They're Not Making The Sky As Blue (this year) July 4, 1952
July 4th, or more properly “Independence Day.” Outside my window dads with little kids close beside them are lighting fuses, sending rockets aloft to burst high in the air raining varicolored bits of incendiary material down onto the streets, roofs and lawns. Most I suspect are giving little if any thought as to what the explosions and rockets are commemorating. I’m not bothered by it though. At one time I lit a few twisted paper fuses myself. Instead of being annoyed my mind has turned like Charles Dickens"Ebenezer Scrooge" to ghosts of Independence Days past.
At first I see the ghost of an old friend, Walt Ford, now long gone. Walt shared with me an Independence Day weekend which – without either of us knowing it – was the last gasp of a period in our lives when we were free-footed, unattached and relatively irresponsible young men. Perhaps, though, in a mystical way I knew, for this particular ghost lodged itself firmly in my memory.
Walt and I had met at the beginning of our freshman year in college. We were roommates and developed a friendship that lasted for several years after our college days. But in this summer of 1952 we were both feeling the hot breath of “Selective Service” on our necks and were out to make the most of whatever time we had left. On this holiday weekend this “making the most” would most certainly include girls and alcohol fueled parties.
I owned a sleek, black 1935 Chevrolet 4-door sedan. It was an attractive and dependable old car. It would definitely serve the purpose we had in mind to celebrate our nation’s birthday. Kansas at that time was still much under the influence of one of its early celebrities – Carrie Nation. It had few places where young people could gather to indulge in spirits and exchange pheromes. But our neighboring state of Missouri had not felt the sting of Carrie’s hatchet nor suffered under the flint-faced constraints of rigid “Yankee” puritanism.
Today the only people that think of the hamlet of Noel (pronounced “NO-uhl”) Missouri as a recreational destination are fishermen and campers who want to enjoy a peaceful float trip on the clear waters of the nearby Spring River. But on that holiday weekend when Walt and I were out to sow a few non-domesticated oats Noel was a place where young people gathered to offer their bait to a different species of fish.
In preparation I replaced my Chevy’s back seat with one of my mother’s old, seldom used wash tubs. Walt and I bought some snacks and a 50 pound chunk of ice which we chipped and put into the washtub. The only remaining piece of our holiday collage we couldn’t buy until we crossed into Missouri. Kansas, you see, in its disdain for alcohol could not sell any beer that had over 3.2% alcohol in it. That is a beverage whose main effect has to do with visiting private rooms with porcelain fixtures. Missouri, however, had “the real stuff.” We waited until we crossed the state line before putting our beverage of choice into the ice tub.
Like many dream-fantasies the Holiday Celebration we’d concocted turned out to be much livelier in imagination than reality. We found a “night club” on the banks of the Spring River and enjoyed the scenery. The “Club” even had an outdoor dance floor overlooking the river where couples could enhance their pleasures by soaking in the scenery. All very romantic. But Walt and I, like the fabled “Casey” when he came to bat, “struck out.” We “swung at a few promising balls” but failed to connect with any of them. But we were enjoying ourselves listening to music and occasionally finding a young lady to dance with. One of the very popular songs that summer was “a wistful one entitled "Wish You Were Here.”
Walt and I had a mutual friend – Tom Hemphill – who was in an Air Force Band stationed in France. We pictured him as a lonely serviceman pining away in a foreign land. As a friendly dig we found a postcard with an enhanced picture of the “night club” and sent it to him with the words “Wish You Were Here” scrawled on it. We didn’t stop to compare the pleasures an unattached young man might find in France to those we found in rural Missouri.
When the music ended Walt and I, with only ourselves for company, drove out of town to a little roadside park. We threw our sleeping bags out onto the ground and slept. The rest of the weekend is lost in the obscure fissures and folds in my brain. We drove back home believing we’d had a great time – and that’s what matters.
As a tragic footnote, having nothing to do with this story. Walt and I each eventually took a wife and built families. Then one night on a dark road outside of Wichita KS, Walt was killed when a car struck the motorcycle he was riding. I lost a good friend with whom I had shared a rite of passage on the 4th of July weekend in 1952.
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It is always a pleasure to read a tale rich in local color, anticipation, and veracity.
A wonderful read worth every word.
Thanks Tom. I probably have a few more but I'm having to drop the bucket pretty far down into the well to hit water. But I really enjoy telling these stories.
Once again you have produced a wonderful read. That Independence Day coincides with my 8th, and I appreciate you "dropping the bucket pretty far down into the well" to share these memories.
I'll definitely try to keep drawing water. I'm grateful that Tom, his wife and associates have made this such a great way to put personal history "out there."