Boomers Brought the Bang 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 boomers 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?

This is an edited post that was originally published by Mister Boomer on July 3, 2011.

Boomers Walked and Played On Sidewalks

Have you thought about sidewalks lately? In Mister Boomer’s constant examination of the boomer years (which he considers the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s — the heyday of boomers approaching adulthood), he recalled the sidewalks on his block some sixty-plus years ago. The entire idea of sidewalks has gone though great changes in the decades since the boomer years. So why ask the question now?

Mister Boomer contends that boomers didn’t think much about sidewalks; they were just a fact of both city and suburban life. Rural living didn’t have much need for sidewalks outside of the nearest town, but practically every area where multiple houses were built next to each other in the post-war decade were linked not only by roads, but sidewalks — paved passages, most often built parallel to roads, but intended for pedestrians.

How did we, as boomers, get to take sidewalks for granted in most urban and suburban locales? The story of sidewalks goes back thousands of years. Some mention Ancient Rome’s stone “ways” as among the first. Certainly Medieval Europe had forms of sidewalks in some areas — walkways constructed of slabs of stone or cobblestones. Our modern, western notion of sidewalks may have begun in London after the city was rebuilt following the Great Fire of 1666, when paved walkways for pedestrians were codified in city planning. European immigrants to the Colonies brought their notion of city design with them.

Mister Boomer recalls with no small measure of nostalgia, the sidewalks on his and neighboring blocks. He grew up in a subdivision built in the 1940s, while the War was winding down, presumably in anticipation of the need for housing once soldiers returned home. The sidewalks were striking examples of 1940s concrete construction in that they were filled with visible aggregate — stones, pebbles and seashells that fascinated a young Mister Boomer. When the county installed a sewer sytem in the area in the beginning of the 1960s, the wonderful sidewalks Mister Boomer enjoyed walking and examining were replaced by more modern concrete with a smoothed top surface.

In those early days, boomer mothers told their pre-teen children to stay on the sidewalk. Boomers learned to ride bicycles on sidewalks; they learned about respecting traffic and when to cross streets to sidewalks on the other side. Sidewalks became an area of play, for games like hopscotch to tic-tac-toe, and making chalk drawings. Still, sidewalks provided the safest, most direct way for boomer families to walk to nearby shopping, churches, friends and neighbors. Sidewalks were especially important before the idea of two-car households became the norm.

Walking was part of daily life, but as boomers aged into teenagers, car culture also grew. With it began the decades-long decline in the amount of walking people do on a daily basis. Consequently, by the 1970s, many new subdivisions in sprawling suburbs were built without sidewalks. That practice continued into the 1990s in some areas.

Today there is a renewed interest in sidewalks. From coast to coast people are asking whether we need more, and safer, sidewalks. Boomers, as well as Millennials and Gen Xers, are looking to live in communities that embrace walking, with accessibility for all, easy walking distance to goods and services, and livability as the goal. While concrete continues to be the most widely used building material on the planet, after wood, people are also becoming aware of the impact that concrete production has on the environment. Change is inevitable.

Boomers have witnessed the coming and going — and returning — of sidewalks in their lifetimes. The next generation of cities and suburbs will plan for more environmentally-friendly methods of building and production, but will definitely include sidewalks as a vital part of life — something boomers knew decades ago.

Do you have specific memories of sidewalks in your neighborhood, boomers?