The Fourth at the Lake

Over the past decade (my fourth),  4th of July has become less of a holiday for me, and more a symbol – it represents the midpoint of summer, a tangible marker of time passing.   Now that I live in California, I rarely travel for the Fourth, preferring  to avoid the crowded airports and highways sprinkled with inebriated drivers.  Fireworks are something I might go see if I can avoid traffic jams of both the people and automotive variety.   I enjoy the long weekend in my eerily empty city where  parking  has becomes almost magically easy.   The occasional  fireworks glimpsed in the distance is a nice bonus.

But when I was young it was a different story.  The Fourth of July was my #2 holiday, second only to Christmas.  I liked Hallowe’en  fine, but  considered the fun of costumes and candy too limited compared to the many pleasures to be had on the Fourth: swimming, fishing, , a barbecue with unlimited playmates, and my strict parents suddenly benign about junk food.  This meant potato chips with lunch, and not just one but two brownies dusted with powdered sugar after dinner, and all the soda I wanted, all I had to do was plunge my hand in one of the many galvanized tubs full of icy water and bobbing with colorful cans.

We weren’t dirt poor but we had very little in the way of extras, and so drank the discount brands of soda – usually Shasta, which cost 7 cents a can at the time (I didn’t realize the mountain on the can was a real place until I moved out west and actually made plans to climb it).

My favorite flavor was lemon lime, and since I couldn’t stand other flavors – and would go without rather than drink cola or strawberry flavors like the other kids –  my dad would secrete the yellow and green cans with the white mountain emblem in his beer cooler. I always felt grown up going to the section of the yard where adults were sitting in lawn chairs and talking and drinking beer.  I’d slip through the chairs  in my blue  terry cloth bikini with the  bright colored buttons and open the green hard-topped cooler for my soda.  Each time the men  in their DeKalb and Deere and Cardinal baseball hats stopped talking long enough to tease me that I needed to ‘slow down’;  they would  promise not to tell my dad about my ‘drinking problem’ and roar with laughter at their  humor.  I laughed with them, not really understanding the jokes but liking to be part of the men’s circle for those few minutes.

For most of my childhood we did the same thing every Fourth, joining eight or nine families at Stollberg’s Lake, a small manmade lake on the east end of the town where I grew up.   Our neighbor Mr. Schlesinger grew up in a house bordering the lake. He grew up, got married, had two kids and became our neighbor; through all of this his parents stayed in the house on the lake but always traveled to Florida for the Fourth, leaving the house and yard free for our annual barbecue.   We all lived in the same lower middle class neighborhood, our fathers in short-sleeved Oxford shirt s and wingtips  working  their 9 to 5 jobs, our mothers all stay at home mom’s with gardens of  marigolds and  morning  glorys, green peppers, tomatoes  and children.  We kids were well-versed in the kinds of chores I that people in wealthier areas routinely hired people to do: mowing, weeding, hanging laundry, cleaning gutters.  We sometimes picked strawberries and apples for pocket money.

My dad was an electrical engineer who never went to college; Mr. Schlesinger was the plumed hat-and-epaulet-wearing leader of our high school band, the Marching Maroons.  Though we never spoke of such things back then, both men probably earned about the same annual salary, as evidenced by the  fact that both families had one car bought used and lived in  small three bedroom ranch houses with shag carpeting, a single bathroom, an unfinished basement and a living room with ‘nice’ furniture that no one ever sat on..

For most of us, rich is relative and access to the lake and its leisure possibilities made the Schlesingers seem if not wealthy, then extremely lucky – concepts that were one and the same to a girl who wore hand-me-downs from her brother and  ate in restaurants less than once a year.

4th of July at the lake would start the same  way every year: mom gathering beach towels and packing the cooler with chicken legs and wings, soda, and her specialty side dish of orange Jell-O mixed with cottage cheese, whipped cream and caned mandarin oranges and shredded pineapple, a combination I was proud to note was vastly preferred to Mrs. Frercker’s three bean casserole topped with canned Frenched Onions or Mrs. Pratl’s weird  pasty Waldorf salad.

We kids would put on our swimsuits under our shorts a t-shirt, slip on a pair of thongs we were ready.  We’d spend the rest of the morning  running errands for my dad: getting the lawn chairs from the garage, hunting down the barbeque tongs – the long ones with the small claw end – and packing our ragtag assortment of patched blow-up rafts and beach ball as well as spray cans of  the ubiquitous orange-capped Off mosquito repellant that hung persistently in the air, coating  our adenoids and the backs of our throats with a sickly sweet chemical film that later would combine with the sulphuric smoke of  countless firecrackers.

If I was lucky, my dad would call to me to accompany him to the bait shop, a building that sat in the same place by the side of the road year round without me ever noticing it even once. No matter which shop we went to, there was a sameness to all –  the screened door that banged loudly, the racks of dusty Oh Henry, Mars, Almond Joy and Zero candy bars,  the porches with small boxes of live bait, usually  crickets or worms.   My dad would ask me to pick from the round brown containers of worms; I would pull off the perforated lid and swirl the darkly fragrant,  mulchy dirt with my finger, counting the worms that dove and squirmed from my intrusion.  While my dad collected up weights, bobbers and books, I would examine the  display of hand tied lures, or the old-fashioned glass-doored refrigerated  soda dispenser that sometimes had Coke, but more often  contained bottles of Diet Rite, RC, Mr. Pibb, Fanta, Nehi Strawberry and Barq’s Root beer

When we arrived at the lake the mothers began putting food out onto trestle tables:  hot dog and hamburger buns, rectangular pans of brownies and rice krispie squares covered in aluminum foil, piles of corn still in the shuck that would  be piled onto the sides of the grill while the meat cooked.   At some point the men would depart to buy the fireworks, a trip that required crossing the Mississippi River over to the Missouri side.   Kids clamored to be one of the seven or eight that could fit on the floor of the bed of Mr. Miller’s  extended bed pick-up truck.  We would sit crowded together, oblivious of the dirt grinding into the seats of our shorts and the backs of our bare brown legs, waving and making the “#1” or peace sign  at cars we passed, making  the universal  rope-pull gesture that means ‘honk your horn’ to truckers and screaming with delight when the obliging blast was backwashed by the wind into our faces and hair.

Of course, all of this was nothing but a distraction until it was time for the main event: swimming.  When it comes to swimming, there are two kinds of kids – those that used goggles, nose or ear plugs, and those who don’t.  I was the latter.  My father, unable to swim, tread water or even float, had all three  of his kids go through the YMCA swimming class series.  After consecutively graduating Tadpole, Minnow, Fish, Flying Fish, Shark, and Porpoise level classes, we were all competent and knowledgeable swimmers.  Swimming with a life jacket would have been insulting and annoying, and we were allowed to go without provided an adult was in reasonable shouting distance from our position in the water.

We would enter the water as soon as we were permitted, exiting only for lunch and dinner – the former, always  hotdogs or lunchmeat, the latter always barbecued hamburgers, chicken or pork steaks.  My sister and I always had a summer pass to the public swimming pool on the east end of town, and I loved the constant splashing noise, the burning chlorine, the thwang and thrum of the high dive,  the concession stand where I could get an ice cream sandwich, the cute high school lifeguards, the boys that would pass my beach towel  pushing each other and acting cool.

But I loved the lake more, with its fish smell, the soft mucky bottom that engulfed the feet and ankles, the sudden  cold spots ,  the wooden raft that floated fifty yard out, rocking on its beer barrels.  I loved going under water and opening my eyes in the greeny depths.   When the movie Jaws became a hit, the older kids would try to scare the younger ones with stories of baby sharks being flushed down the toilet by the zoo and finding their way via the sewer system to the lake, where they adapted to the fresh water conditions by eating the plentiful blue gill, catfish and children.   We smaller kids scoffed at the notion but kept the ringed floaties close by and shrieked extravagantly when the occasional sun fish nibbled a toe or a mole.

In the lull after lunch – that mythical hour of digestion needed to prevent instant death by drowning – I’d take my rod and reel and dad’s red tackle box and wander a few docks down to fish.   By age eight I was competent at weighting my own line, attaching the bobber at the right distance, and baiting the hook, always preferring  garden variety worms to the lashing gyrations and panicked, meaty puncture of the nightcrawlers my brother favored.

At some point my sister would follow, complaining that there was nothing to do.  As the older sister, it was my responsibility to set her up with a cane pole, baiting her hook and pretending the worm was screaming in agony while she wrinkled her nose in disgust.  Then we’d sit side by side watching the delicate rings rippling around the fishing line, trying to guess whether a fish was at that moment contemplating one of our suspended worms, hungry for lunch but wondering what the catch was.

The lake was stocked with grouper, blue gill, crappy and, it was rumored, the occasional five pound catfish.   If I caught something  big enough, my dad would  supervise me gutting and scaling it.  The women would squeal in squeamish disgust as I clumsily filleted my catch, and the rush of bashful pride I felt when dad laid a heavy,  approving hand on my shoulder was always one of the best parts of the day.  We would  then cook it in a cast iron pan, using bacon grease he’d brought from home  in an old Folger’s coffee can.

The long day of swimming was the perfect appetizer to the day’s main course, the fireworks at sun down.  Barbecuing responsibilities dispatched, the father’s left the clean-up to the women and made  their way purposefully to the dock where they would begin staging the evening’s  fireworks extravaganza.  We  kids would watch from a distance of forty feet or so, speculating the effect of each firework by its shape:  long skinny sticks ending in small tubes were bottle rockets; long , thick tubes were roman candles, short sticks with long thin tubes were the good ones, the ones that spread across the sky like red and blue and orange  flowers made of fire.

When darkness  fell the moms would gather at the crest of the lawn at the place just before it began its long sloping swoop toward the dock  We kids would light our sparklers and smoking  snakes, parents waving at the smoke and yelling at us to stop with the pretend sword fights before we put someone’s eye out.  Mothers would call us over to stand spread eagle as they sprayed us down with Off and to check if our suits were still wet by putting a hand at our back or bottom.  If there was a chill, wind breakers were hauled forth from paper bags to don against the evening chill.  Then we arranged ourselves as close to the dock as the dads would let us, always sin a long single line so we could lay down and watch the sky on our backs. We’d  keep our eyes peeled for lightning bugs, collecting them in jars we’d line with grass and pester our dads to ventilate with their swiss army knives.

And then for the next  hour we would watch  and cheer the fireworks – ours, as well as the other displays put on by the other family celebrations dotting the lake.   Our fathers were shadowy in the dark, deep-voiced beer-can-holding silhouettes dotted with the red glow of cigarettes.  They lit the fireworks with their butane lighters and then shouted as they backed quickly away from the flaring and sputtering.   We were generous with our cheers, oohing and ahhing the roman candles, applauding when a particularly big  fire flower bloomed above us in the sky,  hooting our approval when a string of firecrackers flashed and  rattled  like extended machine gun fire across the lake, the acrid smoke drifting  toward us in a lighting-lit  milky  haze.

© Copyright Sandra Stephens (nee Sandra Miller)

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