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Fourth of July Picnic

When I was a kid we went to Alliance, Nebraska for the Fourth of July. My father’s family held a huge family reunion in the park—oh my goodness, you have not tasted food if you have never attended a family reunion in Nebraska in the 1950’s. Potato salad, fried chicken, corn on the cob, baked ham, jello salads in all colors and varieties, baked beans redolent of molasses, coleslaw dressed with home-made mayonnaise, devilled eggs, pies, oh the pies! Apple, Cherry, Peach, Strawberry, Rhubarb, Blackberry, ambrosias made fruit floating in clouds of whipped cream. Root beer floats. Cakes—oh the cakes, layer cakes, yellow cakes with chocolate frosting, angel food cakes dripping with strawberries, chocolate cakes, white cakes with buttercream frosting. Huge picnic tables put end to end to make one long trestle down the middle of the park. Every morsel, every bite, every concoction made out of food from the farms, even the chickens, even the ham.

Nursing mothers sitting in the shade. Men playing horseshoes, kids running rampant everywhere, dirty from sliding into home during pick up softball games, sticky around the mouths and fingers from all the dessert sampling, tee shirts stained with spilled Kool-aid. A skinned knee or two. Then the music—guitars come out, old Swedish songs and Hank Williams songs, country songs, Old Country songs. Ballads of longing: If I had the wings of an angel, over these prison walls I would fly…My dad and Uncle Gib singing rowdy songs: There was an old man and he had an old sow, rowseldy, rowseldy row, with an oink and a snort and a grunt and a snuffle, rowseldy dow. Us kids gather around them and giggle at the noises, pretty soon we are all oinking and snuffling as the tune is sung over and over.

Little kids sleeping on blankets under the picnic table. Ladies gossiping. Old farmers talking about crops and weather and stock and water, their thumbs hooked in their suspenders. Courting couples sneaking off behind the trees for a kiss and a promise and maybe the beginning of the next generation, hints of wedding right after high school graduation. The scandalous town girl who dares to wear short shorts in front of all these boys and men.

And the fireworks! Uncle Rudy (who refuses to go to the reunion, claims it’s because he hates pickle relish) stays on the farm, drives his tractor up and down the rows of sugar beets—we bring him an ice cold root beer float out to the field during the middle of the day and return to the park) saves all year and spends a fortune on a box of fireworks that comes from Michigan every 1st of July. We all go out to the farm for the fireworks. Little kids are given sparklers and poppers and “worms” that can fizzle under the mothers’ feet and make them scream. Uncle Rudy puts lit firecrackers inside an old oil drum and we ride it while they explode, call it our “motorcycle.” Rudy and his son Karl (all of us girls of all ages are madly in love with Karl) and a couple of other older cousins set off the Roman Candles and Fountains, bursting up and up and over the fields of ripening corn. Somebody starts cranking the ice-cream freezer, we all take turns as it gets harder and harder to turn the handle. When all the fireworks have been set off, there will be homemade peach ice cream.

We kids get “over-diddled” as the saying went, cranky and hyper. A hand reaches out, a bottom gets smacked, doesn’t matter whose hand or which bottom. A cautionary thwack. A pout appears, a finger points—it wasn’t meanother hand reaches down and plunks another random kid on a lap until it stops wiggling and whizzling.

Stars come out, there’s coffee “up at the house.” Long after dark, if one can keep one’s eyes open long enough, one can see the line of cars driving out along the farm roads.

So why am I telling you all this? I’m thinking maybe this is what all those folks up at Mt. Rushmore want when they go to see a carny man in red, white, and blue as he emerges from a gypsy wagon disguised as a helicopter, walks up to a podium draped with American Flag bunting, and preaches a Return to Glory, Honor for our Heroes, Death to our Enemies— who are just there, just outside the gates, waiting to destroy our history. Maybe in their heart of hearts, their strands of DNA, underneath their MAGA hats, they want that family picnic in the park, those fireworks out by the barn, homemade peach ice cream. And that wanting, that yearning, that deep nostalgic hunger may well be what the wife of Lot felt when she turned her gaze backward, and we know how that turned out.

Happy Fourth of July, America.

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