September 11th and the bottle rocket’s red glare

This story was composed in September of 2008 and was featured on my website www.oldblacktruck.com. As far as I can tell, September Eleventh — probably not the 9/11 you’re familiar with — has never appeared in the printed media. As for the website, it has simply disappeared though the server continued to deduct their monthly fee. I speculate that the site may have been hacked by some ultra-fussy foreign power, — “Too much sappy Americana not good for North Korea boy.” Computers never caught on with me and my web genius has moved on to bigger and better things. The site thus lays abandoned — but I’m willing to listen to ideas.

 

Like a becalmed sailing vessel, the progression of the seasons is stalled in mid-summer. September starts the waiting sails to fluttering. It’s very subtle at first; crickets that are normally nocturnal join the cicadas in mid-morning song; late blooming grasses cast a haze over the fields. Goldenrod and asters soon add color. Here and there a gum tree turns magenta in contrast to the still green mountainsides. Low growth such as sumac and some creeping vines start to turn color — features that we might miss if we forget to stop and look closely.

September’s rivulets of cooling air — some only inches wide — course their way down slopes, through woods and across open sun drenched fields. These are the little winds that make morning campfires difficult to light, leaving us thinking that our matches must be damp from the dew. While it may be largely due to its contrast with the haze of August, there is no sky so blue as that of a clear day in September.

Stephanie and I raised three beautiful daughters well into the age of legal responsibility with no felony indictments. While this may sound like bragging, I’ll even take it further and mention that they have always been voracious readers. Of the many children’s stories that have passed through our household, I seem to relate to one particular story in a special way: “Ramona Quimby and the Perfect Day,” by Beverly Cleary.

I was born on Sept. 13, 1953, (hold on to those gifts and cards — I no longer celebrate birthdays) so the 11th is obviously not my birthday. However, in 1960, my birthday fell on a Tuesday. In order for my father to be involved in my birthday celebration, it either had to be held on Sunday the 11th or the following Sunday by which time I would already have declared myself “7 1/2 going on 8.”

The party would be later in the day and would be a successful affair, which included nearly everyone in our little Lithuanian farming enclave, a new bike and live accordion music. The real celebration though, was the ride through the countryside. My dad celebrated everything with a ride in the Buick. Always a Buick — in this case it was a 1948 Roadmaster. He paid cash for the car during the postwar boom. He hadn’t planned to hold on to it for so long but a serious recession in the late ‘50s altered his plans.

The Buick ran flawlessly — there were a lot of other cars of that vintage still on the road though by then Detroit would have us believe that any car without tail fins and a big V-8 engine was scandalously obsolete. Heck, the Buick had 8 cylinders, albeit all in a row. My dad insisted that the car’s brakes were insufficient for its weight. This was said to be the “real” cause of a minor accident in which he was charged with “drunken driving” — plain and simple. There were no delicate legal euphemisms back then.

Please don’t let the mention of the year 1960 evoke images of Dayglo painted Volkswagen buses and Flower Children. For those who weren’t there, 1960 was still the era of the Beatnik. The historic ‘60s didn’t kick in until the latter half of the decade and carried well over into the ‘70s. 1960 was indiscernible from the ‘50s and, in the rurals, bore a close resemblance (so I’ve heard) to the late ‘40s.

My dad and I climbed into the car, leaving Mom to prepare things on the home front. We headed west on the tar and chip roads past dairy cows grazing in the sunshine. We soon joined the bright white concrete of rural New Jersey’s North-South artery, U.S. 206. We traveled this highway only a short distance then rejoined the network of secondary roads.

We stopped in the tiny town of Neshanic. The trees along the street were in full summer foliage, crisply defined by the deep blue sky. Neat houses from the last century and before nestled comfortably amid well-arranged flowers and shrubbery. Sunshine filtered through the leaves and glinted off of the tall two-piece windshields and copious chrome trim of the cars parked along the curb. One could easily imagine Jimmy Stuart exchanging greetings with Spencer Tracy along the shaded sidewalk.

As we waited to cross the street to the little restaurant, a long, shiny green Chrysler passed. Being quite short at the time, the bottom half of the jewel-like emblem in the center of the chrome hubcap of the rear wheel caught my attention. The top half of the wheel was concealed by the lustrous gleam of a chrome trimmed fender skirt. The tire sported wide white sidewalls.

“There goes the judge,” my father said as he waved. I would hear this phrase again and again in my mind for the next half-century whenever I happened to attend an antique car show and see those elegantly skirted wheels.

Everyone in the restaurant seemed to know my dad. He ordered coffee and doughnuts and announced that “Little Teddy” (that was me) was 7-years-old today. That I wouldn’t actually be seven for two more days remained our secret. Being six and palmed off as a mature and worldly 7-year-old was an awesome responsibility. The swarthy Italian plumbers and excavators, the ruddy Polish carpenters and everyone else offered congratulations and advice. A few may even have said something Catholic.

Back outside a short while later, I took a long look down the quiet street. A small bottle rocket ascended from a back yard somewhere and exploded with its single report above the trees. Being above any obstructions, the little airborne firecracker echoed far and wide. No further launches followed. The rocket was probably a dud left over from the Fourth of July perhaps revived through the genius of a boozy, mischievous uncle — they’re good for things like that.

We headed back home where I would cash in on having been a denizen of this planet for seven whole years. After dark, there was a campfire beneath the huge hickory tree by the brook. Sept. 11, 1960 receives my Ramona Quimby Perfect Day Award. There have been better days since but the RQPDA requires that one be about 7 years old.

I’ve heard it said that, typically, people from rural New Jersey who have been displaced by development spend the rest of their lives looking for the New Jersey of 50 years ago. Having found eastern West Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley, my search was somewhat shorter than most. Perhaps you know some of us though you might not understand some of our odd habits and bizarre rituals.

The sun climbs on a clear September day and the windshields of the antique trucks in our backyard reflect the deep-blue sky. I walk outside and am overcome by the beauty of the day. On the bed of the 1954 Chevrolet truck stands a vintage Coca-Cola bottle. From it, I launch a single bottle rocket — never more than one in a day.

 

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