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The Tentacle


July 3, 2009

Four Fourths

Roy Meachum

The orgy of fireworks came late to the Independence Day celebration, long after my youth. A gathering on July 4th to see a brilliant display of pinwheels and rockets may have been the rule in Philadelphia, but it was unknown in New Orleans and the surrounding South. Maybe because Confederate Fortress Vicksburg fell to Union forces on that date? More probably, the costs of the shows.

 

In any event, I can recall one Fourth meeting in a New Orleans' throw-the-key-away saloon; I could barely stay awake waiting for the rest of the grownups. We motored over to Ocean Springs on Mississippi's Gulf Coast, presumably to fish; the real reason was to get away from the city's July heat and humidity. Being brought up in the city, I thought it normal in the summer to go around soaking wet, even when there was no rain; although most afternoons brought those classical thunder-and-lightning gully washers. Fifteen minutes after the last drop sidewalks were dry as bones. Ocean Springs was dusty and dirty; I had no real idea why we were there and never repeated the journey for the rest of my life.

 

Another Independence Day brought a similar reaction.

 

Family friend Frank Vicari thought I should learn how to fish. Bright and early that Independence Day he picked me up. We went out Canal Street beyond the point where concrete had yielded to oyster shells, and way beyond the last house. We bounced along until we reached Lake Ponchatrain and a shack where rowboats were for rent.

 

The Lee Circle YMCA hadn't yet taught me to swim. But I have no recollection of anything like a vest or another flotation device. Mister Frank was very protective, took great care. At that time I think there was almost a universal creed that held any man could rescue any boy if they were close enough in the water. He kept the boat close to the shore, but he told me that's where the fish were.

 

They may have been biting farther out. We sat that life-long morning, bobbing and batting flies; being so close to the shore had its disadvantages. Another penalty came from the fact that waves chop and roll a short distance before they hit shore. It was not a very pleasant Fourth, made more unpleasant by the lack of fish in the bucket brought along. Mr. Frank insisted that we slather sun cream or oil all over except hair and that's where I burned, not bad but tenderly; it went away in a few days.

 

At the opposite end of the spectrum were the Independence Days when I lived in Hoechst's castle that housed my military outfit. The American Forces Network was founded, by Lt. Col. John S. Hayes, on July 4, 1943, some eleven months before the multi-nation force landed in Normandy. By the time I arrived Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe had moved to Frankfurt's I.G. Farben building that housed the first "disappearing" elevator I saw. It wasn't magic but had a way of collapsing the housing when it hit bottom, and then bringing it back to life as the rotating device moved up again.

 

AFN naturally staged a party for the birthday, and all the brass were invited; after the first two years German officials were included. We had a band, naturally, and a corps of waiters. We broadcast the event and I was given the chore the two years before I returned home. It was a perfect place for fireworks: above, the castle's tower reflected in the Main River. They didn't happen as I said at the beginning. We had to settle for lights strung over the "new" 18th century mansion's garden and courtyard. It was impressive nevertheless.

 

But not nearly mind-boggling as spending the Fourth of July at the American Embassy in Rome.

 

Business at the Vatican brought me and a camera crew to the Eternal City. We reported on Archbishop Patrick Aloysius O'Boyle's elevation to the rank of cardinals; by the way Italian newspapers called the prelate: Patricio Luigi O'Boyle. The investiture of the Catholic Church's princes is always a notable event, but we were along because Monsignor O'Boyle was the first cardinal, as he was the first archbishop, to sit in Washington's St. Matthew's Cathedral.

 

By the way, in his class, was a Polish bishop who became Pope John Paul. Of course nobody knew that summer, but Karol Jozef Wojtyla created excitement by being the first prelate allowed west of the Iron Curtain since Josef Mindczenty. (For his opposition to communism, the Hungarian cardinal was thrown in jail.)

 

The Catholic Church came up in Rome's embassy garden that night only encountering the inevitable question: "What are you doing here?" In my memory the Fourth of July party was staged in a long, lush rectangle surrounded by hedges, accented by flowers and filled with beautiful, beautiful people wearing the "hot" fashions of 1967.

 

Happy Independence Day!!

 



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