Long ago, far away
Life was clear
Close your eyes*
Holidays are like mile markers on a journey. We are able to look back to see how far we’ve traveled and where we’ve been simply my reflecting on where we were a year ago on this day. If we look further back, we can return to holiday celebrations of our childhood which for some of us are pleasant memories of simpler times. The rituals and traditions associated with holidays can evoke body memories sparked by smells, sounds, sights, tastes, and touch. For the Fourth of July, it’s the smell of sulfur from lighting sparklers, the sounds and sight of fireworks exploding in brilliant color in the night sky, the taste of hot dogs, ice cream and soda pop and the drum beats of marching bands echoing and rumbling in one’s body.
I’m very fortunate to have grown up in Racine, Wisconsin. Though there were many reasons why I left my hometown to live here in Madison, I return home often in my reminiscing to the holidays and family traditions I remember warmly. One such holiday was the Fourth of July.
We celebrate Independence Day proudly in my hometown where we boast that we have one of the best parades in the U.S. In 2008, USA Today, named Racine, Wisconsin’s Fourth Fest, one of the Ten Best Places to Fly Your Flag. Racine ranked right behind Washington, D.C. It is still considered the Midwest’s Largest 4th of July Parade.
Remember, is a place from long ago
Remember, filled with everything you know,
Remember, when you’re sad and feelin’ down
Remember, turn around
Remember, life is just a memory,
Remember, close your eyes and you can see
Remember, think of all that life can be
*Lyrics from Remember (Christmas) by Harry Nilsson
Growing up in Racine in my family meant getting dressed first thing in the morning in our new summer shorts and top outfits, often in patriotic colors. Next, we’d decorate our bikes with red, white and blue crepe paper winding it through the spokes of our wheels and handlebars, up and down the frames, and weaving it in the openings of our wire bike baskets. We’d affix streamers from our handle bars and attach clothespins and a playing card to our wheels to make a sound when they turned. My sister Roz and I would help our friends and younger sister and brother decorate doll buggies and tricycles and we’d join the official Doll Buggy Parade at our park, Pierce Woods where we’d promenade the neighborhood where teenage playground assistants would escort us and later judge the entries, by age and creativity. Nearly everyone won a red or blue ribbon for the day.
Afterward, we’d travel to downtown Racine and our grandmother’s third floor walk-up brownstone apartment a few blocks from the parade route to join our extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins. Dad would take my sister and me down to Pershing Park at the lakefront where all the carnival rides, games and refreshment tents were setup. If we brought home a good report card that year we would receive a crisp new dollar from Dad and a coupon in our report card to redeem a free ice cream down at the fairgrounds.
Next was the working part of the day. I never liked this job because none of my cousins had to help. We’d return to the Grams’ apartment and pickup blankets and folding chairs and before the downtown parade route would get crowded with people, we’d stake out and claim our spot, laying down four or five blankets and placing two folding chairs, one on each end to help hold the blankets down. The chairs would later hold our Grams, Grandma Lenzke and Great Grandma Flanigan. Dad would leave Roz and I to protect and police our claim as he would return to the apartment. It was our job to not let anyone encroach on our domain. I’d pout until the rest of the family returned.
The highlight of the day was the parade. There were drum corps and marching bands including our award-winning Kilties Drum and Bugle Corp, there were clowns throwing candy and handing out balloons, fire engines with sirens and alarms ringing, numerous floats celebrating the factories and local industry that created jobs and built our city, Zor Shriners in their blazers adorned in medals and fezzes atop their heads, winding back and forth between the floats and bands tooting the horns on their miniature motorcycles and cars, driving right up to the children throwing out more candy.
We’d wait for the Wienermobile and little Oscar who would throw out wiener whistles. Bill Proxmire, our U.S. Senator would walk the parade route waving to the crowds with a smile on his face and say hello to the constituents and supporters he knew as he’d approach the crowds and shake hands. He’d tousle the hair of children’s heads. The highlight of the parade was yet to come, The Iowa Jima float commemorating the soldiers who saved the American Flag after a battle so it wouldn’t touch the ground. Firecrackers and cherry bombs would go off as the crowd would cheer, whistle and applaud loudly as the motionless soldiers who pretended to be the statue rode by. If you were lucky, you’d be sitting at one of the predetermined stops where they’d take a break to stretch and move before they reassembled to their positions as the statue — pure patriotic magic.
Of course, there were more fire engines, both vintage and the most modern and up to date to be shown off, classic cars and brand new convertibles donated by car dealers like Don Hutson, the famous former Green Bay Packer football player. In the convertibles would ride Miss Racine and Alice in Dairyland, and other beauty queens. There were horses parading and horse apples littering the street to be shoveled by clowns with wagons. I would wait for my favorite group, the African American marching group which relied only on their special formations and the cleats on their white boots to tap and stomp with their feet on the concrete and dazzle the crowd with their syncopated choreography. In addition to their white boots, they wore khaki uniforms with white helmets, black patent leather belts, and white gloves. They never spoke a word.
After the last float, marching band and clown, we’d return to the Grams’ apartment for a late afternoon lunch of hot dogs and hamburgers, Jell-O, and potato salad, chips and brownies and ice cream. The adults would drink Miller High Life Beer the Grams favorite and us kids could have pop, orange or root beer, lime or cola, instead of the milk we’d normally be made to drink. Sometimes the cousins, escorted by the eldest of the group would walk a couple blocks downtown to movie matinee at the Rialto or Venetian Theaters to see a Disney movie like Flubber or The Shaggy Dog. The adults would drink beer, play cards, and talk.
We’d return home as it began to get dark. Some of our extended family would travel down to Lake Michigan for the fireworks display. We’d end our personal family tradition with lighting sparklers together, dancing and running in the yard like little sprites with Mom and Dad safely lighting them for us. We’d listen to the distant fireworks and wait to see if one would go high enough for us to see.
It always seemed like the Fourth of July was the longest and best day of the summer.
To see more photos of Racine’s Fourth Fest over the years, courtesy of the Racine Journal-Times: