Friday, June 29, 2012

Go, Fourth! Part 2

The picture attached to today's blog entry was taken July 1969. I am about halfway to being seven years old.

I am standing next to my trusty Radio Flyer wagon, which, prior to my Schwinn bike, was my main mode of transportation back then. This tank was indestructible, and I can recall numerous times I would bend one knee into its payload space, use the other free leg to propel myself forward, and rocket down our street, trying to steer using the black handle that, owing to my position and lack of height, came roughly to my lower jaw, making any kind of movement with any kind of accuracy a total joke.

As we boomers are fond of saying: It's a miracle any of us survived our childhoods.

This picture was taken the morning of our community's Fourth of July parade. Our parade had the usual array of bands and Boy Scouts, of flags and veterans, and even a rag-tag band bleating out a half-hearted version of "The Washington Post March."

But it also included a competition for the kids in the neighborhood who marched in a number of categories, competing for prizes.

There were a number of brackets in which entries were possible. I remember Decorated Bicycle being a biggie. Mostly because it never took much effort to thread some red-white-and-blue streamers through the spokes of your Schwinn (be sure to wrap your sissybar and banana seat as well!) and ride forth.

There was also a float category, which is the one Mom always advised for us. "The bike category is always too crowded," she'd say, craftily plotting how to beat the odds. "Go for the floats! Fewer kids means a better chance for you to win."

And I believe there was a category for kids on foot, but this always seemed to be won by some girl whose mother, a seamstress from the old country, could fashion a Betsy Ross costume accurate to the thread count of the duster and the exact hue of dye for her flag as commissioned by the Minutemen.


On July 04 1969, the space race was in full swing, just on the cusp of Armstrong's landing some two weeks later. The space mania of the time coincided with an absolute stroke of good fortune -- and a healthy dose of imagination from Mom. Somewhere, somehow, she was able to put her hands on a discarded refrigerator box. Whether it came from one of her sisters or a neighbor who had invested in a new appliance, I can't remember.
I do recall spending hours on the back patio, spraying it silver, decorating it, nestling it into my wagon, and otherwise prepping for its Independence Day debut.

The nose-cone proved to be a challenge. The box's square top didn't exactly scream aerodynamic, so we took the flaps and cut them into trapezoids that were then duct-taped four to a side. Ah, the magic of duct tape!

But we still needed a pinnacle. And in a fit of inspiration, Mom took an empty bleach bottle, inverted it, cut off the bottom, and voila! It was ready for its foil heat-shield and installation.

As you can see, we weren't exactly up to the NASA standards for plumb, but hey, close enough for government work.

The only drawback to this massive creation was its lack of mobility. Not that it was heavy, but in my rickety wagon, as in my streaking down the street, steering was an issue.

No mind, we hauled it off to the starting point of the parade, found our age-appropriate category, and set forth.

As a side note, I do recall that my one brother was also a participant in this parade, in the dreaded bicycle category. But Mom used the opportunity to make the peacenik point that the war in Southeast Asia had gone on too long -- thank you, Mr. Nixon -- and that it was time to bring it to a close. So his bicycle had a small tableau in the front basket of two G.I. Joe action figures engaged in battle. And a cardboard sign behind them, advising "BRING OUR BOYS HOME!"

We wended our way through the neighborhoods, where crowds of people watched from the sidelines.

I do recall having some technical difficulties with that damned bleach bottle. Luckily, just like the real astronauts, I did have a ground crew, even though I can attribute the assistance more to luck than preparation. Just as my rocket's nose was threatening to tip over, I caught sight of an uncle in the crowds. I somehow expressed to him my plight and, glory be!, he had a spare roll of duct tape!

A few zips of tape, cut by nipping the raw edge with his teeth, and we were back in orbit!

With several hundred other competitors, we made our way to the local baseball field, where, armed with a sound system that never quite worked correctly, we would participate in a program that included a flag raising; the Pledge of Allegiance; the emotional playing of the National Anthem courtesy of a scratchy 45 rpm, amplified by the aforementioned lackluster sound system; and the Pièce de résistance, the awarding of the parade prizes.

I don't remember much about the ancillary pieces of this culmination of small-town patriotism. I was too excited to find out how we'd fared.

From the loudspeaker, the categories started being called, with winners trotting to center field to accept their accolades.

Soon it was time for my bracket.

And for just a second I stopped breathing.

And heard.

MY NAME called!!!

Our spacecraft had won!

I leapt forward, yanking the wagon behind me, and bounded across the grass, my winning entry clattering behind me.

And bouncing.

And teetering.

I was oblivious. I continued to run, arm stretched out behind me, fist locked on the handle of the wagon.

The clapping of the crowd filled my ears. I was delirious.

I had won! I had won! I was on the top of the world...


Until the entire rocket tipped over and landed in a heap of crepe paper, cardboard, foil, and duct tape.

I didn't see this happen. I heard it. And I felt it, as the wagon and its payload became a heap of disappointment that I was now dragging across the dusty infield.

The crowd gasped. The Emcee, seeing my distressed, called forward to me: "It's okay, son. Come on!"

And so I left the wagon behind and ran to the dais. I was still greeted with firm handshakes, backpats, and big grins, so any disappointment I may have felt by the accident was quickly overcome.

I got a crisp $20 bill for my entry.

And when the Emcee asked me what I was going to do with the money and shoved the live mic in my face for the response, I came out with this: "My mother's birthday is tomorrow, and I'm going to buy her a birthday present!"


The rest of that morning is something of a blur. Somehow, my parents, I'm sure, managed to collect our dashed pile of patriotic pride and get it back in the car. And for what it's worth, my brother's decorated bike didn't win a thing.

So although my rocket was no longer soaring in the clouds, my spirits sure were.

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