For many people, summer begins in different ways. For a lot of us, summer began when the last school bell rang, tolling for the freedom of the sun/fun starved students who were finally going to be let out for their seasonal parole. For others, summer began when the calendar said it was so; the knowledge gave refreshment and consolation to those who had borne the dreariness of winter and the oftentimes endured the disappointments of the wimpy spring. However, for me, summer—for as I can long remember—really and actually began on that magical day of days, the Fourth of July.
It may surprise people that I think of summer in that way; but when you really analyze it, it is altogether appropriate. It is the day when everybody (or just about everybody) is out and about to savor the national festival and what our Founding Fathers bequeathed to us. The Fourth of July is summertime in red, white and blue. For me, it is a personal remembrance, for it is the day of my earliest memory of the time when I discovered there was a wider world beyond the confines of a fifth-floor walk-up in an apartment building in Washington Heights (and later, the Bronx). It was the time when I discovered both the Fourth of July and the blissfulness of that watery extravaganza, the Irish Riviera, Rockaway Beach.
Our earliest vacation as a family—my mother and father, my sister and I—was when we went to Rockaway Beach. I was at that age when I really started to become aware of my surroundings: the building where we lived, the marble staircase, the wooden bannisters, the gold-plated mailboxes (painted a fake gold, most likely, only I didn’t know the difference at the time) and the black-and-white tiled floors. I must have been at least 5 years of age when we went; by that time the farthest I had ever traveled was when my father (or oftentimes, my mother) took me by the hand and we walked across the street to the park where there were plenty of trees, swings and water fountains: in short, everything a city boy could ask for (except when the “Mister Softee” ice cream truck musically turned the corner and turned my head in the process and the parental pocketbook got lightened by a few coins). The beach, however, was another world.
To say that going to the beach was an adventure would be an understatement. Who wouldn’t marvel at the sun, the sand and the water? Not to mention wooden planks to walk on and not a cement fixture in sight! I knew there were cobblestone streets in Washington Heights when my father would bring me on excursions to Freddy the Barber (waaah!), but this was decidedly—and deliciously—different. Oh, the beach air we breathed was wonderfully fresh and unflavored by smog and soot!
And another thing that was unusual: people going about without their shirts on (and in the cases of some daring children who dared to sprint pass all and sundry in a very cheekily manner, risking perhaps only sunburn and/or a spanking that would surely induce a more painful redness). I was confounded by the men who appeared to have only their underwear on, only to be instructed that they were wearing their "swim trunks." (Until I got that explanation, I seriously thought that the mothers of these people couldn’t afford clothes or they had simply lost them somewhere and simply showed up looking like that. And trunks? I thought elephants wore those. More thoughts to ponder…) And as for what the girls and the women were wearing, I was at a total loss and no adult was going to explain that to me…especially why they looked so different from one another…
What was understandable, though, was the food and games and laughter and prizes (read: toys) to be won at the different bazaars in those booths that were all around, everywhere you looked. That was also what made my first Fourth so memorable: the different foods I got to examine, to savor and to eat. As long as I live, there can never be a sensation as wonderful as that of eating a Nathan’s hot dog on the boardwalk, lathered in mustard and sauerkraut, with its snappy crunch when you bit into it or the wonderfully cold Coca-Cola or Pepsi to wash it down with: for a 5-year-old, it was the gustatory delight of delights, a kid’s version of fine and elegant dining (truth to tell, it still is!). And then there were those salty pretzels and the ice cream was never as creamy and lick-worthy as it was at the beach.
But it was one particular food that I always claimed ever after as a reminder of summertime, the beach and the Fourth of July. It was the most unlikely food you would think a 5-year-old would make such an association with. It happened in this way. Since I was so excited to explore this new world, I was more charged up than a car engine: when my little feet hit the boardwalk, I started running like a kid who was escaping a spanking. I was so fast that my father and the other adults couldn’t keep up with me. The only thing that stopped me was a gap in the boardwalk that trapped my little foot; thereby the sudden halt in my progress promptly caused me to plunge downward into a bad fall. My right knee took the brunt of the fall and it quickly became scraped, bruised—and bloody. Thereupon the siren started which only an embarrassed and hurt toddler can emit. It was the loudest I had ever been; my father was flummoxed as to what to do. And the redness that appeared on my formerly serene face was not the product of sunburn.
My mother, who would have known what to do, was unfortunately not present. No matter how much my father tried to shush me, it only succeeded in making me even more frightened and scared. All poor Dad could do was to grip my hand a little more tightly than normal and hope I could survive until we reached the diner on the boardwalk for a midday repast. As soon as we entered, a kindly waitress got the antiseptic and band aids and the problem was quickly addressed. But what really got me to forget the trauma of the whole thing was the fact my little nose sniffed out a strange new aroma, one I had never known: it came from a container on the table; this glass bowl had uniform red disks swimming in a pool of very dark red liquid, almost like the substance that came from my knee. It was the same throughout the restaurant. What was it? It was beets. I could not get over it, this thing called beets. For the rest of that day, I was obsessed with beets: its smell, its coldness, its tangy taste. My father couldn’t understand how his son could be quieted by a vegetable. He must have put it in the back of his mind for future reference. Wait till Nellie hears this, he thought.
That was a heck of a way for a youngster to spend his very first Fourth.
But that was only a part of the memory: my experience of July Fourth happened that evening, when the day’s celebrations were winding down and were capped with the fabulous burst of color in the nighttime sky that only fireworks could supply. To witness this, I assumed my usual position by sitting on the window sill to take it all in. As a boy, that was my character quirk: I liked to observe the world by sitting on the window sill. Be reassured, there were window guards and I was simply wasn’t strong enough to push up and open a window anyway—there was really no serious danger of danger. I simply wanted to see what fireworks were all about. (And unknown to my parents and myself at the time, the likely reason I wanted to see things so closely was that I really couldn't see that clearly: I was only a few years away from getting my first pair of eyeglasses. And then it became a brave new world!)
For a brief time, I sat on the window sill that night, taking it all in: the beach, the salty air, the boardwalk, my embarrassing missteps, the diner and the beets. I eagerly looked out the window watching the fireworks with a little American flag in my hands, with the Irish Echo at my feet and a fan on the floor offering the comfort of cooler air. There was no better introduction for a 5-year-old to the wonders of the Fourth.
And however old I get, I will always savor that memory of my first Fourth; the fascination of which has never left me, and I will certainly never ever forget those beets which quieted and becalmed a youngster in a way a harried father never could.