Happy Birthday US of A
Re-posting this tale of 4th of July’s past
In the words of Samuel Francis Smith, late of Andover, Mass, “Long may our land be bright/With with freedom’s holy light/Protect us by Thy might/Great God our King”
July in South Carolina is hot. Miserably hot. It’s our hottest month. Everyone thinks it’s August. Historically, it is July. It’s just that by August, everyone is over the summer and the heat. There are only so many times one can sweat through seersucker.
July also does not seem as hot as August due to the fact July comes in with a bang on July 4th. Since forever, South Carolina has always ranked high among percentages of military service, percentages of enlistment, percentages of retired military living here. We are damned patriotic despite that little period in the 19th Century when we rejected the Union.
A recent study found us to be the fourth (10th) most patriotic state in the Union. Don’t take my word for it. Here’s that study https://wallethub.com/edu/most-patriotic-states/13680/
Growing up in Beaufort, South Carolina, a child is surrounded by the military.
They also serve who stand and wait who become Marines through osmosis.
We live in the shadow of Parris Island, where Marines are made. We hear the roar of jets from the Marine Corps Air Station. “The noise you hear is the sound of freedom.” We have our own Naval Hospital. If a child grows up in Beaufort, chances are he knows someone in the military, she is friends with their children, he knows military retirees, or she is herself a military brat. My friends in and I fell into one or more of those categories.
One of my best friends lived next door to retired Marine Corps General Edwin Pollock. My friend used to knock on the General’s door and ask his wife, Miss Essie, if the General could come out and play. The General often would.
In addition to General Pollack, we grew up with General OF Peatross and General Bud Masters. We grew up around countless Colonels, Majors, Captains, Lieutenants, Master Sergeants, Gunnies, Warrant Officers, Drill Sergeants. These men helped win the Second World War. To us, they were just nice older men who always spoke to us and our parents. We had no idea of their badassery until we grew older and read about their exploits on Guadalcanal, on Mankin Island, on Iwo Jima, at the Battle of the Bulge. My across the street neighbor, Dr. Aimar, a Beaufort boy, had also served on Iwo Jima and was proud of his service, as well he should have been.
Our fathers’ generation had been in Vietnam. My dad served there. My best friends’ fathers had served there. Our pal Charles Chitty had been in Naval Intelligence during Vietnam and served as Admiral McCain’s aide while his wife, our beloved Penny, played bridge with Mrs. McCain all while their son was in the Hanoi Hilton.
It was the exception, not the rule, for us to not know someone whose dad had been in the service.
Some of my parents’ oldest friends to this day were Marine Corps friends. Some of the people I miss the absolute most are some of those Marine Corps friends that are no longer with us.
That is not to say that jingoistic patriotic slogans dripped from our lips. That is not to say we all agreed with the actions of whatever administration was in office. It is to say that Beaufort folks thanked veterans for their service way before beer commercials made it popular.
Often, the Parris Island band would play in local parades and in concerts around town. When the band began “From the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli….” all assembled stood and began to sing with nary a dry eye. Because, as General Louis H. Wilson stated in his famous toast
… the greatest of loves, the quintessence of loves
Even greater than that of a mother,
Is the tender, passionate, infinite love,
of one drunken Marine for another.
We Marine Corps children often looked forward to pieces of sheet cake purloined from the Marine Corps Ball in November. We laughed at stories of how Ms. Hickman, a teacher at our school, and a Navy doctor’s wife went up to a man she thought was another friend’s father and pinched his bottom saying, “What you doing later Marine? Wanna get out of here?” The man in dress blues turned and said, “I beg your pardon, Madame.” Mrs. Hickman’s reply, “Well, General, what ARE you doing later?” It was the Commandant of the Marine Corps in town for the Ball.
We heard about how hot the Lyceum was. How there was no food. How the flowers were tacky. How the toasts went on forever. How my mother and her friends were never going back.
What does this have to do with America’s birthday? It’s backdrop and setting.
We were birthed and reared in a deeply patriotic town. We had great patriotism and great fun on a regular basis in those decades where the threat of nuclear war still loomed large, the Russians could be coming up the river any minute, the Israelis raided Entebbe on our country’s birthday, and where that weak ass sumbitch Carter couldn’t free our hostages.
We were beyond supportive of Independence Day. Girls dressed as Betsy Ross. Boys donned tricorners. We festooned our bikes with red white and blue crepe paper. We stock piled sparklers, Roman candles, cherry bombs, bottle rockets. The Bicentennial cast a large shadow for years and years.
Our 4ths always dawned hot. Super hot. (Firecracker hot?)
Our family’s 4ths had the same rhythm for a decade or so.
After a lazy breakfast, we crossed the street for our first party which began mid-morning. The Aimars, this being the same Aimars of whom Dr. Aimar who had served as a Marine on Iwo Jima, hosted an annual mid-morning/mid-day party. That party consisted of the Aimar and Sams families and their extended kinfolk, us included, with residents of our neighborhood, The Point, and members of the First Presbyterian Church, the Aimars’ church. We always thought it was sort of a church picnic for the Presbyterians. The beer coolers were kept discreetly tucked away at that event.
At the Aimars, there was lots of swimming in their pool by us children. The only sunscreen applied was a little zinc oxide on already blistering noses. There was plenty of cigarette smoke and Skin So Soft to keep the mosquitoes away.
The Reverend Frank Sells of the same First Presbyterian Church blessed the food every year. We were in and out of the Aimars every year as soon as we had eaten lunch. Every year at the Aimars my mother warned us, “Boys, don’t eat Miz Webster’s potato salad. It’s been in the heat for two hours and she uses mayonnaise. You’ll get sick.”
Every year we had a better deal waiting for us.
At the Aimars, there weren’t a lot of young people our age.
That would all change at the better deal a quick five minute drive away.
As soon as we had eaten lunch, our parents would load us, dripping wet and often shirtless, our festooned bikes, a couple of Igloo coolers, and platters with whatever contribution my mother was making to the second feast of the day into our car to head over to another neighborhood, Spanish Point, for the party and picnic hosted by the Patricks, the Lawrences, and the Clarkes.
That was the main attraction. That was where all our friends were waiting. It was a free for all: a patriotic pow wow.
Ladies would put their dishes in the kitchen,. Every year Rosemary Morton brought her dish under protest. “I don’t know why I do this. Y’all know I think it’s tacky to take dishes to parties.”
General Masters would always dress up like Uncle Sam. I don’t see how he didn’t collapse in the heat. Full costume with beard. He was James Montgomery Flagg’s poster come to life. “I want you,” he would point at us as we ran around the Patricks’ yard.
General Pollock would throw footballs with us and remind us that the Citadel was the greatest college on the face of the planet. “Boys, go to the Citadel. ” He was a graduate of the class of 1918. Yet there he was throwing footballs with us in the late 70’s.
Our parents would take us around to speak to various older folks sitting in the shade of oak trees hoping for a good breeze to come up the river once the tide turned.
Making the rounds speaking to the older folks, every year we had to go and say hello to Mrs. Harvey. Mrs. Harvey insisted on a kiss, too. Mrs. Harvey’s hair had been dyed a color not occurring in nature.
Her husband was our state senator. Her son would later be our state senator. They were and are lovely people, but I still don’t see why we always had to go kiss Mrs. Harvey as she held court sitting in her green and white nylon strapped aluminum picnic chair.
The men who hosted would have a huge set of grills set up with chicken quarters cooking over coals. They would cook the chicken low and slow and add a secret barbecue sauce just before serving.
One year, William Devaux came up to the men and spat on a piece of chicken. Hocked a loogie. He said, “Well, guess that one’s mine, fellas.” Little did he know that all the assembled cooks also spat on the same piece of chicken. Turns out the cooks told every man at the party about Mr. Deveaux’s obnoxious act. Every man there and some of the older boys hocked loogie after loogie on Mr. Devaux’s chicken quarter. He was overheard extolling the yard bird, “Best chicken, ever. Man, I mean ever. Best that John, Alec, and Thomas have ever cooked.”
On a back portion of the Patricks’ sprawling property, there was a race course set up every year for the annual games portion of the picnic. There were croaker (pronounced croke-ah) sack races, egg tosses, spoon races, water balloon tosses, three legged races. My parents, my brothers, and I never won.
I complained one year at our breakfast table. “Why do the Bennetts always win?” My dad’s reply, “Because they’re goddamned cheaters.” My mother, “Language, please.” My father was right. They were goddamned cheaters.
Another year, Mary Lee, Anne, and Bonnie were locked in a bathroom by our pal Gracie. Gracie stood guard outside the bathroom, letting no one in or out. My father went to use the bathroom and said, “Gracie, what you doing?” Her reply, “Nothing, George O’Kelley. Nothing.” Gracie has always called my father by his first and last names. Hearing the conversation, tremulous voices called out from the bathroom, “Mr. George, is that you? Help! Gracie won’t let us out.” “Let them out, Gracie, dahlin. Let them out.” Out came the girls hugging my father as their rescuer. Anne still credits him for saving them that day.
Gracie was also hell on the see saw. There were four see saws up by the back deck. God help the child who see sawed with Gracie. Charlie Brown still lets Lucy hold the ball expecting a different outcome. We see sawed with Gracie expecting a different outcome. It never happened.
While her victim was at the apex of the see saw, Gracie would get a glint in her eye, which meant her victim knew she was about to hop off the see saw sending her partner earthward at 9.8 meters per second squared.
The victim’s refrain, “No Gracie. No Gracie. No Gracie. No Gracie” repeated as fast as young voices could say it is still well known by a certain population from Beaufort. The begging never helped. Gracie, at the bottom of the see saw would roll off onto the ground and laugh a deep belly laugh as her victim crashed to the ground spanking his or her bottom on the hard wood and soil compacted by years of see saw use. At least ten children every July 4th would be seen running through the assembled throng holding onto their bottoms looking for their mamas and saying “Gracie did it, again.” Often the reply from the mamas, “Well, you know she’s going to do it. Don’t see saw with her.”
“No Gracie. No Gracie. No Gracie. No Gracie.”
Every year, the local fire department sent a bunting clad fire truck for younger children to ride on during the 4th of July parade around Spanish Point. Parents rode with them, drinks in hand. Older children rode bikes under their own steam. Often children with training wheels on their bikes brought up the rear of the parade. Dads followed and pushed these younger bikers while holding Budweisers in old Styrofoam koozies in one hand, the back of the bikes in the other sweat dripping down their noses as their children screamed out, “Isn’t this great?”
I can’t remember to whom we waved on those parades as the entire Spanish Point neighborhood was at the party.
Saw horses and plywood serving tables would be set up in the yard under the same oak trees where the older folks hid from the sun. No potato salad from Miz Webster at this party. After a day of grilling chicken, everyone would eat around 4 or 5 o’clock. Chicken, tons of sliced tomatoes, marinated cucumbers and onions, three bean salads, grilled corn on the cob, deviled eggs and slaw kept in coolers until right before serving, tons of baked beans, watermelon, cantaloupe, berries, tons of freezer pops, cakes, pies, popsicles.
By 6 or 7 o’clock most of the children were beyond wiped out. Delirious. Absolutely gobsmacked tired. Tears. Crankiness. Fighting friends and siblings. Screaming at their parents, “I DON’T WANT TO GO HOME!” Feet in Saltwater sandals stomping the ground. Little ones passed out in strollers.
Most of our parents were wiped out by then, too, aided by the beer and liquor and whatever else was in their Igloo coolers.
Our parents would gather their monkey pod serving bowls, their Tupperware containers, their deviled egg platters, their children and their bikes and throw them all into the back of the cars for the rides home. One year my youngest brother fell asleep on the ride home during that five minute journey.
We would all go home and be thrown into tubs and showers only to fall asleep as soon as our sunburned heads hit our pillows. Our parents would sit in air conditioned dens with glazed looks in their eyes asking each other if the other wanted another drink.
My parents tell me that those 4ths of July were the most exhausting days of their being parents. They say that it was all too much work and too hot. I think they are exaggerating.
The main event party fizzled out after the Patrick family sold their property in Spanish Point. I never had as much fun on the 4th of July ever again. Ever. Well, at least not until I had children and could experience the holiday with them and through them.
Other friends took up the mantle of hosting 4th of July parties and moved the picnics to their houses with docks or pools.
Other friends went to the beach.
Other friends went to the mountains.
The image of those days that comes to mind is from a picture my father took of the pack of assembled children right before we ate one year. It think it’s 1978 or 1979. On the back of the picture is written in my mother’s handwriting “4th, Patricks Party”. That’s all it says. That’s all it needs to say.
There are a myriad of sweating pig tailed girls and grimy red faced boys, almost all barefooted, wearing our camping shorts, our matching Lacoste sets, t-shirts and cut off jeans, halter tops, Little House inspired tops with calico, sun bonnets, baseball hats, straw hats, bucket hats with little ones in their smocked John John suits and breezy sun dresses.
We are all assembled by the back deck to listen to the older folks sing The Star Spangled Banner and to listen to William Clarke give one of his famously rambling patriotic prayers before we ate.
We are all staring in the same direction at the deck.
Sweat pouring down some faces. White blonde hair plastered to foreheads. Long dark braids flowing from under a red bandana.
Some of us have our arms around each other. Others have their arms crossed. Others have their arms akimbo. A few have their right hands over their hearts. Most do not. A couple of boys are attempting a salute.
One of the older teenagers with a cigarette hanging from his lips makes no attempt to sing or bow his head in prayer. He has his arm on a girl’s shoulder.
Some of those children ended up marrying each other.
Some have died.
Some have long since moved away from the Lowcountry.
Some have never left Beaufort. Now, they range in age from their late 30’s to early 50’s.
In the course of human events, indeed.
Although I miss almost everything about those Independence Days, I don’t miss having to kiss Mrs. Harvey.
3 thoughts on “In the course of human events”
Love this one, too, Hamlin. “cigarette smoke and Skin So Soft” – takes me back …
Laughed out loud when I read the part about the hot and tired parents offering each other another drink. Killed me.
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As I sit here on this rainy Fourth of July Charleston morning reading this, your story here reminds me of the late Pat Conroy — and as I’ve read every word (ever comma after every word) that he ever wrote, I thank for that Hamlin. You’re a beautiful writer in your own right, and I’m enjoying your blog thoroughly!
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Love this and all your great details which gives me a vivid picture of it all. It is so true, those neighborhood parties as a kid are never quite the same when we grow up or move away. I hope our kids will think of their memories much like this. Can’t wait for the next one.
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