Each commercial shows an example of someone who’s as happy as a new customer saving on his/her insurance rates: The Pillsbury Doughboy going through airport security, the office camel on Hump Day, Dracula volunteering for a blood drive, and so forth.
At this particular season of the year, I would add one more example to Geico’s list: “Happier than a kid on the Fourth of July whose grandparents run a grocery store.”
I mostly took that great bounty for granted in the years I lived with them on Dora/Flat Creek Road in the community called Shanghi. Between the big garden they grew behind their house, and Brasfield’s Grocery just a stone’s throw down the road, foodstuffs of every possible variety magically showed up on our table each day.
Not just the basic, nourishing meat-and-three (which on holidays often became meats-plural-and-six) but also such extras as soft drinks (which everybody called “dopes”) were generally close at hand — not in six-packs, but by the case.
The only thing in the store I remember being off-limits to me was a mysterious substance in the butcher shop called “souse meat,” which fascinated me because I couldn’t find it in Webster’s dictionary and the Internet was still decades away.
My grandfather’s explanation was straightforward: “Souse is something you don’t need to eat. Trust me.” Years later I would find out all the details about the delicacy, but I won’t relay them here, just in case you’re trying to... well, eat. His definition from 1960 is still adequate, I think.
The only Fourth of July ingredients the store didn’t have were (a) alcohol and (b) fireworks. We got our fireworks from one of the trailers on the New 78 Highway (now known as the Old 78 Highway), and as for alcohol, we did without. My grandparents had found Jesus long before I entered the picture, and at their place drinking was forbidden, even for adults.
I remember two folding picnic tables set in an L-shape next to the barbecue grill, with huge bowls of homemade coleslaw, baked beans, and potato salad, plus chili topping and sauerkraut for any renegade hot-dog lovers. Courtesy of the store, there were enough buns and hamburger patties and wieners to “feed an army,” as my grandmother always commented, but Granddaddy’s theory was that you never knew who might drop by unexpectedly and it was always better to have too much than not enough. Somewhere in the midst of all this charcoal-smoking glory was an old wooden ice cream freezer we took turns cranking all day long. (Fortunately, the store kept rock salt and bagged ice.) Most years were plain vanilla, but occasionally fresh peaches or strawberries were added. A vote was taken afterward, and the consensus was that fruit is good for a change but nothing beats plain vanilla for the long haul — which, come to think of it, was pretty much my family’s attitude toward life in a nutshell.
Lunch on the Fourth of July WAS a long haul, back then. You could eat, take a walk, go fishing in the pond, eat again, read a book, eat again, and repeat as necessary. But even after you had eaten to your bodily capacity, there were still hours to go before dark, due to the season of the year and to Daylight Savings Time — both of which seemed to a kid like poor planning by grownups where fireworks were concerned. Theoretically, one possibility was a nap. But no kid worth his/her salt would take a daytime nap, on principle, in those days. Even when dark finally crept up on us, my folks were so mindful of fireworks safety that no person of less than voting age was allowed to light them. Still, there was the occasional fireworks-related drama. A bottle rocket would land on the roof of the house and ignite some dry leaves in the gutter, calling for a ladder-fetching mission.
The biggest excitement of all was the year the fireworks dealer had a new item: the little chaser-type devices that buzzed and screamed in circles along the ground, but in a more powerful version. As luck would have it, upon the test-firing of these little dynamos, one of them scooted straight toward my stepfather in his lawn chair, hit his shoe, and went airborne up his pants leg with energy to spare. At the time, he was disabled with a heart condition. But I guess there’s something about sparks and screams coming out of your pants that inspires you to new heights. Literally, in his case. He sprang up high and then hit the ground moving at a rate that likely set a new record, in his age group, for the 50-yard dash.
Nobody was hurt, and we all settled down for the rest of the show. Though I was just 10, I used my better judgment and didn’t point out that, after the excitement, all of us could sure use a few drinks.
And the night was still young, meaning plenty hamburgers and hotdogs still to be consumed before the climactic Roman candles were lit. Years later, in college, I would come across a phrase from the 1700s that was new to me: “an embarrassment of riches.” But on those Fourth of July nights in the 1960s, embarrassment was the farthest thing from my mind. Because I had no idea how blessed I was.
There are much worse ways to celebrate a holiday.
Dale Short is a native of Walker County. His columns, photos, and radio features are available on his website, carrolldaleshort.com. His weekly radio program “Music from Home” airs each Sunday at 6 pm on Oldies 101.5 FM, streams live online at www.oldies1015fm.com, and is archived afterward on his website.