Tuesday, July 3, 2007
...and the rocket's red glare!
....the bombs bursting in air!
Happy Fourth of July everyone!
Let's set the stage a little: I'm a child of the Fifties and grew up in the Sixties.
Hopefully I don't sound too hackneyed when I say...those were great times to be a kid. All the promises and extravagances of the post-War era were resting on our little boomer shoulders. The privations of war and its aftermath were over and the dawning realization that the American Dream really did not extend to all Americans was just a faint mosquito's buzz.
Hula-hoops, big cars and cheap gas, The Beatles! Life was good.
The Milwaukee area was a great place to be a kid in the Sixties. The remnants of the Socialist what-can-your-government-do-for-you ideal was still a reality. We had some serious kid services. The West Allis-West Milwaukee Parks and Rec was unbelieveable. In the summer, all-you-can-create Arts and Crafts programs, sports teams, swimming, you name it...and it was FREE! None of this Proposition 13 shit. (Non-Californians, just Google it) Community businesses underwriting community services?...YOU BETCHA! Be on a baseball team (with a coach)?...Free. Wanna learn to swim?....Free. Feel like making a lanyard or fingerpainting?....Free!
This abodanza of stuff and services was put over the top on The Fourth of July.
My little village of West Milwaukee (don't quote me, but I think mid-60's population was 5000) had morning-to-evening programs for the whole community.
The parade would begin at City Hall in the late morning. Various civic organizations (although I do not remember any Shriner-go karts!), usually the Saint Matthias Drum and Bugle Corps, maybe the WeMiHi band too. Then all the decorated bicycles and buggies! This was a BIG DEAL in kid-land. You had to totally deck out your bike with some patriotic theme. Weave crepe-paper in your spokes. Make red/white/blue tassels for your hand grips. Dress like Uncle Sam!
1963-1964-ish....my Grandma/Grandpa W. had gone south on a vacation and brought back African-American dolls for my sister and me. Mom sewed-up some cool red/white/blue dresses and Dad made a sign "Liberty and Justice for All" and we attached our new dolls and an old Anglo "baby-wets-a-lot" to the back of the bike. Well, I did not win any prize, but sure got a lot of lookers. (West Milwaukee definitely not winning any prizes at that time for progressive thoughts on integration)
The parade would wind down Beloit Road to 52nd St. and on to West Milwaukee Park. The line of parade participants/families would stretch from the north-west corner of the park, around the baseball diamond in the south-west corner all the way to "The Pavilion", where you would get: a Giant bar, a cup of ice cream (complete with the little wooden "spoon") and a toy (based on your age group). One year, we actually got a olive drab pump gun that would shoot out ping-pong balls!
After that, the bikes and buggies would be judged and prizes given to the lucky participants. Next, games would be played and MORE prizes given out. Three-legged race, balloon toss, peanut in the spoon. You get the idea.
We would go home after this part, since we just lived a few blocks away. The old memory banks are pretty foggy on this part of the day. In the early evening we would meet up with the K. family (who lived right next door to the park-those lucky stiffs!) and gather once again in the park where there would be live music (an accordion band, perhaps and then some pimply-faced teens playing that rock-and-roll stuff) and culminated in a super-cool fireworks display.
In 1963, the "Great Schlitz Circus Parade" came to town. It was a part of "Old Milwaukee Days", which happened around the Fourth holiday time and was a precursor to the "fests" of today. I remember there were events all weekend on the Lakefront in front of the War Memorial. Was the early Lakefront Festival of the Arts held at that time? I do remember checking out booths with "artsy stuff"...My sister and I got rocks painted with our initials.
I remember going up to 61st and Beloit Road to the train tracks a few days before...to see the train carrying the circus wagons. That was pretty exciting to see. Not the usual boring old box cars for once!
We attended this lakefront shin-dig with our cousins...weirdly, the non-Schlitz cousins....but whatever... Of course, not much money changed hands (i.e. NO TREATS) and we probably had the ubiquitous "cheese and sausage", and PBJ's from home, but one of the things I remember was Uncle J's Kool-Aid Concoction: two cans of lemonade and one can grape juice in a big cooler of water and ice. MMMMM. Now I know where Jim Jones got his idea! (Actually, I really liked it!)
The Circus Parade itself was on July 3rd. That year, I remember staking out a corner on Michigan and ??? (now it is the south-east corner of the "real tall" building...First Wisconsin? ) There was a gas station there at the time. Come to think of it....the damn TRAIN STATION was still on the Lakefront! Wow, those are the OLD DAYS!
Of course the circus wagons and the exotic animals were exciting to see. One group that fascinated me was the "Mummers"--lots of freaky feathers and stuff (think Mardi Gras), Shriners with their fezzes doing their thing, Milwaukee's Finest doing their thing too. Clowns up the wazoo. For some reason, my sister and I were wearing our "Ragtime Cowboy Joe" tap dance outfits.
In the evening, FIREWORKS!!! These were the most awesome fireworks. They seemed to last forever. This was before Veteran's Park was filled in, so I am guessing they were shot off from a barge. This was a major cool aspect of Milwaukee fireworks--they are on the 3rd! Ostensibly, you go to the Lakefront on the 3rd, then attend your neighborhood show on the 4th.
In subsequent years, I remember going to the circus parade with Grandma/Grandpa W. and sitting across from the Arena. For a while there, the parade was on hiatus I think. (Funding and Schlitz going under, etc.) Old Milwaukee Days morphed into some fest or another. The last time I went to the Circus Parade was in 2001. I was visiting from CA with my BF and one of his daughters. My cousin Tom saved us a rockin' spot near Zeidler Park. It was like a thousand degrees, but the out-of-towners were duly impressed! Good old West Milwaukee park probably stopped fireworks in the 70's. Who knows when the daylong festivities ended....?
My last (as a citizen) fireworks was 1980, and I do remember attending the 3rd fireworks in 1984-1985 or so. M+A were "pull 'em in the wagon size". I guess now the fireworks are a part of Summerfest.
When I first moved to California, I was appalled that there were no fireworks! The answers I got were ...Prop13 and "oh they had them at Redondo, but everybody went nuts, so it was stopped". Torrance has had a great lil' Fourth Celebration since about 1988 or so (when Wilson Park was built). Food and craft booths during the day, and a nice fireworks at night. Our new house is only a half mile from the park, so if we sit in the middle of the street, we can see them OK. Unless the fog rolls in. Then we're screwed. And you can't blame Prop13.
Artwork by Jade