I associate the Fourth of July with the U.S. (of course), barbecue, fireworks, and . . . sledding. It’s not that I grew up in the Southern Hemisphere, where it’s winter in July. I was raised in Massachusetts, and when I was eight years old my family moved to the town of Plymouth.
Plymouth is an historical seaside town, site of the first Pilgrim settlement, so naturally it does a fair amount of tourist business, especially in the summer. Thus, it makes sense that the town hosts a decent waterfront fireworks display every Fourth of July. My dad was happy to take the family to see the fireworks after our afternoon barbecue, but like all veterans of the post-football-game exodus from the New England Patriots’ Foxboro stadium, he was leery about getting stuck in post-festivities traffic. So, instead of taking us all the way to the shore, to watch the fireworks going off over Plymouth Harbor, he brought us to Town Brook Park.
This was a green little park that cut through downtown Plymouth, centered around the little stream that had provided fresh water to the Pilgrims, and providing a scenic little spot for a stroll and the occasional wedding ceremony. Dad parked the car next to the Park, at the spot where it began to cross through the business district, and we all got out. We kids were disappointed – you couldn’t even see the ocean from where we were – but Plymouth is not all that big, the business district is really only two blocks wide, and Dad assured us that we would be able to see the fireworks going off in the sky just to the left of the Friendly’s restaurant.
In the meantime, our family (and that of our neighbors, who had joined us) had the green space of the park practically to ourselves. I don’t know if my father had had the brilliant idea of watching the fireworks from afar himself, or if he’d heard it from a local friend, but if the latter it was clearly a well-kept secret. I don’t remember anyone else waiting there when we arrived, and maybe a couple of people joined us once we were there. My mom and dad stepped over the short fence that ran between the sidewalk and the Park and sat themselves down right there, on the edge of the grass. We kids, however, had other ideas.
Where we were parked, the Park dropped sharply from street level to the brook that had carved is own little vale. From where my parents sat to the edge of the brook was a steep hill, covered in thick (but nicely mown) grass, maybe thirty feet from top to bottom. It wasn’t even close to dark yet, and the children were all restless and excited, so it wasn’t more than a minute before we started rolling ourselves down the hill.
That was, literally, rough and tumble fun; an okay diversion, but bouncing dizzily and uncontrollably lost its charm fairly quickly. My brothers and I tried shimmying down the slope over the slick grass on our butts, but that didn’t get us much except grass stains on our shorts. Then Dad got up and went back to our station wagon, and in a moment returned with a stack of flat cardboard boxes in his hands. “Here,” he said. “Try sliding down on these.” That changed everything.
The grass, growing as close as it was to a dependable source of water, was lush and soft, and we raced down the hill on the smooth cardboard like we were on bobsleds. Sometimes we had to put our feet down at the end to make sure we didn’t shoot off into the brook. My siblings and the neighbors’ kids – all of us under the age of ten – spent the next 30 or 40 minutes screaming, giggling breathlessly, tearing down the hill and then rolling off the cardboard at the bottom, picking it up by its edge, and then pumping our little legs to get back to the top as soon as we could. We raced, we crashed into each other, we fought over who got to go next. We had so much fun.
Then, just as it was getting so dark that we were having trouble seeing to climb back up the hill, the fireworks began. We scrambled up to sit next to our parents, and just as my father had promised, the explosions bloomed above the buildings bright and huge and loud. They ended too soon, as fireworks always do, but we all thought they were spectacular.
The next year, as the Fourth of July approached, my brothers and sister and I grew increasingly excited, not just about the fireworks, but about the cardboard sledding, too. (Sure, we could have sledded down any grassy hill any time of the year. But we never did. We understood, from the very first night, what a real tradition is.) We made sure that our parents were stockpiling boxes throughout June. In years to come, we would go so far as to identify in advance which boxes we wanted to claim for ourselves, because they were the right length or shape. And each year that we went to that spot over Town Brook Park, we saw more and more families there. And the kids always brought cardboard boxes, and there would be dozens of us sledding down in glee while the parents chatted and laughed above us. The last time I was in Plymouth on the Fourth of July – years ago, but sometime after I had graduated from college – I drove past that spot, and it was crowded with happy families and cardboard toboggans.
That was probably the first time I watched an idea take on a life of its own. My dad’s modest yet innovative ideas – possibly to watch the fireworks from that hill, and definitely to sled on cardboard down it – developed a vitality that would survive the end of my childhood, even survive him, because they made so much sense to us, and to the people who saw us there. There are many components of fulfillment, but I have to believe that that kind of meaningful, beneficent immortality is one of the greatest.