My son Ryan asked me the other day, “Daddy, what’s your favorite holiday?” I told him that I had two – Thanksgiving and the 4th of July! As far back as I can remember, I have always enjoyed those two days. Seeing that it’s getting close to the 4th, I thought I’d share some fond memories I have of it:
The 4th - Ridgewood Style: It all started for me in Ridgewood, NY in the late 60’s, that’s about as far back as I can remember celebrating the 4th. We lived in an apartment building on Stockholm Street. We lived up on the 3rd floor with my cousins living on the 2nd and the Donlins on the first floor. The building actually had two apartments per floor, so the Roggios lived in the apartments next to ours. We shared a large backyard and each summer we would build an above-ground swimming pool for everyone to enjoy. We usually built it sometime around the first day of summer, so it was always up by the 4th. Our yard was the site of all of our 4th of July parties and MAN were they fun!!
We would fire up two of our barbecues and the Roggios would fire up theirs and then everyone would start to bring food and drinks outside! We would set up tables inside and outside our garages and we would open the doors to our basements, so we could use them for bathrooms and for staging food. Radios were turned onto 99X and 95.5 and 102.7 and turned up and people started showing up in the late morning – but I was outside by around 6am!
My brother and I used to spend the days before the 4th unraveling firecrackers and putting them in plastic bags – yes – we actually used to shoot firecrackers off one at a time back then. Mats were $6 to $8 so we wanted to make each one count. Like many in the old neighborhood, I used to sell fireworks when I was a kid, mostly to pay for the fireworks that I would end up shooting off on the 4th. My brother and I would usually shoot off a mat a piece, plus, bottle rockets, silver jets, helicopters, smoke bombs, cherry bombs (which were great because they would stay lit when you dropped them into the sewer), M-80’s, ashcans, pineapples, roman candles, 6oz rockets, 8oz rockets, and aerial bombs (if we could afford them). We also had sparklers, snakes and lit them all off with punks (that we would fake smoke). I can still remember the smell of the gun powder and the punks – mixed with the smell of barbecues and suntan oil …that to me is the smell of the 4th of July in Ridgewood!
With all those Italians in one place you know there was going to be food and a lot of it and MAN was there ever! Hot dogs, hamburgers, chicken, sausage (& peppers), baked beans (in cans sitting on the top level of the barbecues), and maybe a piece of steak if someone brought it, were being cooked from 10AM until after midnight. The tables were stacked with bowls of fruit – peaches, plums, nectarines, apricots, cherries and of course watermelon! My dad used to take out these garbage cans, fill them with ice and one garbage can was filled with soda cans and the other was filled with beer – no bottled water or fruit juices back then! And when I say beer, I’m not talkin’ “fancy-shmancy” labels …I’m talkin’ Piels Real Draft in the “big-mouth” little pug bottles & Schaefer beer & Rheingold & Schlitz & Schmidt’s and of course Bud’s. The Roggios were “Miller High Life” people, so if you wanted a Miller you had to walk over to their cooler. The ladies also broke out the sangria and the wine and you might even find a bottle or two of bourbon, scotch, rye and whiskey sitting about later at night.
The “adults” would sit, drink, eat, go in the pool, play pool (we had a pool table in our garage) and play cards – all the while laughing harder and louder as the hours past. Soon they were acting more like children then we (the children) were. Every year my Uncle Dom would get a few brews in him and then you knew that just about every woman he could lift was gonna be thrown in the pool. One of the most hilarious sights you could ever see was when everyone tried to go into our little above-ground pool together, at the same time! The adults literally could not even turn around and half the water ended up getting pushed out of the pool …only in the old neighborhood could you ever see a sight like that!
Meanwhile, out “in the front,” that is, in the front of our apartment building, all of us kids were busy lighting off fireworks. During the day hours, we wouldn’t light off any of the showy rockets, so it was mostly, firecrackers, bombs and bottle rockets (that we sometimes shot at each other). We spent the whole day wearing only our bathing suits and the average boy in Ridgewood had a punk hanging out of his mouth with a paper “Bohacks” grocery bag stuffed with fireworks next to him. We would go back and forth, lighting off some fireworks, then back into the yard for a hamburger, hot dog, macaroni salad, cole slaw, potato salad, antipasta (even at barbecues), fruit and a soda – then maybe a quick dip in the pool to cool off – then back out to shooting off fireworks! I loved it …we all loved it! At night we would also stop in the back to roast a few marshmallows and maybe a piece of cake (another Italian staple – cake and coffee is served even at barbecues).
Nowadays, I live out west in Las Vegas, where fireworks are legal and where the resorts and country clubs have fireworks “shows.” Yeah, the shows are more impressive than the stuff we used to shoot off in Ridgewood, but somehow I don’t feel the connection that I felt when I lit the fuses – and something about it all being legal takes away from the naughtiness of it all. After all, the 4th celebrates the ultimate naughtiness – a Revolution!
We have a beautiful built-in pool now and a much bigger barbecue, but neighbors don’t come by out here and we don’t have any family here, so hosting a big barbecue isn’t an option. The beer we drink costs more but something about that cheap beer on a sizzling hot 4th in Ridgewood made it taste like the best beer on earth. In fact, my brother and I still joke that nothing tastes better than washing a barbecued (notice I never use the word “grilled” – that word didn’t exist in Ridgewood back in those days) hamburger down with a big-mouthed Piels …ahh the aftertaste! Haha…
Hey, I want to wish everyone out there a very happy and safe 4th of July. We still live in the greatest country in the world so celebrate it with gusto!
(oh.. and p.s. …to Janine Ansaldi …Happy Birthday wherever you are! Janine’s birthday is July 04 and every year when she was a little girl, she used to think the whole country was celebrating it!) haha… Peace, g
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Dean Wesley Smith