Published July 2, 2019

Memories of an old fashioned Fourth of July

By Elizabeth Orendorff / The Bulletin

IAs I bite into the juicy flesh of watermelon before the Fourth of July, my thoughts transport me back to my childhood.

From the day school let out for the summer, I looked forward to July Fourth. The anticipation of the celebration made my mouth water and my nose tingle with the remembrance of the smells that would fill the air while my pulse raced with the excitement, and yes, some fear of what the day would bring.

My mother had funny ideas, being born and raised in South Louisiana. What we ate at what time of year happened to be one of them. As young children, Charles, my brother, and I never had a bite of watermelon until July Fourth. Mother said that if we had one before then that we’d be poisoned and blow up and die.

Every year when warm weather arrived, I begged and whined for watermelon, but got the same answer, “No.” Never one to give up, I questioned how a little watermelon could hurt us. I can still see Mother arch her brows, causing deep frown lines between her eyes, firm her mouth and say in her no-nonsense voice, “Elizabeth Jane, they aren’t ripe until then.” Her hazel eyes would pierce me, and I knew I should leave the room right then, instead of later.

Now, had I been grown and smarter, I’d known any old watermelon we ate on Fourth of July was surely picked before then. We didn’t grow them in the garden, so they had to be shipped from somewhere other than Monroe, Louisiana.

I counted the days until the big celebration the city held in the park each year. My brother and I always went to take part in all the fun and ate until our stomachs felt like they were going to burst. To this day, I get butterflies in my stomach when I recall the festive scene with so many people dressed in red, white and blue striped clothes and men on tom-walkers dressed in Uncle Sam costumes.

What a sight they created. If lucky, I’d get some of the cotton candy they handed out. Balloons would be flying in the air and occasionally were let loose to hover upward. The picnic tables stood decorated and loaded with food.

I liked to walk through to inspect the platters of food and see and smell the meat cooking on the grills. Then I decided what tables I wanted to visit for the best eats. The humid air hung thick with the smell of cooking meats, burgers, hot dogs and ribs. We’d join in the games and get skinned and dirtied knees and sometimes a tear or two in our shirts or shorts. Some boy always pulled the ribbons off my pigtails. Once I wound up with a bloodied nose, but I didn’t have time for it to hurt.

I never did do well in horseshoes, but my brother almost always was the champion. I would look around to be sure where Charles was playing before I’d bob for apples because he would dunk me in the water.

Usually, hunger would overtake me before the call to “come and get it,” so I’d head to the swings until time to eat. I’d go so high my feet would touch the sky – it’s a wonder I didn’t turn plumb over the rail on top.

The horn blew, signaling it was time to eat, and I’d run hard as I could to get in line. Once I filled my plate to overflowing and grabbed my slice of watermelon – no fork, spoon or knife – I lifted that slice up and dug in with my mouth, the sticky juice running down my chin, onto my neck and shirt. MMMM, it never failed to be delicious.

After eating until I could eat no more, I’d saunter back to the games. But, by then, my heart started racing in anticipation of the coming attraction. As the time grew near to dusk, I got antsy and had a knot of fear in my throat. Impatience for the fireworks to begin made me hop from one foot to another.
All of us kids got firecrackers and cherry bombs. We’d light them and run back to see them explode. The firecrackers danced off the ground, shooting sparks and smoke.

But the real show began with the wonderful display the city set off, filling the sky with bright colors and sparkles raining down. I’d try to catch some as they fell, but never did. The air filled with that funny smell that I now know came from gunpowder. It sure burned inside my nose. Each time there came a loud BOOM, my heart raced.

The beauty of the explosions made it worth it every minute I had to wait. I just didn’t understand how they set off so many fireworks and didn’t get burned. I never forgot the year I sneaked a Roman Candle, fired it, and it burned my hand. Mother had to take me to the emergency room.
When the party ended, and Charles and I left for home, we looked like hobos, two ragged and dirty kids. But boy, did we have fun!

Today, I still enjoy watermelon anytime I can get some. So far, I haven’t been poisoned or swelled up and died.

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