By Jim Van Orden, Richardson, TX
(Part one in a four-part series chronicling a boy’s memories of his hometown “back then.”)
Viva LaFrance and Maplewood’s Fourth
You heard it coming long before you saw it. In fact, when its engine was hand-cranked and fired up at dawn, a tradition each Fourth of July, it woke folks within a half-mile radius. After a loud backfire and rattling of valves, chains and gears, the 1918 American LaFrance fire truck rolled out of hibernation and chugged along Baker Street.
From there the massive, chain-driven vehicle with hard rubber tires turned on Valley Street, firemen hanging from its sides, and started up Tuscan Road toward my house. It was around 1947 and I was a little boy the first time I ran to the curb, parents in tow, to watch the spectacle. And it may have been one of the first memories of my hometown, Maplewood, New Jersey.
Although loud and slow, the old fire engine symbolized the town’s heritage and was brought out only on special occasions such as the Fourth. It wasn’t the first loud noise I heard that morning. Another tradition was the sunrise canon fire—a 21-gun salute—in Memorial Park that sounded like World War-II salvos and sent shock waves across town.
The day’s excitement started early with footraces in the park. Getting there was a short walk from my home on sidewalks lined with maple trees. The ubiquitous maples were joined by enormous oaks, elms and chestnuts, many of which were planted by the town’s developers in the 1920s. The half-mile-square park near the center of town was a focal point during my youth. Pick-up baseball games in its fields marked Saturday mornings. I sailed miniature boats in the duck pond (and chased the ducks). Winters seemed colder then and a low-lying area was flooded so water would freeze and provide weeks of ice skating.
Memorial Park was a great venue for the Fourth of July celebration, too. Fast forward from 1947 to 1951. My parents and I walked quickly to the park for the eight a.m. start of the elementary school foot races. My first grade teacher, Mrs. Carrigan, selected me and several other boys to represent Tuscan Elementary School in the 30-yard dash. My little world expanded when I met dozens of boys from schools I never heard of— Jefferson, Clinton and Seth Boyden—who lined up for preliminary heats. They were fast, too, and for the first time I felt competitive pressure. I survived two heats, made the finals and placed third. A few years later, my fourth grade relay team won the 200-yard dash…and our first gold medals.
It was scalding hot as cars lined streets and residents poured into the park for the afternoon circus. The extravaganza of tents and performers included thrilling high-wire acts. Men and women were launched from canons, swung from swings suspended on high, swallowed swords, spit fire, juggled bowling balls and danced with dogs and bears. After dinner, the celebration continued with stage performances by crooners and vocal groups, and often included an opera ensemble. Musicians gave virtuoso performances on accordions, guitars, violins and pianos.
As the sun set excitement grew among the children. We knew it was time for fireworks. Perhaps it was my age, but I swear fireworks of the 1950s were louder and longer than what we experience today. The earth literally shook as round after round of missiles launched high, their colorful plumes, ribbons and sparklers exploding in all directions as they lit the sky. Screams came from everywhere as penetrating concussions hammered our chests and numbed brains.
Like clockwork the clouds moved overhead as the fireworks ended. Suddenly the sky opened and rain came down in buckets. Chaos followed. Parents scooped up children, chairs, blankets and picnic remains. Everyone made a mass exodus to their cars, bodies and clothing soaking wet. The number of kids screaming “Mommy, where are you?” increased with the rain’s intensity, as did the frequency of public address announcements informing parents there was “a lost five-year-old at the ticket office.”
Bumper-to-bumper traffic inched along Valley Street in both directions. Mom and Dad never complained as we walked home. And I always slept well after it was over.
“Rough, Tough Cream Puffs”
“You’re a bunch of rough, tough cream puffs!” Mr. Zubacki screamed in frustration. “Can’t you stay in tune and play together?”
We heard that a lot during the months of practice leading up to Memorial Day, 1959. The Maplewood Junior High School band was preparing for the mile-long march from Columbia High School to “Flagpole Hill” in Memorial Park. Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and veteran’s organizations were also getting ready for the march.
This was the “Big Kahuna” of Maplewood parades, a tradition played out for decades. Mr. Zubacki took it seriously. Every day he had us play our music and march on streets near the junior high. I liked the man despite his gruff manner and calling me “creampuff.” He had been my band instructor since third grade when Johnny Mitchell and I played our trumpets together. I was shocked the first time I was called “creampuff.” But after that I knew it wasn’t personal.
My early days in the Memorial Day parade had nothing to do with music. They involved riding a bicycle with dozens of other kids. I festooned my Columbia bike with red-and-white ribbons strung through spokes, American flags tied to the frame and handlebar, and playing cards affixed to fenders using Mom’s clothespins. The bike now made a loud clacking sound. Imagine the cacophony created by 100 kids riding card-carrying bikes.
I think Mr. Zubacki got even for the times I missed band practice by having me switch from trumpet to baritone. Resembling a miniature tuba, it took muscle to carry the large instrument on a hot walk. But there I was in white pants and shirt, sweaty hands holding my baritone, as the band stood in front of Columbia High School. When the band, scouts, veterans and kids on bikes were assembled and ready, someone blew a whistle and we marched along Valley Street to the discordant sounds of John Philip Sousa’s “Stars And Stripes Forever.”
It appeared everyone in town lined the parade route. They cheered and patriotism was at a fever pitch. I felt proud and realized the practice sessions had paid off. Mr. Zubacki, dressed in his magnificent white uniform and carrying a baton that he waved, led us majestically to Memorial Park.
The band marched into the park and lined up in rows along a grass-covered hillside. Veterans and scout troops filled the area around risers behind the duck pond. Most folks held small American flags. It was deathly quiet as a minister, speaking softly into a microphone, said prayers for those who died in various wars while everyone bowed heads. An old general stepped forward and praised soldiers he served with during World War-I. Other officers who fought in World War-II and Korea did the same.
The ceremony always ended with two hidden trumpeters playing “Taps.” It was still the 1950s, a tranquil and peaceful time in American history. The future looked bright and a new decade was ahead.
© Copyright, Jim Van Orden, 2012, all rights reserved.