Growing up my father used to read me the “I remember when” weekly column that was in The Jewish Press. He would read it to me on Saturdays and always laugh out loud when the columnist, Arnold Fine, would mention similar events that my father had experienced. In that frame of mind I am going to write my own “I remember when” column about the fourth of Julys of my past.
One of my earliest childhood memories of the fourth of July was sitting by the fire escape and hearing the loud explosions coming from the street outside of our building on East 14th Street in Brooklyn. I remember the fire engines speeding down our block with their horns and sirens so loud it felt as if the end of the world was occurring every ten minutes. I would lay in bed hearing dogs barking each time firecrackers or fireworks would explode. I remember the combination of being frightened and excited at the same time. (they are siblings emotionally) I would go to my parents’ bed and be comforted laying in between them. In the morning I would be the happiest kid, I would lay there with them as they drank their morning coffee and had conversations about everything. Plus my father would make me a cup of coffee to drink with them. When they didn’t want me to know what they were saying they would speak in Arabic. (my parents were first generation children of Jewish refugees from Syria)
The most memorable 4th of July was in 1976. The bicentennial year of the adoption of the declaration of independence.
In June and July of 1776, Brooklyn, 280 British warships sailed into to quell the revolution and begin the battle of New York. especially the Narrows between Brooklyn and Staten Island where The British were unbeatable and the chance of George Washington and his army defeating them seemed impossible. Yet, here we were celebrating 200 years of independence.
So it was only natural that on July 4th 1976, the celebration included over 200 tall ships from nations around the world along with a giant American flag draped over the Verrazano Bridge (which didn’t really make it all the way to the party since the late June wind had other ideas) with fireworks bursting in the evening sky. It was an amazing party and one that as a 10 year old I will never forget.
Other than the ships and the overall pride and excitement that swept over us spectators, there was another sense of pride that swept over us Jews at the gathering.
A week earlier 106 passengers from a hijacked plane were being held captive in Entebbe. They were singled out as Jews as a way for the hijackers to try and negotiate release of other terrorists who were imprisoned in Israel. All the captives were Jewish except for the crew of the aircraft which refused to leave their charge. After a week of being held captive by Palestinian terrorists, Israel had raided the airport and flew the hostages back to Israel and to safety. It was a miraculous event; no one thought it would end well, yet here we were all dancing and hugging celebrating freedom.
I remember my father running towards us with a transistor radio in his hand and saying, “They are free!” A wave of pride washed over us as we all congratulated each other.
Other years I cannot identify – but I can tell you about some memories I have. Living on East 2nd street directly across from a public school and it’s yard, was like living in a war zone. All night long the fire crackers and whatever bombs they had (some shook the house) kept us awake and sweltering in the non-air conditioned apartment. The next morning the floor would be covered by the leftovers of the fire crackers, sparklers, fireworks and whatever else was used. Once in a while we would find an unused one and we would set it off.
Barbecues in the backyard – charcoals lit up and as my mother grilled our hot dogs and burgers. All the houses had their porches filled and the sidewalks were crowded with kids playing hopscotch, jump rope or stoopball. We would be sweltering with no air conditioned refuge (I don’t think air conditioning was as common as it is today).
Suddenly we would see one of the fathers walking towards the fire hydrant with a giant tool. We knew what he was doing and suddenly kids would run into their house and within seconds come back outside.
The fire hydrant opened up and we would jump up and down as we were cooled down by the extremely cold water springing from it. We would be laughing and dancing as we took turns in the middle of the arc.
Along with the barbecue there was fried and grilled chicken, along with coleslaw and potato salad. The smell of the chicken left us salivating in our giant 1966 Chevy Impala as my mother would drive and we would want to pick from the bags.
Oh that giant car. Sky blue and possibly the oldest car in the neighborhood. It was so easily identifiable and I remember a sense of love and happiness when I would see it coming down the block towards our home or to pick me up. Like seeing my parents themselves I would feel at ease.
Of course no summer memory, for me, would be complete without the transistor radio sounds of the New York Mets as the soundtrack.
Those hot and humid days and nights – it seemed there was never any relief. There was crime, the son of Sam, black outs and the Damn Yankees winning over and over again.
There were the girls I had fallen in love with over the school year and who went away during the summer only to come back looking tanned and even prettier than they did just two months earlier.
There was the music of Elton John always on the radio along with a strange beat of “disco” on the FM stations.
Summers were a time for baseball, stoop ball, beaches and family. There was also an inner sadness I felt during those two months. Was it the fact that the routines of the other 10 months were broken? I felt a sense of imprisonment at times and a feeling of loneliness would overwhelm me despite being among others.
But those fourth of July’s…beach, barbecues and good times…at least that is what I choose to remember. We cannot change the past or truly remember exactly how things were. Our memory rewrites the stories over and over again. Embellishing the good times and perhaps being quietly haunted by the bad.
Things weren’t always so simple for this boy, nor the boy inside this man; I still go through a lot of lonely days and feel an internal sadness even when I shouldn’t be feeling that way. I have learned to overcome any impending anxiety or panic that may accompany those dreaded feelings. Medicinal and cognitive therapy has helped increase the brightness of the rooms I walk through or lay in.
I still feel a haunting feeling each June as the trucks and cars head out for the summer. It’s a strange phenomenon that wakes up those old feelings as if an anniversary of a death of a loved one or a painful event. Why? I don’t know exactly – but I have overcome the odds and come out victorious.
I am turning 53 years old this August and I have come a long way in my lifetime. I am a grandfather now and I have the most amazing children and wife – those are my blessings. Those are the reasons for my personal firework display.
I get excited when I see fireworks because it reminds me of my own personal victories. A feeling of internal independence from the wounds that have tried to keep me from smiling. A feeling that no matter how dire the circumstances, no matter the volume of the fire crackers or the fire engines, the cold of the hydrant water or the taste of kerosene on my burgers – there is always a sense of freedom or the hope that those chains will never again imprison me.
So, when I think about the fourth of July, I think about the battles I have fought and continue to fight – then I see my father running towards me with a transistor radio in his hand and his amazing smile on his face saying, “They are free!”