Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Independence Day

man with fireworks

Photo by Rakicevic Nenad on

Independence Day

Day begins early–holiday Vindy to deliver

Flag-lined streets

We’re all patriots

Dad cooks bacon and egg breakfast

Sousa marches on the radio

“We hold these truths to be self-evident…”

Picnic preparations

Neighborhood alive with firecrackers

A wonder any of us has ten fingers

Drive through Mill Creek to grandparents

Through the smoke of a dozen barbecues

Meat on the grill

Guys standing around with a brew

Women shuttling between kitchen and back yard

Dishes cover the picnic table

Hotdogs with all the fixins’

Burgers grilled to perfection

Grandma’s potato salad

The best baked beans

Jello salad

Strawberry shortcake

Peach pies


Leisurely conversation


Hide ‘n seek

Popsicle break


Lighting sparklers

Citronella candles

Pile into the car

Idora fireworks

The perfect Fourth

And two more months of summer!

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Fireworks


By Fieldington at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Last night was our big fireworks display in Columbus–Red, White and Boom. We enjoyed it in the comfort of our living room but hundreds of thousands made their way to downtown Columbus for a half hour or less of ear-drum shattering pyrotechnics.

Remember fireworks growing up in Youngstown? Of course there were the homegrown variety. One year, I remember dad’s version of fireworks was to set off some automobile flares in our backyard. Actually was pretty cool! As young kids, we got sparklers, which seemed magical the first time we lit them.

As we grew older this was pretty tame stuff. I have to confess, I’m not very good at lying, and my folks were pretty strict about not buying fireworks. That didn’t prevent me, however, from watching my friends set them off. Of course there were the little firecrackers, which mostly just made a lot of noise. There were cherry bombs, which really made a loud boom, and were the favorite for throwing in a mailbox of a crochety neighbor. There were Roman candles and bottle rockets for lots of light as well as noise.

It seems I recall that some of the little mom and pop stores would sell this stuff out of a back room or under the counter. This was before some of the big stores on state borders that made liars of lots of people who swore they would only use the fireworks “out of state.” All I know is many of my friends whose parents weren’t as strict about this stuff had no problem finding them. No one I knew ever got in trouble for them. And the nights leading up to July 4, then as now, were filled with the sound of do it yourself fireworks.

The big display for most of us who grew up in Youngstown was at Idora Park and that was the place to be on the evening of the Fourth. Some years we went there and saw everything, the stuff that detonated low as well as the rockets that went way up high. Other years, we watched from the highest ridge of Rocky Ridge on the West side, where you had lots more room and lots less traffic.

The approach of dusk meant the wrapping up of all those family picnics, storing away the last of that potato salad, and licking those gooey s’mores off your fingers. Then it was pile into the family car or station wagon and head off to see the fireworks. Sometimes, we’d sit in the back of a neighbor’s station wagon, sipping lemonade poured from a big thermos while we waited for the show to start.

We’d “ooh” and “ahh” at all the cool effects of fireworks that looked like snakes and others that looked like weeping willows. I always liked the “spiders”. We wanted them to go on forever. Then there was the pause, and suddenly the sky lit up and seconds later, we would hear an almost endless “boom-boom-boom-boom-boom” as the display reached the finale. Then silence and cheers.

And then we went home realizing that a month of summer was gone. We renewed our determination to swim, play baseball, eat ice cream and sleep in as much as the parents would let us. That Tuesday after Labor Day was only two months away and we all knew what that meant.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Family Picnics

Picnic image

It’s the 4th of July. In about six hours, we are having a picnic at our house. And thinking of this reminds me of all the family picnics at 4th of July gatherings growing up.

For many years, these took place at my grandparents home on Cohasset Drive on the South Side. They had a lovely old home with a second floor screened porch in back and a finished attic. It was a place I loved to explore as a kid.

My grandmother loved to cook, like many other Youngstowners. And it seemed she always pulled out the stops for family picnics. There was usually a couple varieties of homemade potato salad, three bean salads, baked beans, cole slaw, and corn on the cob if she could get it, and strawberry shortcake for dessert with whipped cream (and not the stuff out of a can or tub!).

Grilling was grandpa’s work and he’d always be gathered with the other men around the grill, knocking back some cold ones while the dogs, brauts, and burgers were grilling. It was here that I discovered what a hamburger should really look and taste like, sticking out of the edge of the bun, savoring of the charcoal, juicy and thick, topped with a slice of tomato, maybe an onion, some pickles. As a kid we weren’t choosy though. A hot dog with some relish and mustard was joy on a bun!

After dinner (and there were always chips and my grandmother’s Chex mix to munch on) the guys would set up horse shoe stakes in the back yard and pitch horseshoes. How I looked forward to being old enough to be able to join them! Some years, we would set up a croquet set in the back yard. I loved to “send” my dad or my brother’s ball under the bushes along the side of the yard. Sooner or later they would return the favor.

Meanwhile the women would all be gathered around the picnic table sipping tea or lemonade. I wasn’t a part of these gatherings so only the Lord (and other women) knows what they talked about!

As twilight came everyone gathered around to talk and enjoy the cooling air. Usually there were several citronella candles lit to keep the mosquitoes away. While the adults talked, us kids would get a jar and go catch “lightning bugs” (as we called fireflies). It was always fun to see who would catch most, but you had to remember to put holes in the jar lid so they could breathe. I had a cousin who forgot this and went to look at his lightning bugs the next morning only to find “they all woke up dead!” Sometimes, we’d make our own “lightning” with sparklers, especially to celebrate the 4th.

If it was the 4th of July, we’d often leave in time to drive over to Rocky Ridge on the West Side to give us a good view of the fireworks display at Idora Park. You could look across Mill Creek Park and get a great view of all but the ground level fireworks.

We weren’t a big family and so we could gather in a backyard. Others had their picnics in Mill Creek Park or even reserved one of the shelters in the park for their gatherings. What all these had in common was a day away from work and the routines of life. It was a time to remember that life is good, that even for all our contentions, family is family, and that America was a great place to live.

Happy 4th of July to all my Youngstown friends! Hope it is a day of fun gatherings and good eating!

Independence Day?

I’ve been thinking about the name we give our Fourth of July Holiday. Independence Day. Of course it comes from the Declaration of Independence when we decide we could not longer tolerate being a colony of Great Britain. At that point, we weren’t even sure we wanted to be a nation so much as a collection of states who had united for the purpose of fighting against what we perceived as British tyranny. It took a good deal of further argument, and some economic necessities, for us to decide that the thirteen states would indeed unite to form a nation under a federal constitution.  All that is history but it suggests to me how deeply this idea of independence runs in our nation’s sense of identity.

Independence Day

Never mind that independence depended on our seizure of land occupied by the First Nations peoples who were here long before us. Never mind that much of our early economy depended on an unholy acceptance of slavery by both South and North. Never mind that when slavery was threatened and the compromises no longer worked, the fight over the decision of the South to pursue an independent existence and break its union with the North cost the lives of 620,000 men. It seems to me that the “independence” that is etched so deeply in the American character has often taken such an absolute value that we have been willing to kill and commit numerous injustices when they may have been more peaceful and just alternatives.  Even in the case of our revolution, the reality is that it was British incompetence and the challenges of communication over distances that contributed our problems as much as any tyranny. It might be argued that we could have achieved nationhood without war (and not had to fight a follow-up war in 1812).

My problem is not with the idea of “independence” in and of itself. It is rather when we make this an absolute value–when we fail to realize the ways we are dependent and interdependent. Independence of thought can be a good thing that leads to creativity, innovation, works of original beauty and insight. Nevertheless, even these things build on knowledge and skill acquired from the generations. And what happens when independence just becomes the stubborn refusal to take counsel and heed the sense of others? What happens when we so harden in our positions that being right matters more than finding some concord?

liberty and justice for all

The truth is, none of us, neither individuals nor nations leads an entirely independent existence. We depend on family, community organizations, the labors of others for so much in our lives. Our very sustenance depends on an environment that is incredibly beautiful, fruitful and yet not invulnerable to our depredations.  We likewise as a nation depend on an economic and trade system that is global. The truer reality is that we are “interdependent”, part of a web of relationships where we mutually sustain each other in families, communities, nationally and internationally. The hubris that denies this reality and glorifies our “independence” as an absolute, an ultimate value, seems to lead to rape of the land, plunder of the weak, and a violent way of life. And despite our use of “under God” language in our Pledge of Allegiance and the trust in God we express on our currency, I fear that this statement of dependence is often mere verbiage when the truth is we conceive ourselves answerable to no one.

So while I want to celebrate the birth of a country I truly love as both beautiful and remarkable in many of its achievements and whose Constitution seems to me a near work of genius, I have to admit that I am ever more uncomfortable with our language of “independence”. I think far more compelling is our expressed passion for “liberty and justice for all.” If today can be a day of renewed dedication to this ideal for ALL of our own people as well as the other peoples of the world, then that is truly cause for celebration!