One Perfect Summer Night
By Colette Sewall
The date of Saturday, July 10th, that was circled on my calendar finally arrived. I had written “Fireworks Barbeque!” in large red letters; and just in case I thought I might miss it, I had underlined it three times with my favorite red Sharpie marker. The countdown to this day actually began on the previous Sunday, when the vans and trucks started arriving.
By Monday, everything was all set up: the Dunking Booth, the Ferris Wheel, the Kiddie Speed Racer, the Zipper, the Astroliner Rocket, the Fear Factory, along with the Games of Chance and Cotton Candy Stands. The parking lot and grounds of the George G. Young Community Center in Jamesport had been magically transformed. But all would remain quiet until the next day.
On Tuesday, the Annual Jamesport Firemen’s Carnival officially began. Once a year, the block I lived on became alive. Families started arriving, parking SUVs up and down my street. Suddenly, children were bursting out of cars, running from every direction into the newly created Amusement Park’s entrance.
On Wednesday, Route 25 was blocked off from regular traffic. People searched for the perfect place to stand along the sidewalks. Children balanced on their parents’ shoulders to get an even better view as they waited for the parade to begin. My husband and I found a spot by the gazebo, adding two more figures to this brightly painted Norman Rockwell canvas.
As the horns began to blare, everyone cheered. One after another, the freshly washed fire trucks and ambulances of the local East End towns began making their way down the Main Road. Proud friends and families held small American flags and waved to the brave volunteers. Bagpipe players marched along, and Miss Polish Town smiled at the crowds as she passed by in her red convertible.
On Thursday, I cleaned and shopped to prepare for our out of town guests that would be arriving: my mother, from Pennsylvania, and Susan, from Florida. Susan was my childhood friend from Astoria, Queens. She lived down the hill from me. We did everything together back then. We shared Crayola’s, played with Barbie’s, and took long bus rides to dance class. We passed the time by perfecting our fake English accents, just because we loved the Beatles and Hayley Mills so much. In the summer, even though we were way too young, we would take the subway to Rockaways’ Playland; and even better than that, we found out how to sneak into the World’s Fair in Flushing from the neighborhood kids, who all knew that the back fence had a secret hole.
In our twenties, we had fallen out of touch and it stayed that way for over two decades. I missed her and always hoped I could locate her someday. Apparently, she felt the same way. Thanks to a people finder site, she found me. I was thrilled she would be coming to visit.
On Friday, my husband and I drove to MacArthur Airport to pick her up. As I waited for her flight to arrive, I wondered if we would recognize each other after all these years. Suddenly, a dark haired woman ran towards us and hugged me tightly. “I knew it was you,” she said. “Your eyes still look the same.” When we spoke, I felt as if I were talking to myself; we both had the same familiar accent. We had years to catch up on. She began by telling me she now worked at Disney World. She still reminded me of Gidget- the Sally Field version, bubbly and eternally youthful.
When Saturday finally arrived, I started preparing food for the barbeque, nothing fancy: onion dip with ridged potato chips – very retro, but everyone always ate it, potato salad with celery, homemade apple pie, franks, burgers, corn on the cob, just the basics, and of course wine, lots of wine. My husband got the yard ready by scrubbing our old charcoal grill and hosing bugs off the Adirondack chairs. I watched as the firemen started preparing the fireworks equipment in the farm behind my house. I knew that later on we would have one of the best views.
As the late afternoon approached, our friends and families began arriving. One of my other closest friends, Angela, and her husband, were the first. She and I were both dance teachers. We met in our late teens in Manhattan, taking classes. Our conversations always centered on choreography, music, and costumes. I nicknamed her “Sparkle.” She was blonde and petite and loved sequins and anything that glittered.
A little while later, everyone else arrived and our annual barbeque began. We started out by giving my husband our franks and burger orders. Then I made my usual million trips up and down the steps from the kitchen to the backyard, carrying everything else. When I finally sat down, I slathered big blobs of butter across my corn on the cob and poured on so much salt my lips started to burn. I looked over at the potato salad and wondered if the black specks were pepper flakes or bugs, but no one seemed to care and we ate it anyway.
When the sun began to set in the violet sky, we grabbed our sweaters and walked up the block to the Carnival in one big troupe. As soon as we entered, I was transported in time to a place that dwells in all our memories. Everywhere we looked, children were spinning around on brightly painted rides, flying through the air. Barkers beckoned us to try our skills at dart throwing, water gun races and basketball tosses. “Come on; win one for the little lady.”
Angela’s husband won a giant stuffed bear and he tossed it over to her. She then bought a bunch of glowing neon tube necklaces and we all put them on. I could not stop laughing, especially when I glanced at my mother; we looked like space aliens from Area 51.
Around 9 pm, the night blackened and we all headed back to my house. The sidewalks were so crowded with people coming to the carnival, we walked in single file. My husband guided us with the sole flashlight.
Once inside, it was time for some desert and coffee. Soon afterward, I heard the first loud boom. “Hurry up,” I screamed. “It’s time. We have to get outside!”
“Take it easy,” my husband laughed. “Why do you always get so excited about fireworks?”
We all ran out the sliding doors and down the steps into my backyard. The fireworks began exploding right above us, so close it was both frightening and thrilling at the same time. Brilliant reds, blues and whites in intricate patterns emanated from the heavens. I tried to hold on to each vision before it dissolved. Some vanished quickly, while others lingered – first burning brightly, then slowly falling to the ground in star shaped tears.
At the same time, lightening bugs put on their own display; intermittent blasts of glowing yellow and green pierced the dark woods. Music drifted through the wind from distant radios. We lit sparklers and became crazy dancing middle-aged women. As we twirled around with delight, Angela said, “I wish I was eight years old again.”
The booms and flashes of the fireworks began coming on so fast, the crescendo was almost too much to take. We “oohed and aahed,”as each one became louder and more colorful than the last. It was as if we were living every moment of life in that one instant; every experience, every dream, and everyone we had ever loved was right there, in celebration.
Afterward, we could hear loud cheers and applause from all of the families in in the neighborhood. The smell of burgers filled the air. Everyone was happy on that warm summer night.
On Sunday, all the rides were packed up and by Monday, it was as if none of it had ever happened.
That was the last barbeque Angela ever came to. The following year she was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. I visit Susan in Florida now whenever I can. We will never lose track of each other again. And every summer, I still circle the date when the Jamesport Firemen’s Carnival comes to town.