Boomers on the Fourth of July

On the eve of the signing of the Declaration of Independence by Congress, John Adams wrote a letter to his wife, Abigail, about the day the document was to be signed. It was dated July 3, 1776:

I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore.

After World War II ended in 1945, the country was in a celebratory mood. A great many former soldiers were married, and this continued for another twenty years, setting up what was to become the largest baby boom the country had ever seen. By the time the first boomers were old enough to play with matches, the country was a decade past the War. As the patriotic wave that had overcome the victorious nation continued in annual celebrations, fireworks were a regular part of the festivities. Many boomers have family photos of their fathers and uncles setting off Roman candles and fireworks in parks, vacant lots and backyards. It seemed only natural then, that boomers would follow suit, setting off firecrackers of their own as soon as they could get their hands on them.

 

 

The sale of fireworks are controlled by individual states. As for Mister Boomer’s experience, fireworks of all kinds were banned in his state, but not the neighboring state. Living only 30 miles from the state border, it was a short drive to the nearest fireworks stand, which was conveniently situated a few hundred feet from the border.

Mister B recalls making the ride with his father and brother, a straight drive down what used to be the main interstate highway before the freeways were built. Mister B’s father liked to set off Roman candles and small flying rockets in the neighborhood, but only occasionally and not on every July 4th.

By the time Brother Boomer got his first car, Mister B would ride with him down to the border crossing where his brother could purchase fireworks for himself. His taste tended toward the bigger firepower that the neighborhood kids all seemed to have: strings of lady fingers, M-80s and cherry bombs. It was less about the rocket’s red glare, and more about the bang.

Sparklers, however, were not initially banned in the state and were a big holiday winner among the younger set. Once the sun went down, kids would get a sparkler in each hand and run around in a circle or down the block, trailing the sparkling flame behind them. Several kids standing together would write in the air with the lighted stick, making fading letters or shapes against the night sky.

During the day, kids opened small packages of colored balls that resembled Trix cereal, colored red, yellow or blue. Hurling one of the little spheres to the sidewalk, it would pop like a cap. A bigger bang could be elicited by laying down a grouping of the spheres and smashing them with a rock or brick.

Meanwhile, neighborhood boys were setting up increasingly elaborate ways to bring on the snap, crackle and pop. Firecrackers were never used in Mister B’s neighborhood to harm animals, as in the stories that some boomers relate. Rather, the neighborhood boys enjoyed blowing up things like model airplanes, cars and boats, or the occasional head of one of their sisters’ dolls when they felt particularly sinister.

Mister B recalls one summer when Brother Boomer and his neighbor buddies reenacted scenes of the Robert Mitchum movie, Thunder Road. Laying down trails of lighter fluid and strategically placed lady fingers half-buried in the side of a small mound of dirt, model cars ran the gauntlet, only to meet their fate amidst the explosions and flames; boomer boy play at its pinnacle!

The larger, distinct kaboom of an M-80 or cherry bomb was heard around the neighborhood for a week before the holiday, and up to two weeks after. Fortunately, the kids in Mister B’s neighborhood were smart enough not to accept dares of holding a firecracker while it exploded, thus preventing major injury. Mister B stayed away from personally setting off firecrackers, instead living vicariously through his brother’s and neighbors’ actions.

Firecrackers were a part of the July 4th holiday experience for most boomers. It’s another example of how we were allowed to do things that today would be considered far too unsafe, often within the sight of our parents, and sometimes, as was the case with firecrackers, with the help of our fathers.

Happy Fourth, boomers! What firecracker experience does the Fourth evoke for you?

Our Sunday Best for Easter

Boomers can attest to the changes that have occurred in all aspects of their lives, and certainly fashion is among them. Mister Boomer, as many of his generation, recalls that certain times of the year — especially holidays — were marked in part by new clothes: Christmas always brought underwear and socks, and sometimes pajamas; August ushered in back-to-school necessities; but it was mainly in spring — particularly Eastertime — that most people got new “dress” clothes. It was only a few decades ago that it was not only expected that one dress in their finest clothes for Easter celebrations, but preferably that those clothes be new.

The practice of donning new clothing as a sign of respect, renewal and cleanliness when engaging in spring religious ceremonies dates back thousands of years. It crossed religions and cultures through the millennia to manifest itself in various forms of official and ritual costuming, as well as acting as an annual reminder for ancient peoples — not known for their closets-full of clothing — that it was time to change things up. Some historians postulate that Emperor Constantine helped the tradition along in the fourth century. The story goes that Easter was the only holiday when he invited his entire staff and court to join in his holiday celebration and dinner. His only request was that they arrive washed and dressed in their finest clothing.

Mister Boomer worked retail in the early 1970s. At that point, the new spring/Easter tradition was still going strong. There wasn’t a man, woman or child who did not get at least one new spring article of clothing. Elaborate hats, of course, were popular with women, along with dresses, shoes and accessories in pastel colors, while coats could get downright brilliant in hue. Children received new shoes, at the very least, but the family could also take the opportunity to replenish dress clothing for growing siblings, handing down gently-used garments to the younger children.

A decade earlier, Mister Boomer’s family always participated in the annual ritual. His mother and sister would get new spring dresses, pocketbooks and shoes, while the males would get new suits and, in the early sixties, hats. Mister B doesn’t have to conjure memories of these outfits since they were documented each year. Before heading to Easter Sunday church services (or after, if they were running late), Mister B’s family would pose in front of their house, a few steps from the front porch, for a portrait with their finery. Mister B’s father was never in the shots since he was behind the lens of the Kodak box camera. The dates for Easter shift from year to year, from early March to late April. In the upper Midwest, that could mean temperatures ranging from the low 30s to the mid-70s. The photos show that sometimes the family was shivering in the cold, and patches of snow remained on the lawn. Other times the sun shone brightly to accentuate those Kodachrome colors. Inevitably, the roll of film had been sitting in the camera since Christmas, so now it could be finished and processed into prints.

These portraits illustrated the history of the dwelling — with landscape changes and front-porch renovations — as well as a growing family in the 1960s suburbs. In one photo in particular, Mister B recalls wearing a new three-piece suit. The coat was blue, in a mid-weight knobby fabric, while the pants were plain, straight-legged, and Navy in color; his vest, however, was patterned in contrast to the pleated pants and textured coat. On top of his head was a Navy blue hat, making the ensemble suitable for a Frank Sinatra album cover.

Mister Boomer’s family was not fashion-forward. They dressed in the popular clothing of the day. That began to change throughout the culture in the mid-60s as individual personalities gained a larger say in dress habits. It was probably 1967 when Mister B’s brother, a high school student at the time, suggested that the males get their Easter suits from a nearby urban source rather than the usual suburban regional chain stores.

Mister B, his father and Brother Boomer drove to the big-city establishment. Immediately on entering the store, it was obvious they weren’t in suburbia any more: BanLon shirts, pencil-thin ties, straight-legged pants and sharkskin suits packed the racks and shelves in a wide array of colors. Sharkskin suits had been around since the 1950s. Composed of two contrasting thread colors woven so as to contrast, the result was a sleek, sharkskin look. Now, with the addition of rayon, silk and acetate fabrics joining the traditional wool, 60s sharkskin often had an iridescent ripple running through the folds of fabric as light passed over it.

Mister B’s father quickly tried on a burgundy sharkskin suit and was gazing at it admiringly in the mirror. Brother B chose a sharkskin suit in dark blue that looked like it had walked straight out of a Beatles photograph. Lapels were as small as they could be, but Brother Boomer’s choice had a velvet strip running across the top of the collar, slightly framing either side of the neck. Mister Boomer was a little hesitant in his search, but did find an olive-green sharkskin suit in his size. It had a golden-colored thread woven into the fabric, so a slight gold metallic sheen gave Mister B an adult, sophisticated sartorial look well beyond his teenage years.

sharkskin

That Easter, the Boomer family males sported white shirts and super-thin ties in solid colors with their stylish suits. A new era was happening, and men no longer wore hats as a required accessory to top an outfit. The Boomer Three looked more like a musical group than family members heading to church, and a few heads did turn, but they didn’t mind. Mister B got another three years’ wear out of the suit before it no longer fit. There are still times Mister B dreams of that sharkskin suit. No article of clothing ever caused the physical attachment of that outfit since.

How about it boomers? Is there a memorable spring outfit in your past?