Mr. Jenny used to write a little blog post called 'Sunday's with Steve'. He said he ran out of things to write about, so he stopped. This is his post from the 4th fo July and I decided to share it with you again today.
No, not because I'm busy and trying to remember to pack the correct amount of underwear and socks for vacation...
Okay, darn it! I am busy and trying to remember to pack the correct amount of underwear and socks AND we're leaving early on the 4th of July...
Here's Mr. Jenny's little Fourth of July story. I hope you enjoy it! And I hope you enjoy your day!
It was early morning on the 4th of July, 1958. The fast-moving river flowing toward the sea 500 miles to the west cut through black basalt and grass covered canyons. The heat radiating from the rock walls did little to decrease the anticipation of the three boys in the backseat of the Willys Jeepster. No towns (other than a village across the way) punctuated the narrow gravel road on the 20 mile drive upriver from our home in Lewiston, Idaho.
The three brothers in the Jeepster were my brothers and me. Gordon, two years older and the self-proclaimed “boss” of the kid-klan; little brother David, a spunky, head-strong and irrepressible eight- year old, and nine-year old me. We talked, we bickered, and we poked each other on this road less travelled, on the way to a day on the beach. There would be sodas for the kids, beer for the adults, firecrackers, and bottle rockets, and swimming in the fast flowing waters of the river. There might also be the possibility of hooking a giant catfish with a rod & line anchored into the sand, or the prospect of an inner tube race to the next rocky outcropping. And of course there would be a picnic with sandwiches, hot dogs on a grill, potato & macaroni salads, chips, cookies, and more.
Picknicking on the 4th of the July on the white sand beaches of the Snake River with family and friends was a tradition for our young family. That sand was so fine it reminded you of an ocean beach and so warm from the summer sun that it hurt your feet to walk on it. Those summer days were always dry and hot, with temperatures reaching well into the 100’s. The heat, concentrated by the basalt rock and narrow canyon walls compouned and reflected into the bottom of the chasm, creating an unrelenting oven. It cooked the bushes, small trees, and the grasses that grew in the wet, spring months. In fact, the heat turned the vegetation into an explosive fuel that was tinder to an errant match, a cigarette thrown carelessly, or a firecracker or bottle rocket aimed in the wrong direction by children too young to know better.
Wesley and Dorothy Tollenaar, best friends of the family in those years, pulled in next driving a Jeep Waggoner. They too unloaded their ice chests, food satchels, fishing gear, an inflatable raft, and they released their two standard poodles out of the vehicle. Because the Tollenaar’s were childless, they had become our honorary favorite “aunt” and “uncle” over the years. We had become their favorite kids.
Next to pull into the beach access road were Tom and Nancy Thomas’ family and their 3 and 4 year old children. When the Fisher’s pulled in next we were happy to see that their nasty children stayed at home. George Fisher (who years later spent three years in the Idaho State prison on an embezzlement charge) began unloading their ice chest stuffed full of beer and sandwiches.
The plan for the picnic was always the same. We were set to enjoy a day on the beach to picnic, swim, fish, and light hundreds of firecrackers. As twilight fell, the adults would supervise some aerial rockets and then we would all head back to town in time for the annual Jaycee’s fireworks display shot over the Snake River from Beachview Park.
Most of the firecrackers we set off at the beach were standard Black Cat two inchers that came 50 or 100 to a string. It was legal to buy them in those days from the roadside stands that would magically appear a couple of weeks before the 4th, and would just as magically disappear on July 5th. To get the bigger fireworks such as cherry bombs, M-80s, and aerial rockets, Dad took us to the neighboring Indian reservation stands out of town down Highway 95, a tradition we followed religiously a few days before the big picnic every year as well.
Armed with our vast aresenal of fireworks, the day started well. While Wes Tollenaar set up the grill, the ladies laid out the picnic blankets and food. All of us kids changed into swimming suits hiding behind the cars while the rest of men broke out the beer. Lots and lots of beer.
Let the fun begin. And it did!
Everyone hit the water first, to cool off from that hot drive from town. The river was not very warm, in fact it was always downright cold, but we didn’t care. That river started its ocean-bound journey high in Yellowstone Park, 800 miles away. Cold? Who cared. There was swimming to do, adults to dunk and men’s shoulders to ride. There was fishing line to throw into the river upstream away from the swimming hole. There were sodas to drink.
And did I mention there was beer to drink for the adults? Lots and lots of beer.
When lunch was served it was always delicious. How could it not be? Grilled hot dogs, tuna fish sandwiches and baloney and cheese with lots of yellow mustard. A peanut butter sandwich or two always emerged from the cooler to pacify my little brother -- the whiner -- who wouldn’t eat anything but.
And, of course, beer for the adults. Lots and lots of beer.
To put the beer consumption into perspective, you need to remember that these picnics took place in post-war 1950s. The men were all World War II combat veterans, very serious people with dark stories that were never told, and with horrifying experiences buried not too deeply in their psyches. DUI and drunk driving were no big deal in those parts. Everyone did it, including the easily bribable county sheriff, and particularly on long, hot summer holidays.
It was dry that day, the vegetation a tinder box awaiting a match, a firecracker, or a cigarette. And they all smoked cigarettes, every one of them. The remote location was also many miles from firefighters who might come to the rescue should an unfortunate spark occur that could burn a few acres, or a few thousand acres, or maybe a few hundred thousand acres. It happened every summer in this country. It was no big deal.
While the adults had another beer or two, the kids tackled the firecrackers. Thousands of them. We started lighting them off in droves. Or we tried to. Our fun was made more difficult because somebody forgot to bring the punks (Brother Gordon no doubt) and we didn’t have thousands of matches to light our treasure of firecrackers. But trained as Boy Scouts in how to be exceptionally resourceful in the out-of-doors, we decided to use burning cigarettes to light the fuses. We found that a burning cigarette was good for lighting a thousand or so firecrackers. Burning cigarettes, though, needed to be thrown away when they got too short, thrown away by kids who were not real tuned-in to tinder-dry vegetation that came right up to the back edge of the beach.
It was grand! We blew the hell out of the place. We set off single firecrackers, we set off whole strings of firecrackers. We sent bottle rockets skyward, they whizzed up 30 or 40 feet into the air before exploding to our riotous laughter.
And then it happened. Brother Gordon, cool and collected and self-proclaimed leader of us all, started putting M-80s in empty cans of beer to blow the sides out. Then he put them under the cans to see how high they would fly when the giant crackers exploded. And it was high! Maybe 10 feet or even more. What fun.
Then he tried putting a bottle rocket into an empty can and setting it off. When he did, that rocket flew horizontally over the beach toward the river, and exploded just before it hit the water. Oh man, this was great.
“Well”, said Tom Thomas, not the sharpest knife in the drawer that day, and already with 10 or 12 beers in his belly, “What if you take one of these really really big rockets… this one that is a couple of feet long and is suppose to go 200 feet high before exploding… what if you stick that guy in an empty beer can and light it off over the river? That ought to be a great spectacle.” And it indeed it was a spectacle.
“That rocket”, Tom swore later, “Was aimed at the river! Really, it was aimed at the river!” But instead, when lit that sucker flew straight across the beach about five feet off the ground, not TOWARD the river, but TOWARD the slope in back of the beach. The slope covered with all the dried vegetation. It went 200 feet alright, but in the wrong direction. It hit, it blew up, and the flash of the exploding burning tinder was instantaneous.
The grass fire covered an acre before you could say, “Oh crap!” Those flames were jumping 20 feet in the air before you could say, “Holy-mother-of-God-what-are-we-going-to-do-now???!!!” That fire covered five acres in the time it took a race car to make one circle at Indy, and what could be faster than that? It felt like it hit 20 acres in about 20 seconds. Man, that was a fire and it was going fast! It headed toward a steep canyon slope that, if it gained momentum there, wouldn’t stop for weeks or maybe months.
With my mouth hanging open in astonishment I wondered, "why are all the women screaming at the men to do something?" Do what? Call the fire department! Nope, no phones and this was 30 years before cell phones (probably no cell service there today, either). What are those dogs doing barking at the flames, is that going to help? What about the cars over there? Oh, oh.
My Dad, the World War II buck-private-promoted-to-Army-colonel in four war years, took charge.
“There are three galvanized buckets in the back of the Tollenaar Jeep! You, you, you! Fill them with water from the river and head for the flames. Get to the far side if you can, stop the flames there. You, you, and you! Empty the coolers into the sand, fill them with river water, and take them up to the fire line. You, you, and you! Take the beach towels to the river, wet them well and then pound the side of the flames with them. Tom, get out of the way!” Before you could say “What-drunken-fool-caused-this-mess”, the game plan was laid out, the resources organized, the manpower deployed to the lines. The adult manpower was well intentioned but woozy, and maybe a bit ineffective. But we kids were ready to fight the fire! And the battle was engaged!
But not by us.
It was the road that stopped the fire’s race to the hillside. That road, maybe 40-feet wide of gravel and dirt, saved our bacon that day. The fire hit the side of the road and ran out of fuel. It had nowhere to go and nothing to burn. We engaged anyway, beating the sides of the flames into submission with the wet beach towels, turning those towels into a black raggy mess. The men ran back and forth with the buckets filled with river water and ineffectively splashed the flames.
Oh, we thought we were being valiant and brave fighting that fire, but it was really the road that did the work. We just knocked down the few flames on either side of the fire, but there wasn’t much there. And nobody ever admitted how scared they really were. Twenty minutes later it was all over. About 20 acres along the west side of the road was blackened and a bit of smoke still hung here and there in the late afternoon sunshine.
We all looked at each others soot darkened faces. The adults were suddenly more sober and all of us were exhausted. Even the dogs were no longer barking madly, but lay collapsed and panting.
It was a quiet ride back to town that afternoon, the hot air blowing over the open Jeepster cabin, the adults very quiet now, the kids even more so. The beer no longer flowed, and the stomachs of children growled a bit in hunger.
We made a quick stop at the Jade Lantern for Chinese take-out on the way into town, then home for bathes and clean clothes before the evening fireworks. But the spark, the normal excitement of a grand and glorious 4th of July Jaycee’s fireworks show after dark, was missing.
We thought all the excitement on the 4th of July on the Snake River was over. Little did we know that the next year would be the last 4th of July picnic on the Snake River beaches, that we would all learn hard lessons, even us kids, about driving after a long, hot day on the sand and water with beer, lots and lots of beer.
Mister Jenny with his 1948 Jeepster, identical to that in this story.