Our nation’s birthday has become synonymous with a beautiful summer day of play at the beach, BBQs, boat rides, picnics, parades, and of course fireworks. In the spirit of all that is holy, 4th of July holiday-wise, I intend to check as many of those events off my list today as I can.
Gonna be a fine summer day, with mostly sunny skies, got an invite to spend the afternoon and evening at a lakeside cottage that sports a little beach, dock and boat, and BBQ grill, from friends. There will be a camp fire to tend, and there will be lots of great food to eat, boat rides to be had, swimming, tall tales, ribald rhymes, dirty ditties, and of course-fireworks. Good ol’ wholesome prime USA- American fun.
I intend to enjoy this time with family and friends, and I will take the time to explain to the wee ones why we celebrate this day. Then I may drift off into a story of what this day meant when I was a wee one myself, back on the farm……..way back in 1965.
I was dreaming of riding in a boat across the bay, fishing mackerel on our way towards Isleboro where we would dig clams for the big family feast to celebrate the 4th, when the incessant baying of Jack penetrated my dream bubble and woke me. Jack was our coon hound. He was chained to a huge pine tree behind the chicken house, and Jack loved to be the family alarm clock, starting at dawn and continuing until someone took him something to eat and spent a little time scratching him here and there. I sat up in bed, rubbing my eyes, yawning and muttering under my breath. “Damn hound, wakes me up every morning.”
Basically, he was lonely, so it was hard for me to stay annoyed with him. As the fog in my head dissipated I remembered my dream, and I remembered today was the 4th of July! Scrambling out of bed, I pulled on some jeans, a t-shirt, and sneakers and clattered down the stairs. Dad was up sipping his coffee and reading the paper, sitting at the kitchen table. I made a quick pit stop in the bathroom then told Dad. “I’ll run up and feed Jack so we can get going”, the excitement clear in my voice. Dad looked up from his paper and smiled,
“I know your excited about today Mitch, but we have to do the work first, then we go play. You run up and feed Jack, and then while your grandfather and your uncle tend the chickens, you and I will go up back and hit the garden.”
What my father was reminding me was simply this. Life on the farm offered no days off. Holiday or not, there were 20,000 chickens that needed to be fed and watered. We had around 35 head of cattle, 500 head of sheep, who could pretty much feed themselves and had plenty of watering holes in summer months, but still needed to be checked for any issues. We had over seven acres of garden that needed constant tending. This was to be done before any thought of entertainment could be entertained. So, Dad and I jumped in his pick up when I returned from feeding the dog, and bumped and lurched our way the half mile through the woods tote road to the back fields that hosted our gardens. We spent about an hour pulling a weed here, snipping sucker leaves there, checking for any varmint tracks, and gathering cucumbers. Wending our way from one bare spot to another to avoid stepping on any of the vines, we swept our way through the patch that would yield countless cucumbers for sale at the local market as well as 100’s of jars of pickles for the upcoming winter. We gathered three wire baskets of cukes, put them in the body of the pickup and lurched and thumped our way back to my grandparents farm, located across the road from Dad’s. Unc Stub and Pup were just finishing up their chores in the chicken-house, so we all piled in Dad’s pickup and drove the three miles to another farm we called “the Other Farm”, which hosted the cattle and sheep. We spent another hour checking the herds and the grounds, there were no issues this morning.
Finally, we could go play. We returned to Pup’s, hooked the boat on the truck, loaded up the fishing and clamming gear, a couple of coolers filled with ice, soda, beer, and sandwiches and off we struck.
The day had dawned bright with the sun climbing in the eastern sky. It was seasonably warm, lower 70’s, and the bay was absolutely beautiful with its blue/green waters, tipped by white tipped gentle waves. The seagulls milled crazily about overhead, squawking and bitching, waiting for a morsel they could dive bomb for. There were sea ducks and terns riding the swells, the “monument” loomed ahead just in front of the clanging bell of the red buoy-marker swinging back and forth in the incoming tide. The breeze was redolent with the salty smell of the sea, as we maneuvered around lobster buoys, fishing boats, and pleasure boats on our way towards Isleboro, lurking three miles east. We waved to the fisherman lining the old bridge, who were happily jigging for mackerel or stripers, watched as a couple of the bullish-like tugs guttered and growled as they moved into their slips. We noticed two or three sailboats out a few miles on either side of Isleboro, catching the breeze, their sails puffed out and billowing. When we got out beyond Young’s Lobster Pound wharf, we started dropping fishing lines over the side. Unc Stub and Dad used light spinning rods to fish for mackerel, baiting the 8 hook strings with chunks of herring, while Pup and I trolled with diamond jigs for stripers. We made huge circles in the boat swinging from just inside the monument to about a half mile from Isleboro, hitting schools of mackerel here and there, and occasionally getting a hit from a striper. We chatted and listened to stories of “back in the day” from Pup and Dad, sipping on cold soda for me, and beer for the men. The day was passing without a care in the world and the biggest issue we had was answering the call of nature….tricky in a small boat. We had caught a fair share of mackerel, and even a few stripers by the time we hit the north side of Isleboro and beached the boat. We clambered out, tied off the boat, off loaded the clamming gear, and went in search of a good spot to start digging.
Dad had taught me that the clams in gravel, while easier to dig, were grittier. So, we always dug in the rocks, rolling them over, pulling the seaweed out of our way, scratching and clawing for the large, sweet, black-shelled clams. It was hard work, but we were in no hurry…taking our time and resting from time to time to have a cold one. After about two hours of digging we all had our “clam hods” filled and waded out to rinse the clams in the now outgoing tide.
We loaded our bounty and gear into the boat, clambered back in, shoved off, and putt-putted our way back to the mainland, and the dock in Belfast. We chatted about 4th of July past adventures, and we made a working plan, designating responsibilities, for today’s family feast. We would gather as a family, 15 or 16 people strong, enjoy our clams, corn, grilled burgers, salads, punctuated with stories and tall tales, and then when sated, we would clean up the mess and head out in our cars to Brooks, Maine, a few miles west, to enjoy the tail end of their field day festivities while we awaited the big fireworks display that would light up the sky just after darkness fell.
When I think back on those days, life did seem slower and simpler. I think that will be the top priority on my list this year….a nice slow simple day of pleasure with friends and family.
Enjoy your holiday folks.