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July 4 whiffs of the boardwalk: a day for the nose


The Fourth of July just isn't a proper day without popcorn covered with corn syrup.

The exquisite aroma of this confection floated down the boardwalk at Rehoboth Beach, Del. By my seventh summer, I was tall enough to just see over the counter and watch the ladies bring buckets of newly exploded kernels to a stainless steel table for a bath in caramel glop. After an quick airing under the brass blades of an electric fan, it went into black-and-white boxes.

July 4 was the real opening day at the ocean. The crowds meant the summer season was in full swing. June didn't count. It was always dull, lifeless and occasionally too cool. July meant really hot weather, corn-growing weather, when people flock to the ocean and the shore places.

The old boardwalk at Rehoboth Beach, where I spent so many summers, seemed like a graveyard until this day rolled around.

It was the day for the nose. Pizza was not around. The boardwalk lunchroom grills overflowed with greasy hamburgers and french fries. The tourists had to have sugary cotton candy.

A close runner-up for a classic Independence Day whiff is the smell of the amusement park bumper-car arena, that mixture of electricity and grease which will forever be one of the most evocative smells of summer, right up there with salt air and Sea-n-Ski suntan lotion.

Skee-Ball machines don't have a smell, but they certainly eat your coins.

Occasionally I'd be curious about life back in Baltimore on the Fourth. Accounts of the elaborate fireworks displays at Memorial Stadium got passed around. These tales of exploding fire made climbing the local lifeguard's stand after the beach patrol went off duty seem a little dull.

At the stadium, so the story went, there was a grand finale of fireworks on a flimsy wood frame. This pyrotechnic display actually told a story.

One year, according to reports from my friends, there was a simulated atomic bomb blast in the direction of the outfield, by 36th Street, with the bomb exploding and setting fire to a miniature village also constructed of flashing gunpowder. You can imagine what a fireworks mushroom cloud conjured up to a 9-year-old during the Cold War years.

My family was extremely strict about fireworks safety. My father had seen a child sitting on South Baltimore rowhouse steps lose an arm when a box of fireworks ignited. Even sparklers were shunned.

When you are forbidden to do something, the desire to partake becomes stronger. Some of the best fireworks I ever observed were those set off as pranks, like the Roman candle that mysteriously shot from behind a backyard shed or trash can into a prissy neighbor's cocktail party.

Or a fountain-style firework, sometimes called a flower pot, set off under the boardwalk so that the little jets of fire popped through the slits in the boards and scared unsuspecting strollers. Maybe.

To this day, the merriest part of a happy Fourth remains the mob of family and friends it brings together, often three generations who gather for potato salad, a lot of sitting and even more talk.

This was a holiday when everybody was off and converged under one roof. At the ocean, it meant that every bed, rollaway cot, couch and daybed had a body on it at nightfall.

One year, when President Eisenhower was new to the White House, we had a little brown shingle cottage that sat atop a sand dune. It looked as if a wave might wash it away.

I had been put to bed early on the night of July 3. A big crowd arrived by station wagon from Baltimore after sunset. The adults needed my berth, a regular bed in an attic room where the roofing nails pierced the ceiling. I woke up on an army cot that mysteriously appeared.

By local legend, the Fourth was the day when the ocean warmed up enough so that you didn't turn indigo from the cold. It was also early enough in the season that sea nettles and jellyfish weren't a problem.

We never had a special meal on the Fourth of July, but sometimes there might be a patriotic dessert. Once my grandmother came up with blueberry shortcake covered with white whipped cream.

As a child who had to have all the answers, I inquired, "Where's the red part?"

My grandmother, without batting an eye, shot back: "Hush and use your imagination."

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