A big event each year in our part of the Ozarks was the Fourth of July picnic in Greenfield, the county seat of Dad County. I do not know why it was called a “picnic” because it was far more than that. It included carnival rides set up all around the courthouse square, hamburger stands, all the usual carnival booths with prizes, a few sideshow tents, and a fireworks display at dark.
During the first half of the year, we boys tried to save some money to spend on fireworks on the 4th. We did not usually save much because the rabbit selling season and possum hinting were on in the fall and winter. My mother, however, always managed to give us enough for some firecrackers, a cap gun, and a hamburger. I think she sometimes sold some of the chickens to give us fifty cents apiece.
Our fireworks in those days were not subject to the safety regulations we know have and, consequently, were far more potent and a lot more fun. We were taught the dangers involved and were then on our own. I never heard of a serious injury involving fireworks; however, we were all subjected occasionally to minor burns, numb fingers, or temporarily deafened ears once in a while.
We had firecrackers that would blow a Maxwell House coffee can fifty feet into the air. Our cap guns sounded like real revolvers and the Roman candles would send fireballs a hundred feet into the air.
One of our favorite devices we called a “cherry bomb” but it was not a firecracker with a fuse. It was an innocuous appearing brown ball about the size of a walnut. It went off on impact like a miniature hand grenade. Thrown high in the air so it would come down on pavement or thrown at a boulder, a cherry bomb made a soul-satisfying bang. I recall one 4th when we saved some of those cherry bombs and had a “war” the next day before Sunday dinner on a rocky hillside near my Uncle Coy Tygart’s spring on the old home place. Fortunately, there were no casualties.
We usually arrived in Greenfield on the 4th before noon and spent the rest of the day. My mother sometimes took biscuit sandwiches for lunch. Dinner would be a real hamburger from a stand on the square—a nickel for a small plain one or a dime for a big one with mustard and onion. No MacDonald’s, Burger King, or Wendy’s can compete with the delicious taste of those 4th of July hamburgers.
Even though we were old country boys from the hills, we were smart enough to know that most of the game booths for Kewpie dolls and stuffed animals were rigged and were nearly impossible to win so we rarely wasted our money there. Any one of us could have cleaned out a shooting gallery except that they would not allow anything but BB guns in the town square and they were never accurate.
Sometimes we were a bit more gullible about the sideshow attractions. One time they had a “Wild Man from Borneo”. There were lurid signs outside the tent showing a savage with bones in his ears and nose sitting in a snake pit. Occasional wild screams and unintelligible gibberish came from inside.
My curiosity got the better of me and I paid a nickel and went inside. There was canvas “pit” in the center of the tent and, sure enough, a wild looking brown man with straggling and stringy long dirty black hair was seated in the dirt among several large snakes. There were some harmless ground snakes and a couple of big rattlers that I figured out right away had been de-fanged because they did not try to bite the man.
The “wild man” sat in the dirt mouthing gibberish while he fondled the snakes and threw one or two across the enclosure. I stared at him for a while and he finally looked at me through the dirty stringy hair falling over his face. I suddenly realized his eyes were as blue as mine and I sure had never seen a blue-eyed Negro. I grinned at him and one of the blue eyes slowly closed in a wink while a faint smile flitted on his dirty face. I laughed as I left the tent thinking that I sure did not want to make a living that way.
The fireworks after dark were the usual display of fire fountains, big Roman candles, skyrockets, and aerial bombs that left females covering their ears and dogs scurrying for cover. One main attraction was the small hot air balloons. These did not carry people and were only about three or four feet tall. The balloon part was made of gaily colored Japanese rice paper and the “burner” was simply a large candle suspended on a small platform.
When the balloons were released and soared about the treetops, the candle flames lit up the paper and made a pretty sight as they drifted away in the warm night. Since everything was dry as tinder in those drought days, I have no idea why those balloons did not start a major fire when they came down.
By the time the fireworks were done, so were we. Dog tired from the long day and the excitement, a few stray firecrackers and a cap gun in our pockets, we would be bundled into the back seat of the Model T Ford touring car. We children were usually fast asleep before we got to the Bona turnoff at Tarrytown.