A lot of my fondest memories of childhood and summertime revolve around 4th of July. For all of my 42 years I’ve spent Independence Day in my hometown of Bel Air Maryland. Bel Air was once a rural town that was separated from the overcrowding and problems of the city. A town where Main Street was the hub of commerce and everyone pretty much knew everyone. Every year the town’s 4th of July celebration revolved around a full schedule of events from sun-up with the flag raising ceremony at Bel Air High School conducted by the local VFW, a pancake breakfast sponsored by the Knights of Columbus, a frog jumping contest, a turtle derby, a bicycle rodeo, and a watermelon eating contest. The activities would then take a lull and that’s when we’d go back to my parent’s house and have a pool party/cook-out accentuated by the occasional whistle or bang of my dad’s fireworks stash. We’d have tons of people at the house, every aunt and uncle, all the cousins, the grandparents, friends of the older cousins, neighbors and their friends all from surrounding areas. The kids who’d spent the entire day drinking one soda after another usually got rowdy and the cannonball contests always did a decent job at significantly lowering the water level in the pool. Of course the adults got rowdy too but that usually had a lot to do with the Pabst Blue Ribbon and Miller High Life. The grill was constantly on and hotdogs and hamburgers were so plentiful you could easily have eaten yourself into a coma. Finally when evening would come our group and the majority of other families would gather up the kids with blankets and aluminum lawn chairs in hand to sit along Main Street to watch the annual 4th of July parade. The parade was nothing more than local politicians in the back of convertibles, new car dealers displaying their newest model, a couple floats, every high school marching band in Harford County and just as many volunteer fire companies showing off their gleaming trucks and apparatus all while delighting the kids with sirens and blasts from their air horns. To outsiders it would appear as if the parade really sucked but to those who grew up in the area it was always the grandest parade they’d ever witnessed. And after the parade was over the same families would pick up their blankets and lawn chairs and make their way a couple blocks over to the expansive baseball and soccer fields at the high school to set up camp to prepare for the awe inspiring spectacle of the yearly fireworks. Kids would run around the fields screaming and hollering and playing with sparklers, all while the parents tried to hear the Bel Air Town Band on a less than adequate sound system go though John Phillip Sousa’s repertoire. When it was finally dark enough the fireworks would finally start and the kids would retreat back to their blankets to ooh and ahh during the surprisingly impressive show. Afterwards the gathered mass would go back to where they came from in a hefty traffic jam that would clog up every corridor of the small town until 11PM. We would then go back to my parents for even more food and drink and the party went on until all hours of the morning.
I mention all this in the past tense because things have changed. Harford County had a serious problem with uncontrolled development and sprawl in the mid-80’s and the town has seriously outgrown the small town charm that attracted people here in the first place. Bel Air is now home to every single chain restaurant and auto parts store you could ever imagine and rush hour traffic jams that rivals anything Baltimore could produce. But I digress… Now the town still has their yearly celebration but the expanse in population has made it a lot harder. The flag raising is still attended by the old-timers but the majority of the population has little desire to get up at 6:45 to watch a flag rise up a pole. The pancake breakfast is an unbelievable operation now – the Knights of Columbus members now work about 35 propane fired grills producing pancakes at an alarming rate. The animal races and the watermelon eating contests are so packed with contestants that they actually have to turn some people away. I went to the frog-jumping contest last year and they had 25 heats of 5 kids and their frogs! The bicycle rodeo is now so crowded with little kids and their holiday decorated bikes there is bound to be a major pile-up one of these days. We still go to my parent’s house for the pool party but most of the aunts and uncles with their kids now grown decide to stay closer to their homes and their grandchildren - so it’s a lot more low key. Now the parade is where things have really gotten out of hand – people stake out spots by placing out tarps and chairs a week in advance. And not just small areas for 4-5 people but spots big enough to fit 30 people, a barbecue grill, a kiddy pool, an inflatable moon bounce and still enough spare room to park a Lincoln Towncar! The fireworks also have become mass chaos because the location changed when they built the new high school a few years back and it makes for a foot blistering walk and the best vantage point is now at the bottom of a hill in the middle of nowhere.
Sure it may be lame and there may be a thousand fancier celebrations within driving distance but to me it’s home and the pride I feel when I see my high school’s marching band and our hometown’s fire engines gleaming proudly in the July heat never fails to put a lump in my throat. I grew up with this and I want my kids to be a part of it as well. Besides, I was here long before the crowds of new residents and I feel that this is my town and no one is going to move me away from my 4th of July celebration no matter how lame it may be! I wouldn’t miss it for the world!