JOEL McNEECE: Independence Day memories

Published 11:05 am Wednesday, June 28, 2017

A good hot dog drenched in mustard and relish, lawn chairs filled with family, a backyard baseball game, the ice cream freezer churning, and after dark, a good bottle rocket war — those were the Fourth of July celebrations of my childhood.

It was always an exciting day when we got to unroll the American flag and post it in the bracket screwed into the eave on the front of the house. Even as a small child we recognized bringing out the flag was a big deal.

Neighborhood kids would start to gather in our backyard in the Bird Heights subdivision of West Clinton as we had the largest yard in the area with the thickest, greenest St. Augustine grass anywhere, perfect for baseball. We set out old wash rags for the bases and clearly defined the outfield fences. Anything hit into the woods well beyond the backyard in right field was a home run, as well as anything clearing the plum trees in deep left field. The one caveat was my dad’s big vegetable garden, sitting like a sand bunker in deep right, anything that went in there was an automatic out.

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Family members would continue rolling up throughout the day and filling the bench swing and lawn chairs scattered down the third base line to watch the game, while also keeping an eye on the smoking grill and the churning ice cream. There’s still no better sound in summertime than the slowing hum of an ice cream freezer just as it starts to signal it’s ready.

I don’t have opportunities to eat a lot of hot dogs these days, but none would ever top the taste of those hot off the grill on those Fourth of Julys. A couple of those topped off with a big bowl of cream and I was ready to pull my Cubs hat down snug and get back in the game. Like Wrigley Field in those days, darkness would usually end the play on our backyard diamond, but you didn’t mind as much on the Fourth because out came the fireworks.

Parents always seemed to make us start with the boring sparklers. There’s only so many times you can write your name in the air before you want to hear something explode.

We’d set bottle rockets down in Coke bottles and fire them up into the air, trying to hit the street light at the end of the drive way. Once that got old, we began turning them toward each other with an all out war.

Bottle rockets would sting when they hit you.  Roman candles were more fun. They were big and colorful and as soon as the parents turned away we’d aim and fire, laughing with every big, colorful  ball of fire bouncing off our chests. I’m not recommending any of this, but we did a lot of things as kids that would be more than just frowned upon today.

The flag would come down and be properly folded and put away. The fireworks and hot dogs were long gone, but there might be a little leftover ice cream in the freezer. The perfect cap to a wonderful holiday.

Joel McNeece is publisher of The Calhoun County Journal in Bruce. You may email him at