Attempting to duplicate a Wisconsin 4th of July

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Ya Gotta Love Summer!  For me, the highlight of summer has always been and will always be the Fourth of July. Just mention the holiday and I can taste the hot dogs, hamburgers and, best of all, watermelon.

Ya Gotta Love Watermelon! As kids, it was the best of the entire three months that we were on vacation from the drudgery of homework and tests.

Watermelon has always been a source of entertainment for me. As I was growing up, my dad would purchase the straw that was used to transport watermelon to the local markets. He would feed the straw to the cows and we would stand to the side, waiting for a watermelon that had attempted to save its life by hiding deep in the straw.

When the ill-fated watermelon would appear, we would all quickly grab it, open it and eat it.  We soon learned how to crack it open perfectly so that we could eat it right down to the rind.

The perfect way to eat watermelon was to scoop out the heart, put it to the side to eat last, and then dive into the rest eating it right down to the rind. The next step was to go to the water trough, move the cows to the side, and wash all of the evidence from our hands and face.

But Fourth of July was different. My parents always invited the same people over to celebrate the holiday: “The Wisconsin Gang.” These were friends and relatives who were from the same area of Wisconsin who all moved and made Artesia, California, their home. This group of 50 people were all connected and there never was a stranger but at times things did get “strange.”

There were always lively, fun-filled disputes: Ford vs. General Motors, John Deere vs. Massy Ferguson, Dodgers vs. Braves and Green Bay Packers vs. Rams. There was one thing that never changed: we all knew the words to “On Wisconsin.”

One topic of discussion was food. We knew who made the best food and who made the worst.  Kay’s potato salad was the best ever, but we avoided Sadie’s baked beans like a plague. We could still feel the effect of these several hours later. Uncle Ted’s hamburgers were plump and hearty but we strongly suspected that Clyde’s were stretched with mashed potatoes (or Sadie’s beans).

The traditional “Cutting of the Watermelon” always was a time of lively discussion. Do you cut it lengthwise or crosswise? Do you cut wedges or slices? But one thought was never debated: Watermelon is always served with the rind attached!

Watermelon in little balls or served in squares just isn’t right nor is seedless watermelon.  Without the rind, how can you judge who ate their watermelon “down to the rind” in the least amount of time? And what kid ever really wanted seedless watermelon?  Had there been no seeds, my cousins and I would not have had the opportunity for watermelon seed spitting contests or hiding behind a wall just waiting for our next victim to assault with a relentless barrage of watermelon seeds. Our Fourth of July would have been so dull!

After all of the watermelon was eaten and Aunt Harriet’s wonderful, three-colored (Red, White, and Blue of course) Jello salad was a mere memory, it was time for the fireworks!

We didn’t drive to a display because we had the best display in our backyard! Dad would buy two boxes of the largest assortment of “Safe and Sane Fireworks” that the local fireworks stand had to offer.  We knew that it was filled with the potential for the most colorful firework display for miles around. I now do question “Safe and Sane” because they weren’t at all “safe” and “sane” was never a word used for our family.

“Fireworks Central” was always in the pasture behind the house. At just the right time, we would line up our folding lawn chairs in a row and the show would start. The sky would light up, and we would “Ooh” and “Aww.” The dogs would bark and the cows would moo. It was all music to our ears.

It was pale in comparison to the professional firework shows that you see now but it was amazing to each of us.

After the last bottle rocket found its way through the air, it was time for the kids to shine. While the Piccalo Petes screamed, we would dance with sparklers in our hands while writing our names in the air.

When all was over and everyone left for home, we all knew that we had a precious time filled with memories, but we also knew another event had taken place that same night which tugged at our heartstrings.

You see, the “Wisconsin Gang” were all connected to a hamlet in the middle of Wisconsin called “Friesland.” It was there that we all were wishing we could be. A tiny town of 250 that swelled to several thousand on the evening of the Fourth of July. Sitting on the grass eating a piece of pie with the town band playing patriotic songs and watching the fireworks fill the air was the perfect Fourth of July. My father always attempted to bring some of the traditions of Wisconsin to California, but when it came to Friesland’s grand finale, he couldn’t duplicate it: a United States flag along with the word “Friesland” blazing in fireworks on the 10-foot fence behind the town church.

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Pat Van Dyke