What July 4th Was Like When I Was a Child

A paean to the gorgeous, glorious Fourth, this Reader's Digest classic story appeared in 1968 as "When Summer Bursts."

By Joan Mills
Also published in Reader's Digest Magazine July 1968

July 1968 RD ClassicsIn the upward drift of spring, I accumulate a longing for the ul­timate confrontation with blaze and brilliance—summer; the sun and the year at their zenith. Daily, as earth turns, a fragile thread of tension pulls ever more taut in me. I begin to ask: “Is it now?”

In our garden, bees thrum over a multitude of blossoms and spiral exultantly into the sky—but the sky is not yet the blue of summer. A baby, last year a-drowse with newness on his mother’s shoulder, this year makes his first barefoot tracks in dew-tipped grass. Still, summer has not come—quite.

Girls in pretty dresses are faintly gilded; soft shadows shorten at noon; boys strip for a first swing off a rope into a country pond, and surface in a thrash of shivering surprise—how can water be so chill when the calendar now says summer? When, when, will the sun be hot enough to brown the girls, bedazzle every noontide, and warm the water for adventuring boys?

At last, on the fourth morning of July, the fine thread of tension snaps: a boy wakes, blinks happily at sight of a glory day, and at once reaches under his pillow for a finger­ length of forbidden firecracker. He lights it with a match and hurls it out his window. Thus summer be­gins with a bang; and from one end of the country to the other, 20 million kids are tossed from their beds by that joyful noise.

I wake and listen. With an inward thump of pleasure, I too salute the Fourth. “Hurrah for the splendid racket of liberty!” I think. “Hurrah for summer begun!”

For it is summer indeed. On this morning, who can doubt it? Lofty at the peak of poles, sun-­bright, spangled banners lift on the shim­mering air. Fresh breezes enter summer rooms and blow away a wintering of secret scents—mice, must, mothballs and memories. The ocean glints silvery and restless, sift­ing pebbles, patterning the sand. In clear lakes, fish sink into cooler wa­ters, while just­-christened motor­ boats putt past above. Today the grass grows, and tomorrow will be mowed. Today the sun is hot; ice cream is cold. Father scrubs rust from the charcoal grill, and small stomachs cramp with sudden hun­ger for food that is burnt and leaks catsup.

Every firecracker that bangs an­nounces it: Summer! Listening, I am half in the moment, half in the past. Firecrackers are so rare now; each makes a solitary clap of sound. But when I was a child…

When I was a child, I squandered six months’ allowance to celebrate a fitting Fourth. Two dollars went for firecrackers (as if ten cents’ worth wasn’t enough to deafen); 50 cents for cherry bombs (figuring one dud for every detonation); $3.50 for rock­ets, pinwheels and things to go “Pffft!” in the night. I bought sea­ shells that opened under water, re­ leasing tiny flags. Sparklers I loved. And punk.

Punk smelled like incense, orien­tal and mysterious. It mingled with salt wind from the sea; with the warm, tarry smell of asphalt and the sweet smell of grass. It was the au­thentic fragrance of summer begun.

With punk for a smoldering scep­ter, we children ruled the day. Our allowances went up in smoke, mak­ing happy sounds. (Cats perched in treetops, glowery as owls; dogs flattened themselves under porches and rolled their eyes.) We pelted roofs with tin cans blasted by giant salutes, and alarmed our mothers by exploding devilish devices in kitchen ovens.

We were foolish—but on the Fourth, foolishness was a freedom we could claim. It was a gift of our parents, and of the season. We were free of shoes and rules; free to make collective uproar, or be loud alone. We were the kings and citizens of summer, and we hailed the flags that flew over our domain.

Now children fill the Fourth with lesser clamor, but they are also free. My boys swing out over the water and drop with great shouts; my daughter browns in the sun, dialing up transistorized hullabaloo. They are happy; so are we all. Each of us has a special summer freedom to savor.

The dusk that follows this good day is popcorn­-scented, aflutter with moths, gentled by a lingering touch of sun. Now, and in my recollection, the Fourth seems most glorious at night.

Where I grew up, a parade still precedes darkness into town. It is led by the flag aloft, paced by drums and the proud, sour notes of young buglers. Kids in costume pass in review: George Washington, be­ wigged in cotton batting; clowns dour with embarrassment; a terrible cardboard dragon; Betsy Ross on a bicycle. Bands tune up by towering bonfires. Children run in circles as their elders dance in squares, and night slowly surrounds.

The very best is last—full dark, when the fireworks begin. The child in me stirs with suspense; I am ancient with nostalgia. Ever and ever it is the same—an intake of breath as the first rocket jets to heav­en; the burst and spread of stars; the whole town saying, “Ahhh!”

Always at this moment I remem­ber a night when, to my eye, the scene turned upside down. In the valley of the sky, the stars were as steady as streetlights; but earth’s deep dark was populous with hurtling comets and meteors expiring in celestial sparks.

Always, too, as in my childhood, I feel a minor ache of melancholy when the life melts out of each star­ burst—but every next flight of rock­ets creates new stars. Aerial bombs wake echoes 12 months unheard. Pinwheels whirl dervishly, and Roman candles pop pink fireballs.

Light and noise fragment the sky; it is almost too much of much—and never quite enough. Even the grand finale fails to finish it. Children past their bedtime wave sparklers. “Look at me!” they cry, swirling traceries of white on the surface of the dark. “Look at me!”

I do look. I see the child I was, chasing the shadows of the children that are mine—through summer days as fine and free as this one and summer nights sky­-streaked with falling stars. Memory, the moment, the season’s promise now are joined. Summer is in my heart and every­where about.

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