Monday, July 4, 2011

Independence Days Past

I am feeling nostalgic this Fourth of July.

Not surprisingly, I suppose, it has been my experience that people tend to feel nostalgic if they believe their lives are lacking in some way — and, in this recession (which may be "over" according to traditional economic yardsticks but nonetheless continues for millions), there is no doubt that many Americans, after comparing current conditions to just about any other period in their lives, will conclude that the quality of those lives has, at the very least, declined.

I don't know if issues of financial quality are at the heart of my nostalgia this holiday. Those are the kinds of things people can debate and, at some point, conclude that, were it not for certain facts, things in general would be better.

No, my nostalgia is more for the memories of the holidays and the people with whom I shared those holidays.

It would be nice to have those people with me today, but, realistically, I know that, human life spans being what they are, it was never possible that many of them would be alive in 2011.

I could argue — to a great extent, justifiably — that my life would be different if any of them were still alive. I don't know if my life would be better, but I am certain that the nature of my relationship(s) would be radically altered.

Many of the people I am missing on this Fourth of July would be at least 100 years old if they were alive today — and they would almost certainly be suffering from age–related health issues.

When you think of it that way, it's hard not to conclude they are better off. And so am I, to have been spared that. No one lives forever, and that, I tend to believe, is for the best. In my experience, every life, if permitted to continue long enough, will reach a point of diminishing return where attempts to further sustain it are futile.

I miss my mother and my grandparents and our friends, but I'm glad I have my memories of them as they were and the Independence Days we shared.

I grew up in the South, where it is always hot and humid in the summer. It was in part for that reason that my parents liked to take my brother and me on summer trips to visit friends in Vermont, where it was always cool and pleasant in the summer.

In fact, at times, as I recall, it could be downright cold. I remember some summer nights in Vermont when my parents' friends, who were the caretakers of a ski lodge, built a fire in the fireplace. There were some nights when I had to sleep with a blanket to keep me warm.

It did get warm, even hot at times — but not oppressively so — in the daytime. I have memories of swimming in lakes and streams in Vermont as a child — but I also remember wearing a jacket one Fourth of July evening when my family and our friends went to an old–fashioned village green to see a fireworks show.

I experienced my share of hot weather Independence Days when I was growing up, though. My mother's parents were members of a fishing club in east Texas, and we often met them there when school was out. The lodge was a big, old–fashioned country house with dozens of bedrooms, a huge dining room and a big screened–in porch with rocking chairs.

Members could stay overnight, and so could their guests. My grandfather kept a fishing boat on the premises, as did many other people, and I have quite a few memories of getting up early to go fishing with my grandfather and my father when I was a child.

I was never very good at fishing, but that didn't really matter to my grandfather. He just enjoyed getting out in the silence and serenity of the early morning on the lake, and my memory is that we spent more time on those excursions talking about things we observed than things we caught.

From time to time, my family joined my grandparents for the Fourth of July in east Texas, and I will always remember watching the fireworks show over that lake. Seeing the reflection in the water was almost like getting two shows for the price of one.

There were also times when we didn't go anywhere, just spent the Fourth of July in my childhood home in Arkansas. That wasn't a bad deal, either. We would grill hamburgers, and my mother would fix baked beans with brown sugar and diced green pepper. There would also be corn on the cob — and my brother and I would take turns handcranking the homemade ice cream for our dessert.

Unless we were having ice–cold watermelon instead.

We lived on a lake. There were no fireworks displays there when I was a child, but we lived outside the city limits so we could buy fireworks at the roadside stands that always seemed to spring up around mid–June and have our own shows.

We got bottle rockets and Roman candles — all the pyrotechnic stuff we needed to celebrate our nation's independence. I remember being amazed when I got up the next morning and saw the amount of debris that had been left by our celebration.

(As a child, I remember stocking up on Black Cat firecrackers — with the intention of using them to blow up things like ice when winter froze everything. The novelty of that experience wore off rather quickly.)

On one such occasion when my family stayed home for the Fourth, we did something we seldom did.

The day before the holiday, we went into town to get supplies — soft drinks, hamburger meat, watermelon, the usual stuff — and we stopped at a place called Dog n Suds for lunch.

Now, Dog n Suds was the kind of place that used to be fairly common in America — a drive–in much like today's Sonic with an actual dining room where you could go in, sit down and place an order.

Dog n Suds specialized in hot dogs and root beer (hence, the name), but my memory is that you could buy other soft drinks there, too, and you could get hamburgers, french fries or onion rings as well. There may have been some other things on the menu.

Most of the time, we went there on my birthday or my brother's birthday because Dog n Suds offered some kind of special meal deal for kids on their birthdays — a complimentary hot dog and root beer, perhaps.

For some reason, on that occasion we decided to stop at Dog n Suds for lunch. True, there weren't many options in my hometown in those days. We didn't even have a McDonald's in my hometown until I was old enough to drive.

But we didn't have to eat lunch while we were in town. We could have waited to eat until we got home, I suppose.

We didn't, though. We did something that we almost never did at that time in my life. And so that is why today, instead of thinking of fireworks shows and the like, I am thinking of hot dogs and root beer at Dog n Suds.

The food was good, not great, but being taken there for one's birthday was something of a status symbol. In grade school, I remember that the first question one was asked when everyone realized that someone had celebrated a birthday (even before being asked about birthday gifts) was "Did you go to Dog n Suds?"

Going there when it wasn't anyone's birthday was a rare treat.

For a long time, children in my hometown could still get that birthday special at Dog n Suds. When I was a teenager, I remember working nights at a self–service gas station across the street from that old Dog n Suds. It was still in operation. I watched the lights switch off promptly at 10 each night, and I observed that the flow of traffic there was not particularly heavy, but it never occurred to me that it might be struggling.

Apparently, it was struggling, though. I haven't been in my hometown in many years, and I have heard that it has grown to three times the size it was when I lived there, but the Dog n Suds didn't survive.

I don't remember when I heard that news, but I remember grieving when I heard it.

It is a disappearing chain of eateries now, relics from another time. Last I heard, there were only a handful of Dog n Suds outlets left in the U.S., even though I understand that, at one time, they were almost as common in the middle United States as McDonald's, Sonic or Burger King.

Like Dog n Suds, many things seem to be disappearing from the American experience. I heard recently that Yarnell's, a traditional ice cream company in Arkansas, is closing because of the economy. I can't tell you how many dishes of Yarnell's ice cream I ate as a child — at birthday parties, at summer gatherings, at home — or how sorry I am that future generations will be deprived of that pleasure.

Another pleasure that children in my hometown won't have that I did was eating a Minuteman hamburger.

Minuteman was a regional chain, located mostly in Arkansas and Tennessee, I believe. The advertising logo showed a minuteman, like the ones who defended the colonies during the American Revolution, standing with a musket in one hand. The advertising pitch was something like this — you would get your meal in a minute.

In hindsight, those burgers probably weren't anything terribly special. My memory is that they were advertised as "flame–broiled burgers", and I always ordered a hickory burger, which was served with a dollop of hickory barbecue sauce.

My hometown, as I say, has grown considerably since I was a child, but many of the things I remember — like Dog n Suds and Minuteman — are gone now.

And I grieve for those who will never know such childhood pleasures.

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