Every time the 4th of July approaches I think about the ways we used to celebrate when I was coming up in Porterdale. Sometimes the mill would close for the week of the Fourth and lots of families - mine included - would head to Jacksonville Beach for the week, or at least a part of the week. One year about a dozen families left at 2 in the morning and traveled in a motorcade to Florida. I still remember laying up on the back deck of our old Buick and gazing up at the full moon as we rolled down the two-lane blacktop that led to what seemed like a different world to me.
We stopped somewhere along Highway 441, a little ways below Macon - there was no I-75 back in those days, understand - and had a picnic breakfast. I can almost taste the home-cooked ham-biscuits that my mama had wrapped in tin foil and packed away in a shoebox, and I can still see all the men and women in my daddy's Sunday school class drinking hot coffee from Thermos jugs. Later in the morning they would be drinking white lightning from Dixie cups, but that's another story for another day.
We hit one stretch when the Bibb would close on the Fourth itself - that one day - and hold a great big barbecue for everybody in town - and everybody who worked in the mills but lived outside of town. Now that was small town America at its best, if you ask me. This would have been in the early '60s, when I was about 12 years old and a proud member of Aubrey Barnes's Troop 226, BSA.
The Scouts always helped with the Fourth of July barbecues, which were held at the old baseball field, down by the Yellow River. The night before the big day Homer Hill would supervise the cooking of the barbecue, back behind the covered grandstand. There would be dozens of whole hogs stretched out over racks of hickory coals. Grown men with forearms that would do Popeye justice would pick the racks up and turn them every hour on the hour, and along about the middle of the night they would start breaking off the toasted skin of the hogs and eating the pig skin with whatever they were drinking out of their Dixie cups.
They would let us eat the pig skins, but the Bibb had quit hosting barbecues by the time I got old enough to drink out of a Dixie cup.
The main job of the Scouts was to stir the Brunswick stew, which was cooked over an open fire in big black pots. When I say big, I mean big. I'll give you an idea of how big the pots were. We used canoe paddles to do the stirring - and you'd better not let the stew stick, either because if you did, Mr. Homer Hill would ...
Well, to tell the truth, I don't know what Mr. Homer would have done. I was always too afraid to find out so when he told me to stir and not let the stew stick, I stirred - and didn't let the stew stick. I do know this, however. That was some good stew. Mr. Homer is gone now, but his son Monty knows his stew recipe and Monty and I are going to release it to the world when my new cookbook comes out this fall. Maybe next year on the Fourth of July you can make a pot of it yourself. Don't call me to stir the pot, though. I'm done staying up all night.
Once the barbecue and stew were pronounced done we would all run home to put on our uniform. Directing traffic was another job for Troop 226 on the Fourth of July. I thought it was great fun, and we got to see everybody in town. Plus, for once in my life, I got to tell the grown people where to go instead of the other way around.
I don't ever remember any aerial fireworks at the annual barbecues, but Steve Piper usually had plenty of cherry bombs and M-80s. You'd be amazed how high into the air the water would splash when you'd throw an M-80 in the river. Sometimes fish would float to the top, too, and on the day after the barbecue we'd have a fish fry.
There were fireworks in Covington, however, and we would always look forward to going. We saw everybody in town at the Porterdale barbecue, but we saw everybody in the county at the Covington fireworks. We would always park down by the Big Apple and Mama would spread out a quilt or two for us sit on. Those quilts would sell for about $750 apiece nowadays. We would eat watermelon slices and wait for it to get dark enough for the fireworks.
Quite frankly, they probably weren't all that impressive by today's standards, but to a little mill village boy who had been up all night stirring stew, they were magical.
The Fourth of July in small town America. Hope you have a great one - and I hope you use it to make a few memories for the children in your life. And while you're at it - teach them a little bit about why we are celebrating, too.