EDITOR’S NOTE: I penned a column about this 4th of July a few decades ago, but thought it was worth writing about again. Besides, I’m sure only six or seven people – including my mother – remember the story so what the heck. Have a happy and safe holiday, and don’t burn the burgers.
It was the late 1950s or early 1960s and I’d been invited to join my Uncle George, Aunt Irene and cousin Nick (just one year older than me) on a trip to Cleveland, Ohio to spend the 4th of July with George’s younger brother Chris and his family.
It was a long drive from Tuscola, Ill. but we survived it with no major skirmishes or shouting matches. That was due primarily to Uncle George who ran a tight ship and did not tolerate any horseplay or excessively loud behavior from his son, nephew … or anyone for that matter.
Basically, he was a sweet man who did a lot of wonderful things for me while Nick and I were growing up in central Illinois, and he expected respect and proper conduct in return. As a determined, hard-working Greek, Uncle George was known to have a bit of a temper, and to incur his wrath was sheer folly. So we tried not to …
Since it was the 4th of July, Uncle George allowed us to purchase a few fireworks to make the trip more memorable. If you want to see a pair of prepubescent boys smile from ear to ear, just give them a bag of cherry bombs, sparklers, snakes and a few other explosive devices.
The trip was full of promise. Naturally, we had plans to attend a huge fireworks display near Cleveland, but the mini vacation also would include swimming, golf, bowling, grilling out and listening to George and Chris exchange tall tales from days gone by. America at its best as far as we were concerned.
Naturally, Nick and I came up with a brilliant scheme to shoot off our fireworks the night of July 3, and we were literally tingling with excitement when the moment finally arrived. But as so often happens in life, our plans went awry when we couldn’t find the sack of rockets, bombs and other pyrotechnic pleasures.
Panic quickly set in. We looked here, there and everywhere but just couldn’t come up with it. Nick blamed me for losing the treasures, but it didn’t really matter whose fault it was. The point was our fireworks show wasn’t going to happen and we were disappointed beyond description.
As we sat in the backyard sulking, an idea suddenly took over my entire being. We may have lost our fireworks, but our 4th of July spirit was still very much intact and I devised a “Plan B” I was convinced would make everyone smile and sing our praises.
I told Nick to help me find some old, big, fat coffee cans I’d seen in the garage, and we quickly went about the task of making our own “fireworks” from nothing.
Fortunately – or, in retrospect, perhaps not so fortunately – we found three appropriate cans and stuffed each of them with newspaper, ripped up magazines, grocery bags (they were still paper back then) and anything else we thought was combustible. They were perfect.
The cans were spread out in a triangular formation on my Uncle Chris’ front lawn. I should interject at this point that Chris took an immense amount of pride in his yard. The grass was manicured to perfection and you couldn’t find a weed anywhere on the premises. He loved how green and lush his turf looked, and he beamed with pride whenever he talked about it – which was often.
As night fell, the adults were all inside enjoying a few beverages when we finally decided to get things rolling. “Light each can,” I told my cousin, and within seconds we had three raging infernos that were sure to grab the attention of the entire neighborhood.
As the fires grew larger and larger, I told Nick to go knock on the front door so George, Irene, Chris and Aunt Mary could come out and enjoy our handiwork. I just knew they’d love it and even compliment us on our ingenuity despite the fact we’d lost our real fireworks.
Uncle George was the first one to emerge, and I could tell immediately he was less than amused. Chris came out next and I’ll never forget the shocked look on their faces as they tried to grasp what we had done.
The three fires were impressive – no doubt – but the unfortunate result of our “stupidity” was three large, black circles that were burned into the grass. I could sense my Uncle George’s blood beginning to boil so I quickly tried to put out the flames – with my hands. Bad move.
After the fires were extinguished, Uncle George said he’d like to talk to us. When we approached him on the front porch, he didn’t hesitate to inflict his punishment. With one mighty swing, he slapped both of us across the face (like in a Three Stooges movie) and told us to go straight to bed. We ran to the bedroom as fast as we could.
I didn’t even stop to wash my burned, blackened hands. After lying there in pain for what seemed like hours, wondering if the morning would bring my inevitable demise, I finally fell asleep.
I awoke about 1 a.m. to the sound of uncles George and Chris laughing so hard the house seemed to shake. A few more adult drinks had allowed them to see the humor in our ill-advised fireworks display.
Relieved, I quickly fell back asleep. My hands still hurt, but at least I knew I would live.