My Dad loved the Fourth of July. The only person who might have loved it more would have been my Grandfather. He was wild about the chance to celebrate (he was wild Irish) and even more to light explosives. When Dad was a kid the Fourth meant that they were going to “the Farm” to meet with all of the cousins and eat fried chicken, slaw, cucumbers, ice cold watermelon and homemade pie and ice cream. In the 1940’s ice cold anything was a treat but especially ice cold watermelon! My Gram was one of 9 children and she was in the middle born July 22, 1907. The only one of the 9 born on her daddy’s birthday, they named her Pearl. The only one not given a middle name or initial! (Side note… she always thought that she was his favorite! 😊)
“The Farm” is in Brown County Kansas and the place where all of those kids grew up. Some stayed close to Morrill, but others moved away. The McKim Farm is still occupied by the same family and has seen each generation celebrate the Fourth in true McKim fashion. Coming home to the Farm was the greatest treat for my Dad and until the day he died he would recount the stories each year. His eyes would light up about the Baseball games in the front yard, sack races, swimming at Sun Springs, kids everywhere and family gathered in the hot Kansas summer to laugh and talk and play!! Under the big tree they spread blankets and waited until dark when Uncle Willard would begin the light show! When he showed up no one knew what he was going to pull!! I could picture it as plain as day because I too loved the Farm.
The summer of 1945 was different though. It didn’t bring happiness and family and laughter. It was a much more intense memory. My grandparents had moved my dad and Aunt Yolanda away from their home in Hoyt to the desolate dry lands of Western Kansas to open a drug store. Back home in Hoyt everything was green and lush with corn as high as an elephant’s eye and trees everywhere. Western Kansas was only a few years out of the dust bowl and there was nothing. Yolanda had asthma so she had to spend the summer in the Colorado mountains where breathing was easier, so it left just Dad home to welcome the Fourth. I cried when Dad would recount the worst days of his life and until his death he would say he never got over the move. You see, his beloved Grandmother Cleland “raised him” in Hoyt and he never wanted to leave her. He was 7 when they moved and she died not long after. He never got over the fact that he wasn’t there with her and even as an adult he recounted the sadness as if it happened yesterday. His love for her was intense. His depression progressed so deeply, as a little boy misplaced in a new town, that in a last ditch effort to help him they shipped his pony by rail to WaKeeney. Betsy, the little black pony lived in a shed in the alley behind the drug store. She wasn’t in her new home a week when someone poked her eye out with a stick. I always thought that was kind of a metaphor for my dad’s childhood move to WaKeeney.
That Fourth of July was different. It was so hot in the apartments above the drugstore in the tenements that the residents would drag their sheets and pillows across the street to the park where the locals would sleep on the south east corner and the hobos on the north west corner. Bathing was in a tin tub in the kitchen at the back of the store with nothing more than a curtain separating him from the eyes of the customers. He hated it. That day he got his bath and his dad told him that they would close the store for a few hours so they could go outside of town to the river and have a picnic. He loved picnics and this would be the first time they had a chance to get away! Gram was frying chicken and she carefully would wrap it in oil cloth to keep it warm and filled a quart jar with lemon aid. There would be no pie, no watermelon because there was no creek to cool it in, but they would be together and that’s all that was supposed to matter. It was over a hundred degrees and the wind was so hot and dry that the old Nash car sputtered trying to get up the Benisch Hill. Dad said he kept asking where they were going and the answer was “to the river.” The Smoky Hill River bed was almost dry, there was no river!!! It was a Sham! There was nothing!! The car had overheated and they coasted into the field along the dry riverbed. They were going to have the picnic all together and it was supposed to be by the river but the damn river was dry! They unloaded and the wind was so bad that the blanket wouldn’t stay on the ground. Instead they sat on the running board of the car looking across the crappy, dry, awful brown desert. He says that they sat in silence as each of them knew that the move west had taken a toll on each of them. Away from family and the happiness at the Farm they sat. Sad, disheartened, lonely and dirty they tried to pretend they were anywhere but here. At the Farm it would have been time to go swimming and swing out over the water and drop from the rope. Then head home to get ready for ice cream and fireworks. No fireworks were going to blow on the Fourth of July in 1945.
I can’t remember how many times he told me this story. Each time I could feel the sadness and regret each and every time. There was a sense of not only loss but of appreciation for the effort that his parents made in order to make his transition easier. The truth was that nothing was going to make that move easier for a little boy with a broken heart. Moving to a foreign country in a sense, with nothing familiar and no choice except to carry on.
I understand the pain of moving all too well. The transition takes years but the sorrow never leaves. There are regrets, the grief, the days that drop you to your knees and the loneliness of knowing that you may never truly belong. You may feel that you come from “Hoyt” until the day you die.
If you are celebrating with multi generational connections, ask them some questions. Find out about their memories and commit them to your memory. You might find that you will understand the events that molded their personality happened long before you think!
Until then…. blow something up
2 thoughts on “Fourth of July 1945”
This is so beautifully told, my friend. It reminds of how I felt when they closed the country one room schools and made us ride the bus to town school. My life was never the same. I was ten. I have spent the 53 years since trying to be as happy, just once, as I was at South Downer Grade School.
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I get that. Children are not as resilient as we would like to think. Those upheavals in their lives forever change who they are. South Downer camaraderie was very similar to “Hoyt”.