"By the rude bridge that arched the flood / Their flag to April's breeze unfurled / Here once the embattled farmers stood / And fired the shot heard round the world."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Concord Hymn"
When I was a boy growing up in Massachusetts, in the neighborhood of this inspiring message, most of us made much of the Fourth of July.
My maternal grandmother and grandfather lived close to the bridge, perhaps 10 miles away. We always had a patriotic celebration on the Fourth of July along with many neighbors.
Ours was not a rally round "the rude bridge that arched the flood," but it was a gathering of people in a common spirit to continue the praise of our patriot forebears. Parades, fireworks, American flags, speeches represented a pride in our country and what it stands for.
As a boy, my participation in the celebration was exemplified by how I placed small firecrackers in the holes of telephone poles. I would stand behind the pole and reach around it to light the firecracker so it would go off in the opposite direction. We were always lectured about being safe with the fireworks. I listened.
Outdoor food was an important part of that long-standing tradition, as it oftentimes is today. One time, my Uncle Bob baked a whole salmon in a most unusual way to celebrate the fourth of July. He dug a hole and built a fire in it. When the fire had burned down to coals, he placed a salmon, wrapped tightly in aluminum foil, along with baking potatoes also wrapped, on the coals, sprinkled it all with water to make steam, covered the hole and left it all to bake for a couple of hours. Then we carefully took it out of the hole and served up the portions.
The smoky flavor was delicious.
My wife lived in the South when she was growing up, where her family carried on a different tradition on July 4. They always cut a watermelon or two. One melon would only serve eight people, as they were accustomed to eating. If they were in the mountains for the holiday, the melon was probably chilled in a nearby creek to make it crisp and delicious.
This brings to mind a story her father used to tell about the young boy who was hanging around a country store where there was a big pile of watermelons by the door waiting to be sold. A traveler stopped to buy one. He said to the boy, "I bet a dollar you can't eat a whole one of those."
The boy thought a moment, and then said, "Wait a minute." And he ran around to the back of the store. Pretty soon, he came back and said, "All right, I'll take your bet."
The traveler bought one of the biggest melons in the pile, cut it open, and the boy dug in. It wasn't long till he had finished the whole thing. The man pulled out a dollar and as he handed it to the boy, he asked, "By the way, why did you run back behind the store before you would take me up on the bet?"
The boy answered, "Well, I had to see if I could eat one first!"
In New England, we did not have a craving for watermelon, but we did like baked beans and brown bread. The brown bread came in a can, and we would take off the top and steam it in the oven in order to melt butter on it as we ate it hot with our Great Northern beans. They would have been cooking all day long in a brown crockery pot with molasses and a piece of salt pork. (In the South, I learned, they would call that fat back.)
It has been a joy for me to reminisce about these seasonal things and to share memories with my wife, who does the typing on the computer because of my condition. By chance, I grew up in New England, but the spirit pervades the entire 50 states - the spirit of being together in a single cause, to protect our country and other people who have much less freedom than we enjoy.
Long may the spirit of freedom continue!
Thomas is a Tribune Chronicle columnist.