December 5, 2022

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.








What, you do use your middle name?

By John Guy LaPlante

Hey, don’t you know that’s un-American?! Taboo! You’re supposed to use just a middle initial.

Oh, sure, you were given, yes, given a middle name. That’s normal and expected. But I’ll bet you’ve never used it. Timothy or Susan or Andrew or whatever. You made do with just a middle initial. Thought that was just fine. And that’s the proper American thing to do. Our culture insists on that. Will not tolerate a full, spelled out middle name.

How many folks do you know who use their middle name day in and day out?

Well, I have a middle name. It’s Guy. You saw it up top in my byline. And I’d feel naked without it. But boy, what a price I’ve paid!

The reason we all get a middle name is simple.  John Charles Smith sets you apart from John Richard Smith or John Theodore Smith. That’s the obvious reason. But maybe you were given the middle name of Charles or Richard or Theodore by your Mom to honor her dad, who had that name. Or by your Dad, reasoning the same way.

But from their earliest days—at the latest when they got signed up for kindergarten—John Charles Smith became John C. Smith and John Richard Smith became John R. Smith and John Theodore Smith became John T. Smith. Wonderful! Bravo! That was the thing to do.  Same is true of our sisters and female friends..

And they never looked back. That’s the name they’ve used—and for everything! — ever since. When they hit 30 or 40, they may have to think for a couple of minutes — might not even remember what their middle name was! I’ve seen that happen.

Can you imagine the teasing and bullying and finger-wagging they would have suffered as kids if  they had insisted on using their middle name?!

Well, I’ve gone through it.  My checks are imprinted up top with John Guy LaPlante. If I pay a bill with a check, for sure any receipt or thank you will get mailed back to me as John G. LaPlante. That’s how I’m known by IRS and Medicare, by City Hall and the Registry of Motor Vehicles and the Utility Company. By everybody and anybody.  I’ve even gotten mail from relatives as John G. LaPlante. Hey, come on!

My books say John Guy LaPlante on the cover. As you know, that’s the byline on anything I write.  But guess how I’ll be addressed in a letter from a reader?  You are correct! With Guy reduced to  a mere G.!  Sure, that used to irritate me. But now I shrug it off. Well, sort of.

If you want to go through life with just a middle initial, no flack from me! But just think why you’ve been doing that and why you think it’s okay.

How did this cultural must come to pass? Well, let me speculate.  Maybe somebody had a long name, say Archibald Alexander Worthington. He was a lawyer and signed lots of documents. One day to speed things up he signed as Archibald A. Worthington. Others noticed and thought, Good idea! And that fed a fad that became the must which we live with today.

I’ve spent serious time in other countries.  In France, for instance, and Mexico and Ukraine. Having a middle name seems universal.  I can’t recall anyone among friends speaking French or Spanish or Ukrainian or Russian (which lots of Ukrainians use as their first language) using a middle initial. That’s why I call it an American phenomenon.

By now I’m sure you’re thinking, What the heck is wrong with this LaPlante? Is he wacko? Well, surprise, I did it for good reason.

Some of you know I’m French by way of Quebec. My parents came down from there and became Americans. I was born here. Their first child. I was baptized Jean-Guy. Up there, using a hyphenated name like mine is a popular way of naming sons. Also daughters.

Maman and Papa never spoke to me or about me as just Jean or Guy. Always Jean-Guy.

When I started newspapering and earned a byline for a good story, it became Jean G.  Then when I landed a job at the big Worcester Telegram & Gazette, my byline continued to be Jean G. LaPlante. I put up with it. But several times I got letters from readers addressed to Miss Jean LaPlante. I didn’t like that. Then the paper started using John G. Yes, better but it still didn’t sound right to me.

One day in a huff, I decided, enough! I went to a lawyer. He filled out a form, I signed it, he took it to court and I became John Guy LaPlante. It was done in a day. The cost? Just $25.

(If I had asked for a change in my surname, which did not interest me, I would have had to explain why in detail and the process would have had to be advertised so people could have protested. With legitimate reason.)

But oh, the folly of youth! I was no longer living close to my dear father and mother, and I made that enormous change without ever talking it over or explaining to them. Awful! Deep down I still feel it a betrayal of my heritage.

Know what? If I could turn the clock back, I would not change my name. I would have insisted my name is Jean-Guy and certainly my friends and associates would have accepted that. Might even have liked the French uniqueness of it. I think if I had explained to my editor, he would have made my byline Jean-Guy. Oh, well…..

By the way, at the T & G I had a colleague with a French name, meaning from France.  Sanche de Gramont. He didn’t like it. Know what? He got his surname changed to Ted Morgan. Notice that “de Gramont” has nine characters and so does Ted Morgan, and they’re the same nine letters re-arranged. How about that?!  But we continued to call him Sanche and he seemed to consider that totally natural.

(What’s remarkable is that Sanche de Gramont / Ted Morgan went on to the New York Herald Tribune and won a Pulitzer Prize for on-deadline local reporting. Then morphed into a prolific author of distinguished biographies and histories.  Google / Bing him.)

By now I realize that having merely a middle initial has become so ingrained as an Americanism that it will always be so. I can protest it, but it won’t change a thing. So be it.

I’m been getting along in years, as some of you know, and I’ve given thought to some big thoughts, such as what would I like chiseled on my gravestone.  And I’ve decided, sort of, that it would be Jean-Guy LaPlante aka (for also known as) John Guy LaPlante. But I’m not sure I want a gravestone, so not a big problem. But yes, I’d like it in my obituary.

Sure, Jean-Guy / John Guy would be a fifty-fifty compromise. But a compromise is often a sign of wisdom. And wisdom is just common sense put into practice. You agree? Or you don’t?

 ~ ~ ~ ~

Oh, you use just a middle initial? What!?

By John Guy LaPlante

That doesn’t surprise me. Most Americans get along with a middle initial though they have a full middle name. A puny initial has become so common that I’m convinced it’s now unAmerican to flash a middle name. No, no, don’t think I’m crazy.

Well, I ‘m a rare one. I have a middle name and I use it every day, every time. No initial for me! You can see that in my byline up above.

Sometimes a daring soul confronts me and says, “John, how come you use your middle name?”

“Simple,” I tell them. “My parents gave me a middle name, not a middle initial.” Sometimes I feel they think I’m an ostentatious big shot or something. I’m anything but.

Truth is, there is more to that simple reply of mine, and I’ll explain in a minute.

I said it is unAmerican. Sure, I’ll explain. As some of you know, I have piled up a lot of miles traveling here and there in the world. Have dipped into a wide range of cultures. It’s common for people to have a string of three names. And nowhere outside the U.S. have I seen people abbreviating their middle one.

So when did this terrible and dumb tradition of ours get started?

I took a peek way back in our history. I looked at the signers of our Declaration of, independence. There were 56 of them, all men of course. Not a single one used an initial. It was just John Doe, so to speak. For that matter, only three used a middle name—Robert Treat Paine, Richard Henry Lee, and Francis Lightfoot Lee. So it seems this nonsensical habit of initializing started later.

Next I looked at our current US senators – all 100 of them. Not one uses a middle name. Or a middle initial, for that matter. So that’s a full 180 degree reversal from what our signers did.

But a curious thing. So many of them—the great majority– use a nickname! Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz. Tom Udall. Mitch McConnell. On and on. How come? Methinks many politicians consider it smart to cozy up to voters and potential voters by sounding like just the nice neighbor next door. Culture is so, so interesting. But speaking of that, nicknames are common around the world, I believe. I’ve even had a few.

So, let me get back. When did this middle initial craze begin to show up? I checked a list of our presidents. Ten of the 44 used a middle initial. First, James K. Polk, 1845. Then Ulysses S. Grant, 1869. So, the mid 19th century might be the answer.

By the way, just two are listed with a nickname and they’re still among us, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

So who was the Smart Alec who originated this imbecilic shortcutting? I have no idea. Let me speculate. He must have been somebody about to sign an important document. Must have had a very long name—a first name, middle name, and family name too long for the space he had. So he just truncated. Used the initial for name number 2. Those looking on must have been impressed. Became copy cats. That launched the new style. And here we are.

If you have a better explanation, or what you think is a better hypothesis, please, please let me know.

I told you there’s a deeper explanation in my case. I was named Jean-Guy LaPlante. My parents were French-speaking immigrants from Québec up there in Canada. My name, Jean-Guy, is totally in tune with the tradition and culture up there. The purpose of the hyphen is simple–to let everybody know that my name is not Jean or Guy. It is the two together.

As I grew up into young manhood, I tried to Americanize myself. Don’t we all do that? So natural to go with the flow. What did I do? I started using Jean G. LaPlante. That became my byline on one newspaper and then that one.

Now and then I might get a call from someone asking for Miss Jean LaPlante or a letter addressed that way. That irritated me.

My solution was dramatic. I changed Jean to John– which is the English equivalent–and changed the G. to Guy and I went to a lawyer and got my name registered legally as John Guy LaPlante and he charged me $35. That was that. Now, for sure that offended my parents though they said nothing. Very insensitive on my part. I feel guilty about it.

Know what? If I could go back 55 years, I would act differently. I would still be Jean-Guy LaPlante in everything to everybody, my byline. Now if somebody would not quite get it, I would think, “That’s your problem. Not mine.” My friends and associates would quickly have gotten the hang of it Might even have liked Jean-Guy LaPlante. Well, I do. It delights me that a small few very close to me still call me that.

But back to my point that using a middle name is unAmerican. Here’s why. It’s simple. Look at the facts–my experience, for instance. Despite my earnest efforts, no way can I get officialdom or the establishment to go along and use my full middle name.

I pay a lot of bills by check. Every check has John Guy LaPlante imprinted at the top. I always sign every check John Guy LaPlante. And I fill in every single form of any kind as John Guy LaPlante. Bank accounts. Insurance policies. Voter registration. Driver’s license. Subscriptions.

Of course I have credit and debit cards. Which I signed up for as John Guy LaPlante. But it’s John G. LaPlante that’s embossed on them. And what an awful consequence that has.

Everything comes to me as John Guy LaPlante! You name it. I even get Christmas and birthday cards from very close folks as John G. LaPlante. I can fight it but can’t beat it.

What’s best is just to grin and bear it.

Now that I think about it, the only important thing that carries my full name is my email address,

Maybe there’s a universal app out there that automatically switches any middle name into an initial!

One more thought. I think some people are so used to using just their middle initial that they have to think a minute to recall their middle name. Yet I’m sure their father and mother chose that middle name with care. Maybe to honor somebody. Or please somebody. Or to respect a tradition. How sad.

Oh, try this on yourself. Quick, what’s your middle name? Now ask your children, “What’s my middle name?” Now ask your spouse the same thing.

By the way, I must tell you something else. I also feel it is wrong for daughters to give up their family name when they marry. Other cultures are smarter about that, too, and use a nice compromise. Spanish, for instance. But I’ll leave that for another day.

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