The Fourth of July: Remembering the good old days in Rock Rapids, Iowa, circa 1940s to 1950s
By Bruce B. Brugmann
(Note: In July of 1972, when the Bay Guardian was short a Fourth of July story, I sat down and cranked out this one for the front page on my trusty Royal Typewriter. I now reprint it each year on the Bruce blog, with some San Francisco updates and postscripts.)
Back where I come from, a small town beneath a tall standpipe in northwestern Iowa, the Fourth of July was the best day of a long, hot summer.
The Fourth came after YMCA camp and Scout camp and church camp, but before the older boys had to worry about getting into shape for football. It was welcome relief from the scalding, 100-degree heat in a town without a swimming pool and whose swimming holes at Scout Island were usually dried up by early July. But best of all, it had the kind of excitement that began building weeks in advance.
The calm of the summer dawn and the cooing of the mourning doves on the telephone wires would be broken early on July Fourth: The Creglow boys would be up by 7 a.m. and out on the lawn shooting off their arsenal of firecrackers. They were older and had somehow sent their agents by car across the state line and into South Dakota where, not far above the highway curves of Larchwood, you could legally buy fireworks at roadside stands.
Ted Fisch, Jim Ramsey, Wiener Winters, the Cook boys, Hermie Casjens, Jerry Prahl, Elmer Menage, and the rest of the neighborhood gang would race out of their houses to catch the action. Some had cajoled firecrackers from their parents or bartered from the older boys in the neighborhood: some torpedoes (the kind you smashed against the sidewalk); lots of 2 and 3-inchers, occasionally the granddaddy of them all, the cherry bomb (the really explosive firecracker, stubby, cherry red, with a wick sticking up menacingly from its middle; the kind of firecracker you’d gladly trade away your best set of Submariner comics for.)
Ah, the cherry bomb. It was a microcosm of excitement and mischief and good fun. Bob Creglow, the most resourceful of the Creglow boys, would take a cherry bomb, set it beneath a tin can on a porch, light the fuse, then head for the lilac bushes behind the barn.
“The trick,” he would say, imparting wisdom of the highest order, “is to place the can on a wood porch with a wood roof. Then it will hit the top of the porch, bang, then the bottom of the porch, bang. That’s how you get the biggest clatter.”
So I trudged off to the Linkenheil house, the nearest front porch suitable for cherry bombing, to try my hand at small-town demolition. Bang went the firecracker. Bang went the can on the roof. Bang went the can on the floor. Bang went the screen door as Karl Linkenheil roared out in a sweat, and I lit out for the lilacs behind the barn with my dog, Oscar.
It was glorious stuff - not to be outdone for years, I found out later, until the Halloween eve in high school when Dave Dietz, Ted Fisch, Ken Roach, Bob Babl, and rest of the Hermie Casjens gang and I made the big time and twice pushed a boxcar loaded with lumber across Main Street and blocked it for hours. But that’s another story for my coming Halloween blog.
Shooting off fireworks was, of course, illegal in Rock Rapids, but Chief of Police Del Woodburn and later Elmer “Shene" Sheneberger used to lay low on the Fourth. I don’t recall ever seeing them about in our neighborhood and I don’t think they ever arrested anybody, although each year the Lyon County Reporter would carry vague warnings about everybody cooperating to have “a safe and sane Fourth of July.”
Perhaps it was just too dangerous for them to start making firecracker arrests on the Fourth – on the same principle, I guess, that it was dangerous to do too much about the swashbuckling on Halloween or start running down dogs without leashes (Mayor Earl Fisher used to run on the platform that, as long as he was in office, no dog in town would have to be leashed. The neighborhood consensus was that Fisher’s dog, a big, boisterous boxer, was one of the few that ought to be leashed).
We handled the cherry bombs and other fireworks in our possession with extreme care and cultivation; I can’t remember a single mishap. Yet, even then, the handwriting was on the wall. There was talk of cutting off the fireworks supply in South Dakota because it was dangerous for young boys. Pretty soon, they did cut off the cherry bomb traffic and about all that was left, when I came back from college and the Roger boys had replaced the Creglow boys next door, was little stuff appropriately called ladyfingers.
Fireworks are dangerous, our parents would say, and each year they would dust off the old chestnut about the drugstore in Spencer that had a big stock of fireworks and they caught fire one night and much of the downtown went up in a spectacular shower of roman candles and sparkling fountains.
The story was hard to pin down, and seemed to get more gruesome every year – but, we were told, this was why Iowa banned fireworks years before, why they were so dangerous and why little boys shouldn’t be setting them off. The story, of course, never made quite the intended impression; we just wished we’d been on the scene. My grandfather was the town druggist (Brugmann’s Drugstore, “Where drugs and gold are fairly sold, since 1902") and he said he knew the Spencer druggist personally. Fireworks put him out of business and into the poorhouse, he’d say, and walk away shaking his head.
In any event, firecrackers weren’t much of an issue past noon – the Fourth celebration at the fairgrounds was getting underway and there was too much else to do. Appropriately, the celebration was sponsored by the Rex Strait post of the American Legion (Strait, so the story went, was the first boy from Rock Rapids to die on foreign soil during World War I); the legionnaires were a bunch of good guys from the cleaners and the feed store and the bank who sponsored the American Legion baseball team each summer.
There was always a big carnival, with a ferris wheel somewhere in the center for the kids, a bingo stand for the elders, a booth where the ladies from the Methodist Church sold homemade baked goods, sometimes a hootchy dancer or two, and a couple of dank watering holes beneath the grandstand where the VFW and the Legion sold Grainbelt and Hamms beer at 30¢ a bottle to anybody who looked of age.
Later on, when the farmboys came in from George and Alvord, there was lots of pushing and shoving, and a fist fight or two.
In front of the grandstand, out in the dust and the sun, would come a succession of shows that made the summer rounds of the little towns. One year it would be Joey Chitwood and his daredevil drivers. (The announcer always fascinated me: “Here he comes, folks, rounding the far turn…he is doing a great job out there tonight…let’s give him a big, big hand as he pulls up in front on the grandstand…”)
Another year it would be harness racing and Mr. Hardy, our local trainer from Doon, would be in his moment of glory. Another year it was tag team wrestling and a couple of barrel-chested goons from Omaha, playing the mean heavies and rabbit-punching their opponents from the back, would provoke roars of disgust from the grandstand. ( The biggest barrel-chest would lean back on the ropes, looking menacingly at the crowd and yell, “ Aw, you dumb farmers. What the hell do you know anyway? I can beat the hell out of any of you." And the crowd would roar back in glee.)
One year, Cedric Adams, the Herb Caen of Minneapolis Star-Tribune, would tour the provinces as the emcee of local variety shows. “It’s great to be in Rock Rapids,” he would say expansively, “because it’s always been known as the ‘Gateway to Magnolia.” (Magnolia, he didn’t need to say, was a little town just over the state line in Minnesota which was known throughout the territory for its liquor-by-the-drink roadhouses. It was also Cedric Adams’ hometown: his “Sackamenna," as Caen would say. Adams kissed each girl (soundly) who came on the platform to perform and, at the end, hushed the crowd for his radio broadcast to the big city “direct from the stage of the Lyon County Fairgrounds in Rock Rapids, Iowa.”
For a couple of years, when Rock Rapids had a “town team,” and a couple of imported left-handed pitchers named Peewee Wenger and Karl Kletschke, we would have some rousing baseball games with the best semi-pro team around, Larchwood and its gang of Snyder brothers: Barney the eldest at shortstop, Jimmy the youngest at third base, John in center field, Paul in left field, another Snyder behind the plate and a couple on the bench. They were as tough as they came in Iowa baseball.
I can remember it as if it were yesterday at Candlestick, the 1948 game with the Snyders of Larchwood. Peewee Wenger, a gawky, 17-year-old kid right off a high school team, was pitching for Rock Rapids and holding down the Snyder artillery in splendid fashion. Inning after inning he went on, nursing a small lead, mastering one tough Larchwood batter after another, with a blistering fastball and a curve that sliced wickedly into the bat handles of the right-handed Larchwood line-up.
Then the cagey Barney Snyder laid a slow bunt down the third base line. Wenger stumbled, lurched, almost fell getting to the ball, then toppled off balance again, stood helplessly holding the ball. He couldn’t make the throw to first. Barney was safe, cocky and firing insults like machine gun bullets at Peewee from first base.
Peewee, visibly shaken, went back to the mound. He pitched, the next Larchwood batter bunted, this time down the first base line. Peewee lurched for the ball, but couldn’t come up with it. A couple more bunts, a shot through the pitcher’s mound, more bunts and Peewee was out. He could pitch, but, alas, he was too clumsy to field. In came Bill Jammer, now in his late 30’s, but in his day the man who beat the University of Iowa while pitching at a small college called Simpson.
Now he was pitching on guts and beer, a combination good enough for many teams and on good days even good enough to take on the Snyders. Jammer did well for a couple of innings, then he let two men on base, then came a close call at the plate. Jammer got mad. Both teams were off the bench and onto the field and, as Fred Roach wrote in the Reporter, “fisticuffs erupted at home plate.” When the dust cleared, Jammer had a broken jaw, and for the next two weeks had to drink his soup through a straw at the Joy Lunch cafe, John Snyder, it was said later, came all the way in from center field to throw the punch, but nobody knew for sure and he stayed in the game. I can’t remember the score or who won the game, but I remember it as the best Fourth ever.
At dusk, the people moved out on their porches or put up folding chairs on their lawns. Those who didn’t have a good view drove out to the New Addition or parked out near Mark Curtis’ place or along the river roads that snaked out to the five-mile bridge and Virgil Hasche’s farm.
A hush came over the town. Fireflies started flickering in the river bottom and, along about 8:30, the first puff of smoke rose above the fairgrounds and an aerial bomb whistled into the heavens. BOOM! And the town shook as if hit by a clap of thunder.
Then the three-tiered sky bombs – pink, yellow, white, puff, puff, puff. The Niagara Falls and a gush of white sparks.
Then, in sudden fury, a dazzling display of sizzling comets and aerial bombs and star clusters that arched high, hung for a full breath and descended in a cascade of sparks that floated harmlessly over the meadows and cornfields. At the end, the flag – red, white and blue – would burst forth on the ground as the All-American finale in the darkest of the dark summer nights. On cue, the cheers rolled out from the grandstand and the cars honked from the high ground and the people trundled up their lawn chairs and everybody headed for home.
Well, I live in San Francisco now, and I drive to Daly City with my son, Danny, to buy some anemic stuff in gaudy yellow and blue wrapping and I try unsuccessfully each year to get through the fog or the traffic to see the fireworks at Candlestick. But I feel better knowing that, back where I come from, everybody in town will be on their porches and on the backroads on the evening of the Fourth to watch the fireworks and that, somewhere in town, a little boy will put a big firecracker under a tin can on a wood porch, then light out for the lilacs behind the barn.
P.S. Our family moved in l965 from Daly City to a house in the West Portal area of San Francisco. There are, I assure you, few visible fireworks in that neighborhood. However, down at the bottom of Potrero Hill, the professional and amateur action is spectacular on the evening of the Fourth of July.
From any Potrero Hill height, you can see the fireworks in several directions: the waterfront fireworks in the city, fireworks on the Marin side of the Golden Gate bridge, fireworks at several points in the East Bay, fireworks along the Peninsula coast line.
And for the amateur action, parents with kids, kids of all ages, spectators in cars and on foot, congregate after dusk along Terry Francois Boulevard in San Francisco along the shoreline between the Giants ballpark and the Mission Rock restaurant.
The action is informal but fiery, fast, and furious: cherry bombs, clusters, spinning wheels, high flying arcs, whizzers of all shapes and sizes. The cops are quite civilized and gingerly patrol the perimeter but don't bother anybody. I go every year. I think it's the best show in town. B3.
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