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Remembering fireworks - in war and in festivity

The air was heavy and humid like it often is on a July 4th morning.

We had spent the past couple days admiring the supposedly hidden stash of firecrackers, cherry bombs and mysterious items brother Leon had hidden under his bed.

Lemonade cooled in the refrigerator, which was large enough to hold the four Leghorn roosters that had been dressed the day before and a huge bowl of mother's best potato salad.

Rumors ran rampant that a relative would bring a store-bought watermelon, an expensive treat that we otherwise couldn't afford, and another would come with a full case of ice-cold grape pop.

I dared not spoon into the salad out of fear that Mother would discover the theft and press her thumb and index finger hard against an earlobe. It might seem unlikely, but few things cause greater pain than that.


There were many ways to get into trouble, not the least of which involved pilfering Black Cat firecrackers. Mother warned about blown-off fingers, and Dad recommended that we use the common sense that we seldom practiced.

This, indeed, was going to be a most special July 4th.

Brother Art had made it back safe and sound from Vietnam — except for a shrapnel-caused wrist wound that earned a Purple Heart. He didn't make much of the medal, nor did he talk much about his experiences over there.

He had rushed home in a 1955 Ford purchased down in Texas. It was a killer machine, with a stick shift and a powerful engine that roared. Mother didn't cry often, but tears fell when he left for Vietnam and when he came back home.

Mother prayed the Rosary daily for his safe return. I tried to pray 10 Our Father's daily and felt guilty when I didn't. Mother mailed him fruitcake in early November so that he would get it at Christmas. He wrote back and said it was great, although even with the best of packaging, it arrived too moldy to eat.

The truth was Art and I were more like oil and water than blood brothers. It started back when I was 7 and he was hunting the blackbirds that threatened to overtake the grain field. I scared the birds so they wouldn't be shot, and in response, he shot me in the leg with a BB gun. The pellet didn't break skin, and no one made any fuss about it. I doubt he even remembers it.

We have mellowed through the years.

Although he kept the war mostly to himself, he agreed when the church asked if he would present a slide show and talk about his experiences. I saw the pictures — shirtless, tired men sitting in forest shade provided by trees stripped of limbs by shells. He showed us a picture of a pretty girl in a mini-skirt he met while on rest and recuperation, which the Army provided as a short respite from the war.


He talks about Vietnam more freely now, about finding a dirty pond in the hills and putting a tablet in the canteen so the polluted water wouldn't sicken. He mentions a single toothbrush that he carried with him at all times and that as a sergeant, he carried lots of extra underwear for the green troops who needed it after their first time under fire. No doubt friends didn't survive the war, but that isn't mentioned.

I admire him for what he's done, the bravery that I can't imagine mustering.

A nephew says it would be great if someone would write a book about him and the war — although it remains unknown if he would sit still for that.

It was the best Fourth of July ever. Art brought some rockets from Texas more powerful than any available. Leon gave us all the firecrackers we needed and, when night fell, helped light the sparklers, which we waved just outside the kitchen window so Mother could more easily watch the show.

It is going to be a much quieter Fourth of July this year.

I'll fire up the grill and burn a few hot dogs and have a cheap beer or two. I'll spend part of the time back in the 1960s, when Mother fried spring chicken in lard and seasoned the potato salad just so. I'll see a muscled young man in an Army uniform, laughing while shooting a rocket into the night sky.

As the years move along, memories take on greater importance. Admiration has replaced animosity. The good thing is there is still time to express it. I'll mention that to him some day.

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