by Richard G. Carter
“Nothing in the world is any good unless you can share it…” Robert Mitchum “Out of the Past” (1947)
There’s something about the Fourth of July that sends our spirits soaring. Of all our national holidays, perhaps none is as revered or significant as the nation’s birthday, owing to our understandable pride as the very best country in the world.
Despite its faults, the United States remains the land of the free and the home of the brave — symbolized by what also is known as Independence Day.
America is the finest place on earth to live for people of all colors, which is why we attract countless immigrants. They literally stream across our borders and flock to our shores.
My best memories of this traditional summer celebration go back to my years in the Black Milwaukee of my youth — especially the fabulous fireworks displays in tiny Kilbourn Park in a racially changing neighborhood. To me, sharing holiday sights and sounds in this cozy setting was the cat’s meow.
Nestled between E. Reservoir and E. North Avenues – – and known to many in those days as Reservoir Park — this was where near-north and east side-neighbors gathered on the night of July 4 to celebrate the American flag. For many in the Black, brown and white throngs, it was the only time all year they’d socialize with people of other races.
Many arrived on foot at this Milwaukee County park, nicknamed for the grassy, water-storage hill sporting a huge American Legion floral display. As Milwaukee’s parks went, it was small — less than 35 acres. To children, however, it seemed to go on and on.
The wondrous, multi-colored pyrotechnics originated from a flat expanse of grass at the edge of a heavily foliated, multi-blocks-long incline we called “The Jungle.”
As kids, this daunting thicket was our favored route for youthful, adventurous hiking to the park, which we did two or three times a week to play baseball and football.
To me, the next best thing about Independence Day night in our favorite park was the presence of so many family groups.
Everywhere you looked, mothers and fathers and sons and daughters were curled-up together on blankets — eating, joking and enjoying each other’s company, and that of other neighborhood residents.
For my Black family — living what seemed to be only a vigorous stone’s throw from this vest-pocket park — the short walk in the fading daylight meant sharing food, soft drinks, sweaters and blankets.
Along the way, we’d meet other Black families and swap stories about past holidays anticipating a great evening’s entertainment.
Once on the scene, we’d snake our way through the gaggle of early arrivals in search of a good spot to watch.
Since much of this portion of the park was hilly, all you had to do was lie back and look skyward to enjoy the free show. It was so very relaxing.
As my parents gazed at the stars and waited, I recall asking them all about the park and the fireworks and their holiday memories. I also recall dozing while awaiting the start of the festivities.
Although never much of an outdoorsman, I always seemed able to relax in the moonlight of a warm Fourth of July night at Reservoir Park.
When the fireworks began with a burst of color, it brought a loud cheer from the hundreds of onlookers. Suddenly, the dark summer sky was lit up with iridescent oranges, sparkling blues, shimmering greens and fiery reds. Each brought oohs and ahhs of surprised satisfaction in the voices and wide eyes of children and grown-ups. This was not the giant, lakefront or oceanfront-variety fireworks of the decades since, or the far more elaborate pyrotechnics I see in New York. Yet, it brought strangers together in the pleasure of their mutual company, to celebrate the founding of the nation. The evening’s grand finale always was the brilliantly lighted American flag display. As Old Glory blazed in bright red, white and blue, each youthful and adult face I saw bore an unmistakable glow of pride and flicker of hope. It was a fitting conclusion.
Years later, I passed on this tradition to my own children — a son and daughter at the time. When old enough, my wife and I packed them into the car with us and drove to Reservoir Park for their first holiday fireworks — vying for a scarce nearby parking space.
As we lay there on our blanket, I happily watched my own wide-eyed kids as they cuddled up and asked me the same kinds of questions I’d asked my folks years earlier. As I answered them, I felt all was right with the world.
These days, with all my children long-since grown, I often find myself taking in the Independence Day fireworks on the East Coast via a panoramic view from my high-rise living room.
As I peer out, my eyes are treated to the brightly lit, bursting sky over the scenic cityscape. And it’s a grand sight.
Still, my heart and mind are back there on the grassy slopes of Reservoir Park in the nation’s heartland — an outdoor classroom of life where I learned that love of neighbors of all colors can go hand-in-hand with love of country. Both are worth being proud of.
Nowadays, many people seem too busy to relax as families the way many of us once did. It’s a shame because families — like love — make the world go round, and make our special hometown memories such as this so very wonderful.
Milwaukee native Richard G. Carter is a freelance columnist.