Saturday, July 5, 2014

July 4th Throwbacks

During the summer of America’s bicentennial year, 1976, it seemed almost everybody in the environs of New York City was talking about “Operation Sail.” This Fourth of July celebration slowly but surely got rolling in the weeks leading up to Independence Day. Hundreds of tall sailing vessels—throwbacks to a past age—made their way to New York Harbor. They traversed, too, the Hudson River.

I was thirteen years old that summer and, as I recall, “Operation Sail” was a pretty big deal. An aunt of mine, younger brother, and I hiked over to the Henry Hudson Bridge, which connects Northern Manhattan with the Northwest Bronx at the confluence of the Harlem River Ship Canal and Hudson River. In this rare instance—the only time in my memory—the bridge was closed to traffic so that one and all could congregate on its span and feast their eyes on some of the ships on the river. It was quite a spectacle with New Jersey’s Palisades supplying the perfect backdrop. Bicentennial fever added an extra heft to the day's significance.

Perhaps the biggest difference in today’s Fourth of July festivities—as compared to the past in my old Bronx neighborhood—is the almost complete absence of firecrackers, bottle rockets, Roman candles, and their various offshoots. These things were all illegal when I was a kid, but it seems that anybody who wanted them could get hold of them in Chinatown or someplace else. The police, for the most part, turned a blind eye on possession of fireworks. Firecrackers popped weeks before the Fourth, and the day itself was one big bang. The morning of July 5th found the local streets covered with spent everything. I remember combing through the street debris for the occasional unused firecracker.

Can people even buy a box of Sparklers nowadays? They were pretty harmless, even though I set the family garbage can on fire by prematurely discarding one. It’s a good thing garbage cans in those days were made of metal and not plastic. The garbage men who had to lug those heavy things around are no doubt better off today, but those hearty cans survived Sparkler fires and lived to tell.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

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