Hey, Gang, How’s it hanging? The Fourth of July, the day we celebrate our Independence in the U.S., is here once again. Amidst the continuing threat of terrorism, war in Afghanistan, some of the worst hot weather we’ve had in recent years, wildfires out west, a society fragmented by political differences, and a struggling economy, we’re still hanging in there.
For me part of the Fourth of July tradition includes family gatherings, patriotic movies on Turner Classic Movies, a barbecue, some time at the local swimming pool, fireworks of course, and a reading from Jean Shepherd’s classic book, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash. Some of you may know who Jean Shepherd is, others may not. Most people familiar with the name know him from the classic holiday film, A Christmas Story, which is based on Shepherd’s book. This is the movie about Ralphie (who is really Shepherd as a kid), growing up in Indiana, and wanting more than anything in the world a Red Ryder BB gun. The movie is shown in a 24-hour marathon every Christmas on one of the Turner Cable Channels. It’s Shepherd’s voice you hear narrating the story.
The real insiders know Shepherd from the nightly radio show he had from the late fifties to the mid-seventies on WOR radio in New York. Every night he would come on the air, alone and unscripted and talk. It wasn’t like talk radio today, though. He didn’t take phone calls. And he didn’t have a political ax to grind. He just sat alone and told stories. When he wasn’t telling stories, he did social commentary, or read haiku to “cheap guitar music.” Some of the stories he told ended up later as short stories in Playboy magazine and became the basis for the novel and two films: A Christmas Story, and My Summer Story.
Among the many tales Shepherd told of growing up in the Midwest, one about an historic incident that took place in his neighborhood on the Fourth of July is one of my favorites. Ludlow Kissel and the Dago Bomb That Struck Back, describes one hot Independence Day when the town drunk (the term alcoholic wasn’t widely used back in the 1930s) showed up in the middle of his street carrying a lethal looking firecracker that in those days was known as the Dago Bomb. This was not an anti-Italian appellation, Shepherd explains, but was actually pro-Italian, the ne plus ultra of fireworks. In more effete circles is was known as an aerial bomb. It was big and looked like one of those non-existent firecrackers that show up in cartoons. It had a warnings on it, that indicated it should only be used by professionals.
So this one Fourth of July Ludlow Kissel appeared on the heat-shimmering horizon, “weaving spectacularly, and carrying a large paper bag as carefully as a totally committed drunk can. He was about to celebrate the founding of our nation, the nation which had provided such a bounteous life for him and his.” No one paid much attention as he inched his way from lamppost to lamppost and fire plug to fire plug and went into his house. He came out minutes later with the largest Dago Bomb anyone had ever seen. It was the first all-black Dago Heister anyone had ever laid eyes on and was suspected of actually being made in China! Later some witnesses would argue that it wasn’t a firecracker at all, but was some sort of mortar shell.
Kissel staggered out to the middle of the street, set the firecracker on the ground and tried to light it. Neighbors peered nervously through windows, others came out on their front lawns. Several attempt to light the fuse with a match failed and a kid came up to Kissel with a lit punk and handed it to him. A crowd gathered. He lit the fuse, the crowd drew back. The fuse sputtered out and Ludlow lit it again but being too soused to know what he’s doing, he just stood there. “Hey Kissel, for god’s sake! It’s lit,” somebody yelled. “What’s lit?” Kissel said. He staggered around and knocked the Dago Bomb over and it went off.
Do I have to tell you what happened next? The expelled cartridge shot through the crowd, which ran for cover, and landed under Kissel’s front porch. It blew the porch off, then skittered next door, took down a neighbor’s rose trellis and ended up finally exploding under another neighbor’s car. Total devastation!
When it was over Kissel was still there in the middle of the street, on his knees and made his statement, which is even today part of the great legend. “My God! What a doozy!”
That was Jean Shepherd’s America. A different America in many ways from ours to be sure, but in some ways maybe not that different. We still watch fireworks, have barbecues, eat too much, and drink too much on the Fourth. We still have that urge to light that fuse and see the ultimate firework display of all time. Shepherd died in 1999 and I often wonder what he would say about our world today if he was still sitting behind the mic in a radio studio. He always knew that life was insane and that civilizations come and go, and most of us will be unremembered after we pass on. Probably he’d advise us to keep our sense of humor about it, and remind us, as he always did to: “Keep your knees loose, and your duff close to the ground!”
I hope your Fourth is a doozy.