Sunday, July 04, 2004

Fantastic Fourth

Let me take you back in time for a moment... It's late June, 2001. The twin towers are still standing in New York, 90% of Americans have no idea who Osama Bin Laden is, the only war we're fighting is the war on drugs, and the patriotic heart of America beats strong in Richmond, VT.

My mother grew up in Richmond and most of her family still lives in the area. We were there for a family reunion.

A couple of days before the 4th (American Independence Day), us real-Vermonters-turned-flatlanders went to the local Roy Rogers, or Will Rogers or some such store to buy flag-emblazoned clothing to wear at the parade. This particular parade was more exciting to me than any NYC or Chicago parade ever could be. You see, every male member of my mother's family has been part of the volunteer fire department in Richmond since I can remember. My grandfather was the fire chief, all but one of my four uncles have been firemen at one time or another, and my uncle Tom is the current fire chief. I was going to know the people leading the parade.

As July 4th dawned, we all put on our flagwear and got ready to head down to the end of main street, across from the city park. As we waited in the living room, I welled up with pride seeing my uncle Tom come down in his dress white uniform. (That's him standing next to his red Jeep Cherokee.) He and my other uncles, as well as my father, of course, will always be heroes to me.

When we got to the park, tents had been pitched for craft and activity booths in anticipation of a full day of family fun. There was also a catering trailer ready to serve "fried dough." Fried dough is easy enough to understand once you've seen it and tasted it but let me try to explain... In Oklahoma, we have a delicacy called "Indian Fry Bread." Indian fry bread looks like a large sopapilla but, whereas a sopapilla is generally thin and puffed with air, fry bread is much denser. Fry bread is not necessarily sweet, either. It is often used as a base for an Indian Taco (imagine a tostada with a big hunk of soft, fried bread underneath where the crispy corn tortilla should be). Fried dough looks a lot like Indian Fry Bread but it's very different... I'll explain in more detail later.

As the parade started, it was lead by a color guard of volunteer firemen. The fireman in the picture above carrying the American flag is my uncle Jerry and that's one of my FAVORITE pictures from that day. That image is what I think of when I think of American patriotism in the wake of September 11. He was there and he was proud to be given the honor of carrying the American flag. The color guard was followed by a stream of fire trucks, old cars, the High School band, friends of the local library and other local organizations.

After the parade, we milled around the park for a while then went back to uncle Tom's house for a nap before the evening fireworks. As evening approached, aunts, uncles and family friends began to arrive. The flatland contingent loaded up with uncle Tom and uncle Jerry and drove back down to the park.

When we arrived, we turned down an access road that ran along the North side of the park. Ahead, I could see the smaller fire/rescue truck just beyond the yellow tape barrier. We approached and parked just short of it. We unloaded the folding camp chairs and lawn chairs and walked toward the yellow tape. I figured my uncles would chat with the firefighters and policemen at the tape for a bit, then we would carry our chairs out to the public viewing area. As we approached, the guardians of the "safe zone" lifted the tape. I know my uncle is the fire chief but I figured we wouldn't be allowed that close... I was wrong.

The sun was really only beginning its descent into the horizon so we set up our chairs about a hundred yards off the tree line at the West end of the park and began to visit. After a while, my butt got tired of sitting in the chair and I went off with my cousin to investigate the culinary uniqueness that is fried dough.

Like funnel cakes at the state fair, there was significant interest at the fried dough trailer. My cousin and I waited only a short time and I ordered. When it was handed to me, I observed that it looked like Indian Fry Bread, as I mentioned before, but it also had a semi-transparent liquid resting in a reservoir on top of the dough. I wasn't too sure how seriously these people took the word "fried" and was afraid they had ladeled some of the cooking oil onto my treat.

With some hesitation, I tore off a small piece and took a bite. I was unexpectedly delighted with the taste. I was expecting something similar to fry bread and, in consistency, that's what I got. In flavor, however, it was completely different. The dough was sweet, but not sugary. Something like a cake doughnut. And the "cooking oil" turned out to be pure Vermont maple syrup.


I brought it back to the encampment to share with the other flatlanders, and anyone else who wanted some.

By the time we finished, it was almost dark and the fireworks started soon after. As we waited for the first shot, I noticed something... no, make that someone moving beyond the tree line. Then, I heard it: the distinct thump of a commercial firework being launched into the air. Only this time it was distinctly loud. Not a dull thud in the distance but rather a deep thump that I felt as much as heard.

I caught the sparkling trail of the propellant as the explosive went higher and higher into the air. Then, as it reached the peak of its arc, slowed, then hinted at the beginnings of a descent... FOOM! The device erupted into an umbrella of colored tracers raining down upon us, fizzling to nothingness just above our heads.

Blooms of red, white and blue continued in successive report. The thunderous booms shaking the ground beneath us and the crackling aftersparkles stinging our eyes with brightness. As I looked around between shots, I could see the men beyond the treeline and could hear them shouting directions to each other. Oh, what JOY to be there that night! Oh, how indelibly this would be stored in my memory! Oh, how this would go down in family history as the best independence day EVER!

As the last embers of the finale were winking out, I looked around me. The big, stupid grin plastered on my face was evident on all those around me. We loaded up, headed home and went to bed still smiling.

God Bless all of you. Please have a happy and safe holiday.

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