My last installment relayed our last day of school and our subsequent departure to Lake Hopatcong, NJ for the summer. As we just celebrated the Fourth of July, I thought I would describe one of our more memorable ones in Lake Hopatcong.
To the mind of a kid, the Fourth of July represented the very start of summer; there were endless days of fun left before we had to think about returning to school. Today, of course, and very much older ,the Fourth of July signals the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. A bit of an exaggeration, obviously, but sadly, not by much.
However, it is to the beginnings of one of those endless summers that I would like to focus our attention.
By July 4th, we had been at the bungalow for about two weeks. We had scouted the familiar neighborhood, reconnected to old friends and began our summer routine of fun and leisure.
On a few occasions relatives from ” the City” would come to visit for the July 4th weekend, on other occasions we would spend it alone, but it was always fun.
Dad would cook hot dogs and burgers on the grill, and, rarely failed to burn them thoroughly. Apologies to my Texas friends, but that is what we New Yorkers considered a Barbecue. Sacrilegious, I know.
Anyway, the year I am thinking of it was just going to be the five of us. Mom, Dad, Rob , myself and Aunt Fil, as she was still living with us at the time. Dad came up with the idea of going to witness the Fourth of July firework display that was going to be put on by the township. Now, this was a pretty revolutionary idea for our Dad, as he was a guy ordered by routine and tradition . Driving to watch fireworks was definitely outside of his normal routine. ” Barbecuing “, burgers and hot dogs was in the routine, going to fireworks was not.
I’m not sure what prompted this idea, perhaps, as was typical of Dad, he just wanted to do something nice for his family. Whatever the motivation, we were going to witness the Fourth of July firework display in Lake Hopatcong , New Jersey. It was scheduled to be held at an open field about a twenty-minute drive outside of town. My memory does not recall the exact location, but that is unimportant.
Rob and I were pretty excited about the idea, as it was something different that we had not done before. We had a quick dinner at the Bungalow ( yep, New Yorker Barbecue)
Mom and Aunt Fil packed some snacks and off we went on our fireworks adventure.
The first indication of trouble came when Mom asked Dad;
“it’s not too far away, right?”
“Naw, naw,”Dad responded , “it’s just on the other side of the lake.”
I was just old enough to notice a quick look exchanged between Mom and Aunt Fil. Mom was in the front seat of the black Desoto with Dad, Aunt Fil in the back seat with “the kids”. Rob never noticed, but he was way too young to even care and if I recall correctly,he was pretending he was a bus driver totally oblivious to the ominous “look exchange”.
Years later I understood Mom and Aunt Fils anxiety; Dad was terrible with directions. He would take a brief look at them one time and then say “ok,lets’ get on the road .”
Rarely would he have a clue where we were heading. Just about the time he realized he was hopelessly lost , he would blame Mom and then expect her to figure it out. Like any logical woman, she would say we should stop and ask. Of course, on most occasions, Dad figured that was not necessary and we would continue on our journey to Lord knows where.
Our Firework trip was no exception. “The other side of the Lake” was a pretty vague description of where we were going . Hopatcong was a big lake and the “other side” could be anywhere.
So, Mom prodded a bit …
“Ton ( her shortened version of Tony), do you know where we are going?”
Dad; annoyance starting to creep into voice, but still pretty controlled:
“Babe”( his pet name for Mom) , “it’s on the other side of the lake… the other side of the lake … that’s where we’re going!”
Mom shook her head and looked straight ahead. Aunt Fil pulled out the Rosary, Robert continued to drive the doomed imaginary bus and I began to wonder if I would ever see the fireworks.
It was not long before it became clear we were hopelessly lost. The sky was getting darker as the evening twilight began to turn to night. Night, you know, when it’s dark and fireworks were normally shot off?
We somehow found ourselves on a lonely country road with no other cars in sight. Not exactly that big open field on “the other side of the lake.” Hell, at this point there was no lake in sight. Dad was clearly agitated now. He was muttering things in Italian, and that never was a good thing. Mom knew the best approach was to say nothing. Aunt Fil, bless her heart, was trying to keep Rob focused on his bus driving by telling him what a good driver he was and asking if he could take her a little further on. He readily agreed, but even his little mind was starting to question things as evidenced by the way his little eyes would meet mine. I imagined him saying ; ” I’m sick of playing bus driver, I want to see some fireworks!”
Dad turned from muttering in Italian to blaming the fireworks themselves;
” stupid fireworks! Why do they have them in the middle of nowhere!!!?”
I wanted to say they were just on the “other side of the lake,” but thought better of it.
“That’s it!” He declared ,” I’m never spending money on fireworks again”!!!
Mom gently reminded him that it was a free display. It didn’t matter , he was still not spending money on them again!!
It was just about at this point that the old Desoto had enough and decided to stop running. Yep, a breakdown on a deserted road. Stephen King would love this.
Dad was as mechanically inclined as little Rob was, geez, Robert thought he was driving a bus from the back seat, so in a nut shell, we were screwed.
We managed to get the car off to the side of the very narrow road and Dad did the obligatory “opening of the hood”. Since he had no clue what any of the stuff in there did, it was kinda useless. Looking back , it is funny to remember dad looking under the hood with no idea as to what he was looking for. We piled out of the car and stood up on the side of the very narrow road wondering what would happen next.
Dad ,of course ,was now cussing up a storm in Italian. I believe he cussed everything from Desotos’ to country roads, to fireworks to lakes… nothing was spared. Mom kept trying to calm him down and Aunt Fil was muttering something about “she never should have left the city”. I had to pee, but no one gave a damn about that. So, there we were stranded on the side of a deserted road on no particular side of any lake.
Remember, this was way before cell phones, so our only hope was in a passing car.
…. and that car came.. and came fast over the hill and around the curve leading to where our car was dead in the road. It was coming very fast and it looked like they would unquestionably smash into us.
Aunt Fil reacted quickest, pulling Robert and I off the road into a small ditch. Dad stood there staring at the oncoming car for a second, as if saying; ” you have got to be kidding me.. what next? He regained his awareness and pulled Mom into the same ditch. A family who “ditches ” together stays together, I always say.
Miraculously, the driver of the speeding car pulled off a great last second maneuver , sliding to a screeching halt inches from the rear of the Desoto. We were blessed on that the driver was a good person. He knew something about cars , took a look and quickly told Dad it was the carburetor. It was “shot.” Thus began Dad’s lifelong hatred of carburetor, even though he had no idea what they did.
The guy said he lived close by and would call a tow truck for us, which he did.
When it arrived,we all piled into the tow truck as the Desoto with the badly cussed out carburetor was taken to a gas station a few miles away. The only one that was still having the time of his life was Rob, who had gone from driving a ” make-believe” bus to driving a very real, heavy-duty tow truck. He was all smiles, though trying to look serious, as drivers of bad-ass tow trucks don’t go around with grins on their face.
This was another era… not judging better or worse, but in addition to towing us, the driver even offered drive us home after dropping the car off at the gas station. No charge… not sure that would happen today. So, at about 2 am, we returned home from our firework adventure without ever seeing the sky even brighten.
Everyone was exhausted except Robert who enjoyed the evening much more than he would have watching fireworks. He asked Mom if he could drive the truck again tomorrow. Mom just kissed him goodnight. Aunt Fil flatly stated that: ” this is why I like the Subway!”
I was exhausted, but happy to be home. At the time, I had no idea that this night would stay with me forever.
The last thing I remember before falling off to sleep was Dads voice that I could hear coming from his bedroom…. all I could make out were some not so nice sounding Italian words…
And then …
“Stupid damned Fireworks! Never Again!!”