VERNON COUNTY - It was hard to stay in the top bunk while my older sister slept soundly below me. Filled with excitement for my favorite day of the year to begin, I’d throw my skinny brown legs over the side rail. When I felt the oak frame solid under my summer-toughened feet, I’d quietly climb down backwards, one rung at a time.
Out in the hallway, I’d sneak past my parents’ bedroom door, then my brother’s, and head straight for the garage, looking for Dad. I knew he wouldn’t be sleeping. Not on 4th of July morning! Not on my mom’s birthday!
By the time I’d get there, Dad would have already swept the concrete floor clean with the regular straw broom, then hosed it off, back to front, and would just be starting his final pass from the back of the garage with the stiff, long-handled T-broom. He’d give that broom a long hard push, forcing the water and dirt forward, then several quicker, shorter, fast pushes to keep all the debris moving ahead. A final quick flick would move any excess water and grit out of the garage and onto the driveway. Returning to the back of the garage, he’d move a couple feet to the left and repeat this process. Push, push, flick. Push, push, flick.
My bare feet, wet from the puddles on the cement, would leave footprints where the floor had already dried out, my arches forming a circle. Soon the garage was ready for the traditional 4th of July decorating of my bicycle. Later on, my dad would use the space to set up card tables for our guests to eat at.
Dad would wheel my bike to the middle of the clean damp garage, grab the bag of holiday paraphernalia, and weave red, white and blue crepe paper in and out of my bike’s spokes. Next I’d hand him miniature flags on wooden sticks to tape to my handlebars and the back of my bike seat.
My job was to wrap crepe paper around the frame, making sure there was no slack in the roll as I went and that every rotation overlapped the previous row. Dad would help me switch out the colors and apply tape to hold it all together.
To finish off the bike, Dad attached a poster board to my bike basket on which he’d written ‘Don’t Clown Around with Freedom.’ Soon it would be time to decorate me.
We’d sent in to Wonder Bread for my costume. It consisted of a white hat and top, both covered in primary-color polka dots like the Wonder Bread bags themselves. The top had a clown-like red ruffle sewn around it, giving it a festive look.
Into the kitchen we’d go for a fast bowl of Cheerios, an even faster change into my costume, and a super speedy job of applying my mom’s red lipstick around my mouth with a dab on each cheek. Dad would remind me to put on shoes before we headed back outside.
I’d ride my bike with my dad run-walking next to me. We’d wind our way on the blacktop path through the Hales Corners Park, over the bridge, and up the hill past the baseball diamonds and pool until we’d come out on Godsall Avenue, where the old brick elementary school was.
A horde of people dressed in red, white and blue would be milling about on the road in front of the school. Children and parents were everywhere, many wearing plastic flag earrings, white shorts, and either blue or red tops. Grandparents stood ready to push baby buggies decorated in holiday colors, while dogs panted at the end of their leashes attached to the handlebars of Fourth of July-themed tricycles.
Soon the lead parade car would turn on its flashing red light and blast out big-band patriotic music. I’d proudly pedal my bike and my dad would stride alongside. Despite the size of the crowd, before we knew it the parade would be over, our bikes tipped over on the hot blacktop, forgotten for the most part as we made a mad dash to the ice-cream line!
Little plastic vanilla ice cream cups and tiny wooden spoons were freely handed out. Dad would eat his ice cream cup with just as much relish as I would. The only difference was that none of his ice cream ended up on his shirt or face.
When we got back home, the rest of the day was spent barefoot with people coming and going, hamburgers and brats on the grills, loads of potato chips, ice-cold pop, plenty of pickles, and games of badminton and Jarts. After dark, we watched fireworks from our front yard, where Dad had set up rows of patio chairs, folding chairs, kitchen chairs, and camp chairs for our company. Oohs and aahhs could be heard with each colorful explosion that lit up the sky.
Dad would bring out long boxes of sparklers, and we’d spell our names over and over again against the blackness of the night, with the smell of sulfur hanging thickly in the air. Mom was a stickler for making us put the burnt-out wires in a large coffee can. One year, I stepped barefoot on a still-hot wire lying in the yard. Ouch!
Finally, we’d all gather and sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to Mom and enjoy a huge piece of her red, white, and blue decorated Baskin Robbins ice cream cake.
I hated seeing the day come to an end.
Back into the top bunk bed I’d climb, the bottoms of my feet blackened from my favorite summer day well spent. My dad would say prayers with me and tuck me in for the night. Before he could even close my door, I’d be sound asleep.
Not even my sister, creeping in much later, would wake me up.