Fourth of July always meant two things back in Glen Oaks Village, where I grew up in eastern Queen, New York: a glorious barbecue behind the apartments with our four closest neighbors, and foolish decisions regarding fireworks.
First the barbecue. Glen Oaks is a community so large it has its own zip code and is home to about 50-thousand residents. Built in the 1940’s and written up in national magazines, it remains a showplace.
We shared a common backyard that contained a long clothesline for all to use and expanses of soft grass. The neighbors set up long aluminum tables end to end in the backyard and each family had its own grill. Ours was a dinky thing we received as a free gift from the now defunct Bayside Federal Bank for opening up an account. It was just large enough, though, to cook a few hot dogs and burgers for my brother and me and our parents. Those big Weber grills hadn’t yet been invented.
One of our neighbors, the guy we always suspected was in the Mafia, had the best grill. It was about a yard in diameter on a fancy stand and he cooked Italian sausage. We always wondered what truck it fell off.
Another neighbor sounded like that old actor Peter Lorre and just as sinister. When he asked for another hot dog you could always imagine the next thing he’d say was, “or I’ll kill you.” Turns out he was very mild mannered. He just sounded like an assassin.
After eating we’d invariably start tossing around a football, which, in turn, always seemed to knock someone’s clean underwear drying on the clothesline onto the ground. That action sparked the owner of the drying underwear to stick their head out their back window overlooking the yard and shout things that directed all of us to burn in a very warm deep, underground place. This only sparked us to start aiming for other items drying on the line and if you could dump a fitted sheet you won the admiration of all, and the raising ire of the the sheet’s owner who would call the cops on us only to be told, “sorry, but we’ve got four cases of wet socks ahead of you.”
Now the fireworks. Our dads would score some firecrackers or more powerful ashcans from the docks in lower Manhattan and we’d pretty much shoot them off with no incident, although it was always entertaining to slip a few lit ones through someone’s mail slot.
Our dads were, if anything, both smart and devious. Two cases in point. First, was when they could only come up with sparklers instead of firecrackers or ashcans. C’mon, sparklers? No noise, no nothin’. Sparklers were for wimps or kids whose dads worked in the suburbs. But my dad was especially resourceful. After all, he was a World War II hero, winning medals for capturing a house of Germans by shouting orders in Yiddish, which sounds like Germans to exit the house and the idiots complied. So he knew a thing or two about misdirection.
“Look, you’re doing it wrong with the sparklers by just holding them,” he explained. “When they’re halfway done throw them in the air as high as you can and they become Roman Candles!” Crap! We had Roman Candles in our hands all this time and didn’t know it! Yes, sometimes kids were as gullible as wartime Germans. We totally bought it, and except for when a lit sparkler landed in someone’s garden igniting their pansies it was a damn good ruse.
Speaking of ruses, when our dads came up totally short they caucused in desperation and pulled out a couple of road flares and lit them. “We call them ground-level displays!” one would say. Ah..dads can be such good bullshitters. That’s why we love them.
Then there was the time the brother of one of our friends was on leave from the Navy. He thought it would be cool to wrap up some .22 caliber bullets in an envelope, stuff it in a drainpipe, light it up and run like hell. Guess what? Bullets are faster than idiotic Navy guys on leave. The dumb guy spent the rest of the Fourth, and a good deal of the 5th through 8th in the hospital healing from his awesome stunt.
At least he didn’t shoot down anyone’s drying BVDs.