth, Mr. Emery would invite everyone in our neighborhood to his backyard where he would launch a spectacular display of Bottle Rockets, Roman Candles, and other explosive devices across the Ipswich River. It seemed like every nearby family would be there, and the show could go on for as long as an hour, or until the cops came by to shut it down and confiscate what couldn’t be hidden in time. There were never any arrests or injuries to my memory, and the inevitable raid by the law only added to the wicked pleasure of participating in something forbidden.
Other times, there were large bonfires to attend in surrounding towns. I remember going to several at Patton Park in Hamilton and even one at the Topsfield Fairgrounds. The bonfires would be built days, perhaps weeks in advance. The method was to add tier upon tier of wooden barrels or crates to create a pyramid with a flag perched atop. These would be guarded by members of the local Volunteer Fire Department. On either the Third or Fourth of July, the entire pile would be touched off by the Volunteers and I always felt something deliciously pagan as I watched the flames spread upward and into the heavens. Smoke would be everywhere; but we didn’t concern ourselves with the damaging effects to air quality and the environment then.
We were living at the end of the post-war years; our parents busy forgetting the misery of the Great Depression and World War Two as America remained on auto-pilot. Worries about the Soviet Union, Atomic Bomb and the effects of Rock and Roll music loomed large and the social upheavals of the Kennedy Assassinations, Vietnam and the Civil Rights Struggle were still a few years off. All in all, it was a great time to be a small kid in this town, with people who loved you and knew where you belonged after dark. The thought that there could be others who weren’t as lucky never crossed our minds. That’s what growing up does for you.