Boomers Said “Happy 200th Birthday, America!”

This year marks the 45th anniversary of the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976. The oldest boomers were 30 at the time, while the youngest were 13, making it the quintessential American holiday celebration for a growing Boomer Generation.

The months leading up to July 4, 1976 were filled with patriotic fervor and anticipation of the main event that would officially mark the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Congress established a single American Revolution Bicentennial Commission in 1966 with the goal of coordinating national events in a single city — suggested as Philadelphia or Boston — under the name of Expo76. By 1973, it became clear that there was not going to be a consensus among the states as to the scope and choices of the suggested celebration. Instead, individual states created their own commissions. The Bicentennial was to be celebrated only one year after the end of the Vietnam war, and two years after Watergate. President Gerald Ford encouraged local celebrations that would highlight a “restoration of American values,” rebirth, nostalgia and a retelling of historical events in an effort to unite a country still divided.

The local approach turned out to be a welcome way for the country to celebrate, as it evoked the celebrations around the newly-minted country in 1776. John Adams wrote a letter to his wife, Abigail, on July 3, 1976, in which he expressed his desire for celebrations of that momentous occasion by saying, “It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews [shows], Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”

Two hundred years later, the country was covered in red, white and blue. Bicentennial Fever infected young and old, and every aspect of daily life. In many areas, city fire hydrants and sign posts were decked out in red stripes, and white stars on blue backgrounds. Individuals painted their mailboxes with flag themes. Clothing for men, women and children reflected the same red, white and blue aesthetic, with stars and stripes aplenty.

The Super Bowl, played on January 18, 1976, served as the unofficial kick-off of a year of celebrations. Players wore an official American Bicentennial logo patch on their uniforms. Halftime entertainment was the wholesome singing and dancing group, “Up with People.” Dancers were dressed as historical American figures, which were portrayed in song in the program.

TV networks got into the patriotic mood in a big way, delivering entertaining and informative depictions of historical lore, legend and myth all through the year. Saturday morning cartoons were also affected. The theme was written into The Archies cartoon storyline, but the ones that most people will recall were from Schoolhouse Rock. Older boomers already had children of their own who watched the educational kids’ show. Most notably, two of the segments created with the Bicentennial theme have become classics in the annals of educational TV: I’m Just a Bill, and The Preamble. One discussed the legislative process, while the other set variations of the preamble of the U.S. Constitution to music.

Massive celebrations on the Fourth that took on a national mantel, like the fireworks display and entertainment show in Washington, DC that night, were televised by the ABC, NBC and CBS networks. During the day, the country was riveted to their TVs unlike any time since Neil Armstrong walked on the moon as tall ships sailed past the Statue of Liberty in New York City harbor. A non-profit group called Operation Sail, Inc., put the international tribute together, with replicas of eighteenth century sailing vessels from 16 countries taking part. Additional smaller ships also joined the parade. Interestingly enough, the organization was established by President John Kennedy in 1961 with the proviso that the non-profit’s events would be subject to approval by Congress. The goal of the organization was to promote cooperation and good will among nations by providing sailing training and celebrating maritime history. It was a spectacular display that captured America’s attention. Mister Boomer recalls watching the ships with his parents on their black & white TV before the family cookout, sailing one by one, into the New York harbor. Each ship flew a banner with the Bicentennial star logo. Months afterward, boomers and their younger siblings had posters of the tall ships in their bedrooms and dorms. Mister B remembers that his family subscribed to Life Magazine. As 1976 became 1977, the magazine’s annual The Year in Pictures was published; among the highlights featured were dramatic images of the tall ships.

Mister Boomer was out of college and working his first job at a small advertising agency at the time. He recalls that the company produced menus, book covers, flyers and ads of all types, and his art director complained that every client wanted red, white and blue. He proclaimed that after the Bicentennial, he wouldn’t use red or blue ink in another project.

In Mister B’s area, there was a local parade of veterans and school bands, and a great fireworks display on a nearby river. The localization of the event made it feel like every person was invested in the celebration. That meant plenty of firecrackers in Mister B’s neighborhood, but they were illegal in his state. The next state was only about 35 miles away down the main highway, and the first fireworks stand was within a mile of the border. Any boomer over the age of eighteen drove to the neighboring state where they could buy Cherry Bombs, Lady Fingers, M-80s, Roman Candles and rockets. Mister B wasn’t a big fan of fireworks, so he never drove down on his own. One year, long before the Bicentennial, though, he did ride with his brother when Brother Boomer purchased a batch for the Fourth of July.

The Bicentennial was a big deal, and though celebrated differently from one area to another, boomers had a front-row seat. What Bicentennial memories do you have, boomers?

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?