July 4th, 1975

images“Why does it have to be a pyramid?” I asked my dad.

“Because, that’s how the air gets in-between the briquettes.”

You should have seen this thing. Stacked with such precision and purpose; it was a monument to Egyptian engineering. Even Pharaoh would have approved.

“Is that important?” I questioned.

“Yeah, it’s the air that creates the fire.”

“I thought the charcoal makes the fire,” I said with a shred of know-it-all confidence that only a 13-year old could muster.

“No, the air makes the fire; you can’t have fire without air. The charcoal catches fire and then it burns down, but it retains the heat so then you can cook whatever you’re cooking.”

“What about the starter fluid?”

Matthew, go in the kitchen and tell your mother I’m ready for the burgers and dogs, please.”

As I walked towards the back door, a bit disappointed that my father didn’t share my interest in accelerants, I wondered why he put so much time and effort into stacking charcoal for the barbeque, anyway. Given his remarkable talent for it, I paused to consider if, perhaps, my father was a closet arsonist. I quickly dismissed the thought outright and arrived at the conclusion that stacking charcoal was just something dads’ knew how to do, like jump starting a dead car battery or resetting a tripped circuit breaker. Dad stuff.

“Ma, dad says he’s ready for the hamburgers and franks,” I informed my mother, awash in a shimmering sea of aluminum foil and a rainbow of Tupperware.

She handed me a platter the approximate size of a sombrero piled high with hamburgers and hot dogs. “Okay, bring these out to him, and don’t drop it.”

“Ok. Hey, ma, when can we go back in the pool?” I asked as sweetly as possible.

“Half hour after you’re done eating, and don’t gimme that face, you have to digest.”

After voicing my displeasure at her response by letting the screen door slam a little too hard behind me, I wound my way through family friends and an obstacle course of lawn chairs back to my father’s side, where I handed him the platter.

“Thanks, buddy. Having a good 4th?” my father asked me.

“Yep,” I reply.

I bet you Ben Franklin didn’t have to digest his food.

The morning of the Fourth of July usually started, as was wholly appropriate, with the raising of old glory, otherwise known as a nylon flag my dad kept in a Sears shopping bag down in the basement. We had an actual flagpole in our backyard; not one of the cheap aluminum sticks that people mounted next to their front doors. Our pole was 30 feet of soaring steel. It even had a cross bar, allowing us, if we wanted to, to actually fly three flags. This thing belonged in front of a city hall or on a battle ship or something. How it found its way into a suburban backyard on Long Island is beyond me.

The flag only made an appearance twice a year, on Memorial Day and Independence Day. It was already flying when I first stepped out into the yard that morning and, when I say flying, I mean it was hanging there like a limp tablecloth in the humid morning air – but hey – she was up there! My dad was hosing down the patio, readying it for our friends who were coming over in the afternoon. Prior to that he had mowed our rather large backyard with the little, electric mower we owned, which required him to work the 200 foot extension cord like a cowboy performing rope tricks. After the patio he set out several tiki torches to set the mood, because, as we all know, nothing says “Happy Birthday, America” like conjuring the moonlit beaches of French Polynesia. A few dozen yards of red, white and blue crepe paper, 10-or-so lawn chairs carefully placed on the now freshly mown lawn and my shitty $20 speakers from Radio Shack pumping out the dulcet tones of The Captain and Tenille told me we were just about ready to celebrate America’s 199th birthday.

But first, my dad addressed the pool.

Well, it would start the day as a refreshing, suburban pool. It ended closer to something like a prepubescent petri dish of germs and bacteria. Consequently, my dad put so much chlorine in the pool that it bordered on noxious. I wasn’t just wearing my plastic diving mask to see the exotic wonders that lay a mere four feet down, like, say, my pruning feet. It also helped to prevent me from passing out from the fumes. Many a game of Marco Polo had been cut short due to the miasma that floated just above the Coppertone-slicked surface.

Soon enough, friends started to arrive bearing all manner of alcoholic beverages, cakes with red, white and blue icing, cookies, chips, pretzels and side salads, and not the side salads from Foodtown – no! We’re talking the potato salad from the German deli. This wasn’t the first time I heard my parents speak about this particular potato salad. They spoke of it like this was where potato salad was invented. That 2-lb container was passed around the table with such devout reverence you’d have thought it was a holy relic; a holy relic that just happened to be the perfect accompaniment to a loaded Hebrew National hotdog. Quickly, the adults would make their way to the lawn, claim a chair and set-up shop: cocktail, cigarettes, matches, and ashtray. They kicked off their sandals and settled-in for the duration.

That afternoon, laughter filled the still air, cloaked in a palpable mist of OFF mosquito repellant. The music played, empty Stoly bottles and Budweiser cans quickly filled the garbage bags and, eventually, dad began constructing his pyro pyramid. And, boy, were we kids ready to eat, because, nothing works up an appetite like marinating in a warm, spit-infused pool – am I right?

I’m not sure how my dad didn’t faint from the heat coming off that grill. It was kiln-like. He had a bandana tied around his head to keep the sweat from falling into his eyes, but his “I’m with stupid” t-shirt was drenched. And still, the burgers and dogs and chicken and steak and corn-on-the-cob rolled off that grill like at a Beefsteak Charlie’s restaurant. Eventually, there was a lone occupant on the grill. It was far too scorched and shriveled to accurately determine what it was. I always felt a little sad for that uneaten…thing. It just hit the grill a little too late, never to feel the warm, toasty embrace of a bun. But, it was also a sign that day would soon give way to night, and the main event would soon begin. My dad left the ashes to smolder. We gave the meat carcass to the dog.

We lived on a cul-de-sac so we didn’t have to worry about cars interrupting the show, if you called a group of fairly inebriated, sunburned parents taking turns lighting fireworks with the glowing tips of their cigarettes a show. It always began with all of us kids getting a sparkler. I loved sparklers. I’d slowly wave it through the air watching the colored contrails as the jumping sparks tickled my hand and arm. Soon after came the firecrackers, and bottle rockets and roman candles and all kinds of explosive devices that, we were told by our mothers, “could take a finger off!” I sat there watching the skies streak with color and sound, wondering where the spent bottle rockets would land. Could they start a fire? A kid at school told me they could, but I wasn’t sold on the idea. There was, and still is, something exotic about watching fireworks. How chemicals, in just the right amounts and in just the right combinations, could make grown-ups act like children, and make children go silent. There was no wind all day so the colors seemed to linger longer than they should have, as if the 4th refused to bid us goodnight. And that would have been fine with me.

With the ground littered with spent matches and cigarettes, our bloodshot-eyed friends eventually started to leave. Paper plates were tossed, citronella candles doused, hugs were exchanged and the music ceased. Except for the distant pop of a leftover firecracker, all was quiet at 100 Jedwood Place.

In the last hour or so the temperature had mercifully dropped several degrees and, the long awaited breeze finally showed up. I opened my window, which overlooked our yard. As I lay down in bed, savoring the coolness of my pillowcase, the sound of the soft splatter of water on concrete told me my Dad was, once again, hosing off the patio. I smiled. Dad stuff. I was exhausted, but happily so. As I felt my eyes falling to half-mast I heard a “snap” from outside, but it didn’t sound like a firecracker – this sounded softer – and close. I got out of bed and saw the reflection of the quarter moon on the now flat surface of the pool. Even the water looked spent. Over the hum of the pool filter I heard a second “snap,” and my attention was immediately drawn to the top of the flagpole, where our flag, after a day laying flat and lifeless in the breezeless air finally flew taught in the cooling night.

I collapsed back into bed, falling asleep to the sound of our flag waving in the wind.