The Night Before The Fourth
After the American Revolution, towering bonfires were lit the night before the Fourth and bells, guns and cannons broke the morning.
From ‘Celebrating the Fourth of July’
By Marian I. Doyle
As the time approached for the Fourth, there came thoughts of bonfires, fireworks, and block parties. In my youth, bonfires would appear seemingly with spontaneity. However, for weeks, the neighborhood kids would gather wood or anything made from wood that was consigned to the trash and would hide them in their cellars where dads rarely went except to check on the coal supply.
Then, as if an appointed time had been planned, kids from all over, from every direction, and, from every neighborhood began building up their respective bonfires – the prize to whoever could construct and get away with the biggest.
I remember one on Moulton Street that was the smallest I had ever seen, about 3 feet high. That’s nothing you say?
"Hey, Tommy G., get the 2 gallons of gasoline" said Mike. As it turned out it was Texaco.
"Ok Tommy G., pour it all over the bonfire."
"Whatdayamean? It was your idea. You pour it."
"(Expletive deleted). All right, all right, give me the can."
Mike meticulously poured just the proper amount of gas over each piece of wood.
"OK, who’s got the matches?"
"Mike, we thought you brought the matches."
"Damn, do I have to think of everything?"
By this time, the neighbors had begun to gather on their porches. This was in the middle of the city so the houses were so close that if you sneezed, your neighbor would catch a cold.
"Hey, anybody got a match?" Mike yelled. Nobody said a word as they all worried that if the fire got out of control, they might be implicated. In other words, they’d watch, but not participate. Mike ran into his house and came out with a handful of wooden matches used to light the gas stoves. He lit one of the matches and walked over to the wood but before he could get within three feet of it, POOOOF. The flames rose about thirty feet and the only repercussion was that Mike lost his eyebrows. The flames ran down as soon as the gas was gone. All we had then was a large campfire. And then came the sound of fire engine sirens and everyone skedaddled (a perfect word for the occasion - look it up). The fire was put out in less than 2 minutes.
Mike became a cop, then left the force, and is now a constable and animal control officer for Lynn & Nahant. Tommy G later became a welder at GE, later, a barber (my barber) then returned to GE when they promised to return all of his past service. The rest of the gang I didn’t know.
Parallel to Moulton Street was Carnes Street where a good chunk of my family lived. As mentioned in other stories, the Carmody family lived on 23 Carnes. Directly across the street, lived the Gallant & Dupuis side of the family: Uncle Freddy, Aunt Marie, their 4 girls and 1 boy; in the house in back lived Uncle Teddy, Aunt Thelma, and their 2 boys.
On the night before the Fourth, others would show up including Aunt Mabel, Uncle Alcide, their 2 girls and a boy as well as Unle Joe, Aunt Rose, and their 2 girls and 2 boys. Add another 20 or so kids from the surrounding neighborhood and you had cacophony and chaos. Anyhow, there were a lot of games of Cowboys & Indians, Tag, Red Light with its attendant "Hot Oven", and a version of Simon Says. The Hot Oven was an interesting phenomenon loosely based upon the Native American running of the gauntlet. If you lost any of the games we played, the kids lined up on each side of you and as you ran the gauntlet, you’d get as many slaps in the butt as time and your speed allowed. I’d swear that some of these blows were delivered with closed fists.
Most of the boys had cap pistols or cap guns. For you younger people, a cap gun, for all appearances, was an exact replica of a Colt .45, a Six-Shooter, or any other of a number of guns. Of course, they didn’t fire projectiles. Rather, they fired caps. What’s a cap? A single cap was a piece of paper usually painted red and a little larger than ¼" square. In the middle of the paper was a small amount of gun powder, enough to make a loud BANG!! when fired but not enough to do much damage. The caps were strung together in rolls of 50 with 5 rolls to a box. The rolls were inserted into the gun barrel in such a way that when one cap was fired, the next one popped up immediately ready to fire. Needless to say, the gun I lusted after was the Buntline Special. Supposedly, it was designed by Ned Buntline, manufactured by Colt, and used by Wyatt Earp.
That year (and likely the only one) I was the envy of the neighborhood and my cousins. The main feature of the Buntline Special was a barrel that was more than 30% longer than the standard Six-Shooter of the period. Unfortunately, the Buntline Special is probably apocryphal inasmuch as Colt has no record of ever having manufactured it, and no drawings or copies of the gun remain. Only the legend remains. But then again, it didn’t matter, I wanted one.
Anyhow, imagine my surprise, when I got home from play on the second of July, there on my bed was a Buntline Special complete with holster and caps. I have no idea where Ma got the money; maybe a loan. I was so cool, I couldn’t stand myself and neither could anyone else.
As mentioned earlier, bonfires were the main event on the night before the Fourth. The biggest I ever saw was in Kingston, NH. Most of it was built from old wooden pallets. The conical stack rose over 100 feet. There were 4 fire engines from the local volunteer departments and they waited strategically at the 4 ends of a compass. Someone had placed about 6 car tires near the top of the stack. What a conflagration once it was lit and what a smell when the fire and incredible heat reached the tires. The whole event was reminiscent of photographs of bonfires from the late 1800s.
Fast forward now to what I think was the late ‘60s, early ‘70s. The city of Lynn decided to stage a major fireworks display at what was at the time "Manning Bowl". Recently, it was torn down and a restored bowl and athletic center is rising from the concrete dust of its predecessor. Manning Bowl seated a few thousand and was used mainly for local high school football. Anyhow, on the night before the Fourth, the place filled to capacity and thousands more lined the streets and houses and apartment buildings around the area. We got there early and had seats 15 rows up and off the 50 yard line. We wanted to watch from inside the bowl because there were to be inside fireworks displays besides the rockets that all could see. I still remember 2 preteens sitting in front of us who exclaimed with the firing of each rocket,
The second year, a rocket fired and went awry and hit a nearby house and caused some damage. Thus ended the city of Lynn Manning Bowl fireworks display. In later years, they moved it to the Fourth itself on a barge at Lynn Beach where it continues to this writing.
Today, the night before the Fourth has lost most of its allure. Kids still raise a little hell. Fireworks are still brought in illegally, and the Fourth of July is for most folks a day off without much if any significance.