Saturday, July 04, 2009

Memories of the Fourth of July (including July 4,1969)

I have many varied memories of the Fourth of July. Most of them are good memories. July 4, 1969 is one I'll never forget.

My earliest memories of the 4th of July are at my Grandma's house. In Toledo, the big fireworks display for the city used to take place at Walbridge Park, which was only about two blocks from their house. The park was full of people all day long on the holiday. At sundown there would be a huge fireworks display that was shot off from a sandbar on the river that ran alongside of the park. At the bottom of the hill was the venerable Maumee River Yacht Club (MRYC) that has been there since the turn of the twentieth century.

When I was a pre-schooler, we stayed at my grandmother's house and watched the fireworks sitting on a stool in the driveway. We could see some of the high ones over the trees but that was about it. We could hear a lot of the booms, however. The stool I sat on was a neat one that was handmade at my great grandfather's lumber yard. I still have one in the attic.

A few years later, when my parents thought it was safe enough to take me along into the throngs of people, we walked over to the park. My dad had some connections at MRYC and somehow we walked right into the club and right down on the waterfront. I suspect they were friends from high school. Southenders either move out of the South end immediately upon graduation or never leave. My parents and I are in the latter group. I remember being absolutely fascinated by this different viewing perspective. There were ground displays out on the island/sandbar which were quite stunning. The one I remember the most was the waterfall, where they had a huge row of white sparkler type fireworks strung on a cable. When lit, it resembled Niagara Falls - at least to my childish eyes.

The very best part was the grand finale, where the sky lit up into a display of continuous aerial bombs and fireworks that seemed to last longer when I was young than they do now. I remember feeling the reverberation of the explosions in my chest and I just loved it. My dad really enjoyed these displays and whooped it up along with everyone else. He wasn't always happy about things, so to see him this enthusiastic about anything gave me free license to like it also! Afterwards came the seemingly long trek back to grandma's through the crowds of people. I remember the police directing traffic and lots of traffic flares around Harvard Circle while we wended our way through the throngs back to Kenyon Drive. It was really exhilarating. Grandpa always waited awhile before taking us home "to let the crowds thin out." We didn't own a car in the 1950's so we had to depend on rides, much to my embarassment (a future blog perhaps?).

As I got older I tried to make it a point to get down to those Fireworks any way I could. I don't think I missed any until I was out of high school. Then came July 4, 1969...

As I recall, the day was very hot and muggy. The weather was threatening late in the afternoon and we kept watching the television to see if the fireworks would even go off as planned. My boyfriend from college had traveled from his rural home in NW Ohio to come to the big city to celebrate. We were supposed to go down to MRYC and watch the fireworks from my mother's friend's houseboat that was docked at the club. As I recall the skies got very dark and threatening late in the afternoon. We went down to the park to see her boat and heard word that the fireworks were to be cancelled. We found the boat and, standing on the dock, looked downriver towards downtown. The sky was a terrible dark blackish greenish bile color. The air was muggy and ominously threatening. It was getting ugly so we left pronto. My mom's friend's daughter worked at a restaurant close to our house [the one that turned into Sophia's later on, at the Trail and S. Detroit, and is now torn down]. We went in there just as it was about ready to rain to let her know we wouldn't be there. I don't remember the gist of the conversation but we only stayed a few minutes. We got in the car and drove down S. Detroit towards my house, which was a little over a mile away.

All hell broke loose on the drive home. The rains came in Biblical proportions. We could hardly see out of the windshield. We made it into the driveway and sat there for the longest time, thinking that the rain would stop shortly. After fifteen minutes we decided it was not going to stop any time soon, so we prepared to get wet and go into the house. I think we were listening to the car radio and they said a tornado was spotted in the vicinity of the restaurant we had just left. We sprinted out of the car into the house. My sister, her husband, and their new infant son Bob (who just turned 40 in May) were living with us at the time. Mom was babysitting Bob and was with him in the basement. We joined her. After sitting down there for quite awhile, we decided that if it hadn't hit by then it wasn't going to, so we went upstairs.

My only recollection of the rest of the night is absolutely non-stop strobe lightning that lasted well into the early morning hours. It was constant. I think we lost power but I don't remember the details. The deluge of rain kept up with absolutely no let-up until 4 or 5 a.m. The morning revealed that most of NW Ohio was under water. Many rural roads were closed, trees were down, and damage was everywhere. My boyfriend wasn't able to get back home for at least a day, as most of the roads he would have to drive were flooded. I believe the devastation was worse east over towards Cleveland.

Here are some links to historic observations of this storm.

After this storm, my view of the Fourth of July lost some of it's sheen. The storm ended up flooding our basement for the first time since we had lived in the house. We lost a lot of memories from my grandmother and father in that flooded basement. We just never considered that we would ever have water down there, since we were in a high part of the city that never had flooded before.

Interestingly my husband Bob's family was up north in the Petoskey, MI area during this storm and the weather was fine up there. They didn't realize this had happened until they went back home. We compared notes on this storm when we first met a few years later!

I finished college in 1971. The fireworks continued down at Walbridge Park until the mid-1970's, when the area just could not handle the crowds of 100,000+ any more. The riverfront was being promoted and the fireworks moved downtown. It wasn't the same for me. I don't think I've ever attended the downtown mayhem.

I did get caught in the traffic once. I had to work July 4, 1988. I was working at St. Charles Hospital on second shift. In order to get there I had to cross the Anthony Wayne Bridge (known to locals as the "Hi Level" Bridge). It was extremely slow so I asked if I could leave early to beat the traffic and got permission to leave. The foot of the bridge on the west side of the river connected to my main route home (and was nearly adjacent to the fireworks area downtown). Well, I miscalculated by about ten minutes - too late! The fireworks were over the the traffic jam I encountered at the foot of the bridge was of monumental proportions. Normally I would have turned left at the foot of the bridge but there was absolutely no way I could get over there. I nearly panicked as I was totally surrounded by cars following no rules and no lane lines. I decided to go straight, as that would connect me with another road that would eventually lead me to another way home.

It took me over a half hour to navigate the area that normally takes about a minute. I finally got over to St. Clair St., turned left and headed past the post office. I had left work about 10:15 p.m. and got home around 11:30 p.m. The drive normally takes about 20 minutes. I was exhausted.

We made a few excursions to watch Fireworks at some of the outlying towns around Toledo. We went to the Bowling Green fireworks back when we were first married (pre-Katie) and sat on blankets at the golf course watching them. I remember Bob's friend Tony reading some weird new age book while we were waiting for the show to start, and we were all ribbing him about it. We went to the fireworks at Ft. Meigs near Perrysburg quite a few times when Katie was little and we lived in Waterville.

Tonight will be watching a home-made fireworks display by my enthusiastic son-in-law, his twin brother, and their dad. This will be the first 4th of July the three of them will have been together for many years, as their parents arrived in Toledo on Memorial Day to live here permanently. Here's hoping for a fun evening with the family!