September 26, 2018

Oh, for a Fourth like those of yesteryear!

By John Guy Laplante

With 3 photos.

How I remember those terrific Fourths when I was a boy.

They were intended to celebrate our independence from tyrannical England. But in practice, for most people it was just an excuse to have a lot of fun. We called it the Fourth. Just the Fourth.

I’m talking of when I was 8, 10, 12 years old. Pre-World War II. Before 1941 when Congress made it a federal holiday,

My remarkable Aunt Bernie when she was 30. Amazing woman.

meaning a day off for federal employees. What fantastic news that was for them.

Oh, maybe as part of the Fourth the mayor gave a speech in front of City Hall. Maybe there was a parade on Main Street downtown.  I never saw and never heard of that.

I’m recalling what I saw and took an excited part in. That was the Fourth in our Pleasant View neighborhood in the little city of Pawtucket, I was born there and grew up there. Nothing  particularly pleasant about the view

But it turned out that Pawtucket was truly famous in our national history. It’s there where young Englishman Samuel Slater arrived with the idea of building a textile factory on our Blackstone River.

He had worked in such a factory back home. Much bigger. Got the idea of going to America. The English were the leaders in making textiles. Young Slater memorized every part of the machines that he worked on. Found financial support here. Perfectly re-created that machinery. Trained workers. Designed, built, and opened a small mill cleverly powered by the Blackstone. And made history. The first in the U.S.  A big deal. He’s known as The Father of the Industrial Revolution.

I heard of that only years later. His mill on the Blackstone is a must-see museum today.

Back to the Fourth. I’m talking of a time before one state after another outlawed as too dangerous a lot of the firecrackers and such that we took for granted and shot off so enthusiastically and prolifically.

Sure, hands-on fireworks for backyard fun are still sold. Celebrators of my day would have scoffed at them.

Nowadays we mark the Fourth differently. All across the U.S. we take in a community-sponsored 30 or 60-minute evening public show. An exciting spectacle costing thousands of dollars and produced and shot off by professionals whose business that is.

It’s done by cities all over, big and small, free for one and all, wonderfully impressive, vastly popular, and expected and accepted. It is a salute to our Independence, it is said. Well, to some. Then it’s over for another year.

What’s good now is that hospital emergency rooms are no longer filled with people who have blown off a finger. Or worse. And firefighters no longer have to rush off to put out blazes caused by mindless jerks.

I’m talking about the kind of Fourth of July that i saw Fourth after Fourth as a kid. And which my Aunt Bernadette, like

others, made possible and in fact fanned the flames of. She ran a fireworks stand year after year in our neighborhood. In complete innocence. Never with a second thought. To make money

Bernie’s variety store. Very popular with our neighbors. That’s my Grandma subbing for her. Usually my Ma would be the one subbing.

 

Quite a lady, my dear auntie. Unschooled, self-everything. Well-known and esteemed in our littler corner of the world. Amazing in several ways, all good.

Nobody called her Bernadette. She was just Bernie. I called her Bernie. As I think back, Bernadette would have been a better fit.

She was my Maman’s youngest sister. Immigrants from French Canada, come down with their already elderly father and mother — my Memere and Pepere — for the usual dream of a better life in a better land.

We lived all together in a plain and modest house at 48 Amey Street. Much like most of the houses in our neighborhood. Lower middle class, very respectable. Made up of Canucks like us, Irish, Polacks, Syrians, Wops, all humble and hard-working folks. We got along fine. You may find that surprising. But that’s how I remember it.

My father—we called him Pa — was an immigrant like my maman – Ma to us.  He was a self-made businessman. He bought what became our home for solid reasons. One was a special reason. It was located at the corner of Amey and Broadway. Broadway was a big and busy street heading straight downtown. Lots of traffic.

So ours was a strategic corner. And right there stood Mrs.Toone’s Variety Store. A nice little business. She was getting old. She sold Pa the lot with her store and the house 75 feet behind it .The store was on Broadway, the house on Amey.

The house became our home, for all of us, meaning also my grandpa and grandma and Aunt Bernie.

Bernie  was Pa’s special reason. Like so many other immigrant women around us, she was working in a nearby weaving mill 10 hours a day, 6 days a week. Pa felt she could run the little store. She loved the idea and made her new little business a real success. It turned out he was perfectly right.

I’ve included the picture of the store. You see what it was. She handled it 99 percent by yourself. Put in as many hours there as at the factory. But a problem. It didn’t have a bathroom.

So Pa set up a doorbell wire between the store and the house. When Bernie needed the bathroom, she’d tap the button. And Ma would run to the store and sub for her. And Bernie would dash out the back door to the house.

Sometimes Ma would be doing something she couldn’t interrupt. Getting antsy, Bernie would tap the button again. And again. And again. Finally Maman would show up. That sparked hot words more than once.

Her little store thrived. Most of her customers were neighbors. Someone would stop by to buy a little something, but maybe just to get to chat with somebody and Bernie loved to chat.

A couple more memories of her. I have many. Everybody smoked cigarettes back then. They were 14 cents a pack. She had a little tincan with a tight cover. She’d open a pack and tuck the 20 cigarettes in the can. Would sell them for a penny apiece.

A customer would ask for two cigarettes. She’d open the can. He’d park one over his ear and light up the other. So she’d

Her ice cream stand — big success! A former garage. Bernie is in the rear. That big guy is Jake, a neighbor. That little guy is me. Easy to tell I was being paid with ice cream cones.

get six cents more for that pack. She’d re-stock that little can two or three times a day.

Another memory. She always kept a couple of punchboards on the display case by the cash box. Familiar with punchboards? They were a kind of lottery. About a foot square and three quarters of an inch thick.

Every board had a hundred or more drilled holes about the size of a nail. Stuffed in each hole was a little rolled-up paper. Each board came with a nice picture of something or other pasted on it. But you could tell where the holes were.

A customer would buy a chance. A nickel, I think it was. Using a punch that looked a lot like a nail, he’d push out the paper.

Most times he’d get zilch. But maybe win 50 cents. Even a dollar. Sometimes he’d buy two or three or four chances. Often he’d be a regular. Bernie would like it if he won once in a while. That would keep him coming back. Oh, women played the boards, too.

I told you that Bernie was a go-getter. Well, our lot had a two-car garage. Pa used one for his car. Bernie also had a car now. A beautiful brand new black Oldsmobile. It was said she was the first woman in Pawtucket to buy a car in her own name. Imagine that!

But she came up with a better idea for the garage. She talked Pa into letting her convert it into an ice cream stand. Open six months a year from mid-spring to mid- autumn.

So both of them had to park somewhere else now, but that was okay.

It was a beautiful stand. The only one around for a mile or so. She’d buy tubs of plain ice cream mix, then add flavors. She offered a dozen flavors. A lot of work. Busy from morning till night. She did it all with good cheer.

Customers would walk up to the stand, order a cone or a shake or a sundae or banana split.  Hey, a dad might come up with his missus and their two or three kids. Bernie did well. No surprise.

But what I wanted to tell you about was her fireworks stand. That will be more interesting to you now that you know this background stuff about her.

She had three home-made folding tables, each about six feet long. She’d set them up in line along the sidewalk. Load them with a full selection of every Fourth of July fireworks device known to man. Then decorate the whole thing with little American flags and bands of red or white or blue crepe ribbon. She made it look terrific.

Of course somebody had to staff the stand all the time. Not only to serve customers, but to make sure nobody came and pocketed a thing or two. She’d do it. She had helpers. I, a little kid,  pitched in.

At day’s end, everything had to be put away for the night. Then put back in the morning. Not easy.

At the same time she had to keep the variety store going. And the ice cream stand.

As the Fourth approached, business got better, especially in early evening. The final two days would be hectic.

You would start hearing the firecrackers going off and seeing the rockets taking off on the eve of the Fourth. People just couldn’t wait. Especially younger ones.

As I think back, it seems that it was a male thing. For teenagers and young men and older men who went wild for a day. For the women it was mostly a spectator sport. Oh, of course there were tomboys.

As the Fourth dawned, you would begin hearing a few firecrackers. But things would be mostly quiet till late afternoon. Then the tempo would quicken.

Come dark, wow! Firecrackers would be going off near and far and quicker and quicker. More and more flares and rockets would be brightening the night sky.

During all this, Bernie and her gang had to staff the stand. Eager-beavers would be coming back to buy more fun.

Some would get carried away. One example. Trolley tracks ran down Broadway. A guy would come along with a gallon of gasoline and pour it down one of the tracks. Then would drop in a lighted match. Shhhh!!! It would take just 10 seconds for that wild flame to race down to the last drop of gas.

Back then every neighborhood had a cop walking a beat. He’d work overtime over the Fourth. He’d make sure to make his presence seen. Often he’d look the other way. But if some jerk seemed to be getting carried away, he’d step in.

Finally the Fourth would be over. We’d take the stand down. Pack up all the leftovers. Enjoy a nice relief. Bernie stored away fresh ideas for the next Fourth.

She did all this season after season. The variety store, the ice cream stand, the fireworks stand. In rush times she grumbled a bit but who wouldn’t?

Oh, you may be interested. She married old, in her late 30’s. Handsome Irishman John Dana McCarthy had been wooing her for a decade. Eventually she said yes.

They bought and lived in the house next to ours on Amey Street.

John was known as Jack to everybody. Bernie called him Jack.  I always, always called him Jack. We all did. The only time he got called John was in his obituary.

Jack couldn’t even say “bonjour” in French. And her English was, well, I’ll just say it was street English. He was a shoe salesman for 50 years. In World War II saw long and violent action as an infantryman when we invaded France. Then went right back to selling shoes. A good man though he played the horses too much. Who’s perfect?  They got along. He also was wonderfully good to me.

They never had children. We were their children. Me, my younger sisters Lucie and Louise, and my younger brother Michael, Louise and Michael died years ago. I, the oldest by years, am still here. So strange.

One more detail. If I did not like what Ma would be serving for supper, I would just walk next door and stride in and sit down at their table with them. Without even knocking on the door. Always sure I would be welcome.

Another. At age 10, I was sent off to a boarding school. A good school. In our culture it was a desirable thing for parents to do that if they could afford it. I came home for holidays and summer vacation.

It was a 35-minute ride away. Sunday afternoon Pa and Ma would come see me for an hour. Ma would bring me my fresh laundry. Bernie would always send along three comic books and a few candy bars. Every Sunday. But I was told to be sure to read the comics gently. She’d expect on Monday to put the previous week’s  comic books back on the magazine rack in her store.

On some Sundays she and Jack would make the trip to give Ma and Pa a break .Also because they wanted to give me a hug and take me out for an ice cream cone.

She helped me in a thousand ways. Right to the end.

I would do little things for her. At Christmas she had a list of friends she’d want to send cards to. Most were non-French folks. Many lived far off. She’d want to put the cards in the mail with more than just “Merry Christmas, Bernie” on them.

One evening we’d sit at her dinner table, she and I. She’d have a stack of cards and her address list. I’d have my pen in hand. She’d tell me what she wanted to say on each card. And I’d do my best to get it down right, to sound like her. A relief for her. A big pleasure for me.

She laughed a lot, joked a lot, routinely made friends of her customers, died at 96. And had a core of old friends at her funeral. Jack died just a few months short of 100.

For years he smoked one cigar a day. After supper, he’d walk to Gendron’s Drug Store and buy his cigar, always a Philly. Would chat with Mr. Gendron a minute or two. Then light up his cigar for his evening stroll around the neighborhood.

One Father’s Day I gave him a box of 50 Phillies. He didn’t want 50. He wanted to go to Mr. Gendron’s every evening for his one Philly. And his chat.  I hope he enjoys lighting up one Philly every evening in Heaven.

A memory. He always, always kept his World War II Army dress uniform. Right int0 his very old age. He was a patient at the Rhode Island State Veterans Hospital. A good place. He made sure his uniform, perfectly clean and pressed in its plastic bag, was hanging in a corner of his closet in his room. He wanted to be buried in it. When he died, we went looking for it. Gone! Somebody had stolen it.

He and Bernie are buried side by side in Notre Dame Cemetery in Pawtucket. Like him, She prepared for that in her own unique way. After extensive research for a funeral monument, she found the perfect one. A magnificent, polished sphere of ebony granite (I think), bigger than a basketball or volleyball, resting on an interesting cube of gray granite. with their names, dates, and a few carefully considered words. It pains me that I don’t remember them. It’s the only such in the cemetery. Maybe the only one in Rhode Island.

No wonder she comes alive for me again come every Fourth.  Also come Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year’s and Easter. And at so many odd moments. Lucky me.

So do Maman and Papa, and Jack, and so many other fine people now gone. God bless them all!

Enjoy the Fourth! Wherever you are, take in that big, wonderful fireworks spectacle of amazing rockets bursting open in incredible patterns. Maybe you’ll be watching it on TV. It will be terrific, I’m positive. But to me those fantastic shows always seem to be more about enjoying great, free public entertainment than celebrating how good it is for us to be Americans.

You’ll be missing a lot of what has become part of our quirky folklore. But still you’ll  have a better opportunity than we did to appreciate what the Fourth is supposed to be about. Which we should all be keeping in mind in these strange trying times.

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I look forward to your comments. I read them all. Love to get a few personal words from you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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