When I was a kid we called it The Fourth of July… Surely, somewhere—maybe in most places it—it was called Independence Day. But in Laurelton, Queens, in 1955, it was The Fourth of July.
I don’t remember the ads. I’m sure there were plenty of ads on the radio and on the growing number of TV’s in the neighborhood; specials on cars, refrigerators, lawnmowers, stereo—TV consoles, house and garden furniture, tools, and all the rest.
But I didn’t notice them. Such things were the business of grown-ups. On the fourth of July, my job was to listen to (later watch) baseball games, flip and trade baseball cards, ride my bike, do chores in and around the house and eat a lot of junk food at barbeques and picnics.
Laurelton in those days was a place pitched to a steady, specific vibration of the Nineteen Fifties. It was quiet, clean, orderly, white (the city was about 99% segregated in those days) and devoted to family life. People were friendly—neighborly, you might say—but generally minded their own business. After all, a good many of them had moved in right after the war—straight from noisy, teeming, sometimes dangerous parts of the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan. Now that they weren’t living—almost literally—right on top of each other, they treasured their little patch of private breathing space.
The men (and sometimes the women) drove lovingly maintained used cars and a lot of them did the repairs on their own small houses (roofing, siding, painting, carpentry, minor plumbing, etc.). Small lawns were regularly mowed, weeded and watered.
It was a sort of culturally gated community in which any sort of troubling, provocative or deviant behavior was not expected and rarely seen.
And that’s the way it needed to be then… Most of the men had been in the service and a fair number had seen combat, either in Europe or The Pacific, while their wives and girlfriends, mothers and sisters had endured the fears and privations of life on the home front. And, of course, this was a generation that had survived the long, hard years of The Depression. What they most desperately wanted in their new neighborhood was safety, peace-and-quiet and predictability; The Four Freedoms as the basic elements of everyday life… Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want and Freedom from Fear. Freedom of speech? Well, yeah, but kids knew not to open a mouth to their mothers and fathers and were told to shut up and listen to their teachers. Freedom of speech was the tricky one; wasn’t it—isn’t it—always? (The Sixties, in part, was born out of too much peace-and-quiet, too much orderliness and silent obedience to authority. But that massive cultural/political carnival was way off in the unimaginable future. In 1955, it was all about doing homework (when school was in), getting the chores done, cleaning the house and sitting down to dinner when Dad got home from work.
After that, it was Dad reading the paper, with maybe a beer or, depending on certain cultural variables, a gin and tonic or scotch on the rocks. Mom was cleaning up in the kitchen, then sitting next to Dad in the living-room (maybe sipping her own drink) and doing some repairs on the kids or their clothes…
Then, the TV was turned on and it was Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed and Loretta Young shows, Leave it to Beaver, Sid Caesar or Milton Berle. Sometime during the show, Mom served out a small dish of ice-cream (chocolate, strawberry or vanilla).
If a kid was having trouble at school or going through one of the developmental tempests of childhood, it was dealt with; sometimes with compassion and common sense, sometimes with harshness and peremptory orders (which occasionally involved the back of dad’s hand or his rolled up newspaper)—and sometimes with denial and silence.
After all this it was early bedtime for everyone…
AND THIS IS WHY THEY FOUGHT THE WAR.
Yes, of course, it was to preserve democracy and to destroy the dictatorial tyrants who were attempting to murder and enslave the entire world (we’ll leave Stalin and his gang out of it for the moment). This was assumed; it was understood.
Yes, of course, it was for freedom of speech—the right to gather and yell (or write) about the lousy bums in Washington or Albany or City Hall. And yeah, it was about the right to vote for who you wanted to without bullying or threats.
It was for the right to organize and form a union—and to have a say on what they spent your hard-earned tax money on. It was about getting paid a decent wage. It was about being free to choose, within certain limits of course, what you wanted to make of your life. It was about all these things and more that were, by the time of the 1940’s, taken to be the hard-earned right of all Americans.
(Of course, in the Forties and Fifties, and, right on up to the present time—but especially in the Forties and Fifties—if you were a woman, or gay, or Native American; if you were a Communist, or poor, or, especially, black—you weren’t enjoying many, or often, any of those basic rights.
“But listen”, said the grown-ups, “You have to understand that certain things are meant to be a certain way. And, look, even if, maybe, things aren’t fair, it takes time, right? Eventually, these things will take care of themselves.
“And you know what else, kid? A man and a woman can do just so much in one lifetime. People should be grateful for what they have. They should shut up already and be happy with what we struggled so hard for.”)
Yes, The War (The Big One) was fought for all those basic, everyday rights. But, at bottom, The War—and, of course, the original, long, bloody conflict that freed America from the British Tyrant—were fought for what Thomas Jefferson called in 1776 “certain unalienable rights”. And among these were Life, Liberty, and The Pursuit of Happiness.
Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness…
A small, neat, well-cared for house in a quiet part of the city—sitting on top of a quarter acre of well-mown, well-weeded and well-watered lawn; a good, well-maintained, used car that still has another thirty thousand miles on it—easy; a refrigerator full of good wholesome food and a neighborhood where people are decent to each other and the wailing siren of an ambulance or a cop car is practically never heard; where the streets are clean and don’t smell of garbage; a place where your kids can walk to school with risking a mugging or worse.
A place where, when you come home at night from some work-your-ass off job back in the city, you could sit down and have a decent, quiet dinner. A real home, where you can play with your kids, watch TV and have a drink, and maybe put in an hour down at your workbench in the finished basement.
You get the day off for July 4th because, 250 years ago, tens of thousands of Americans fought and died (and not just in combat) and suffered extreme hardship opposing the most powerful colonial army on earth.
You get to have your life, your liberty and your ability (as illusory as if often turns out to be) to pursue happiness, because hundreds of thousands of men died—and hundreds of thousands more were permanently disabled in mind and/or body fighting the Japanese Imperial Army and the Nazis—and because millions of women spent the duration wondering if their men would ever come back, and if they did, would they ever be the same as the guy who left.
July 4th, 1955. OK.
The day off from work. Barbecues and picnics and pick-up ball games. Firecrackers and Roman candles and skyrockets and sparklers—and The Flag waving at the front of the local parade. Sometimes, maybe an old wound will twitch. And the flashes and bangs of the fireworks bring back scenes you thought were buried back in France or Guadalcanal. But that’s ok. It’s the price you pay.
Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness… Independence day.
This is the way it seemed on that day, sixty years ago—in that time and place. It’s a memory—maybe a daydream, but one that is implanted in the marrow of my bones and makes America all the more difficult for many people in my generation to see in black and white, let alone in red, white and blue.