4th of July, Rockport Massachusetts, sometime in the 1990s

nsfw-logoKeeping everyone happy on summer family trips was all but impossible. Five kids from two different divorced-remarried families, and all of us were approximately the same age. The annual summertime car trip was half whack-a-mole, half Beckett play: California, North Carolina, Alabama… This year it was New England: upstate New York, Boston, and New Hampshire packed into a maroon Dodge Caravan that supposedly seated seven.

There’s a certain kind of dread that attends parents on summertime road trips, hauling a car full of children towards underwhelming destinations. Long runs the perilous list: an overly expensive restaurant, an empty gas tank, or unexpected convention in some unimportant town that fills each and every hotel room strike fear into the wallets of prospective Clark Griswolds, and my father was no exception. High atop the list, though, was a major American city of the East Coast variety. East coast cities were like seven-layered hells, places filled with traffic and opaque local knowledge, easy to get lost. Boston was probably the worst.

In that light, the 4th of July was was a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it was an easy bit of scheduling. The night’s entertainment was practically served up on a platter, almost surefire. On the other hand, with any 4th of July fireworks display comes the nightmare scenario: an endless traffic jam plus parking plus keeping track of five kids through mosh-pit crowds plus people taking turns having to go to the bathroom.. Even on a good day, driving in Boston is exquisite torture, and the thought of attempting to reach the downtown fireworks made my father visibly pale, as if, some ancient oracle, he could already  see the parking ticket on the dashboard and feel feel the curses of Bostonians being hurled at the out-of-town minivan like moldy donuts. Quickly he plotted his escape…

We would drive north along the seashore, find a seafood dinner, and scour the countryside in search of quaint small towns with non-vehicular hellscapes. I’m sure the image in his head was something like Spring Valley, Wisconsin,  with its wide field and charming (and short, free, and convenient) local fireworks display (with ample parking).

We ended up eating at touristy seafood place in a touristy town named Gloucester (pronounced “Gloss-da”) north of Boston, someplace with historic 18th century buildings about halfway to the New Hampshire border.

The conversation at the end of dinner went something like this:

Waitress, bored: Your check, sir. I hope you enjoyed your meal.

Dad, magnamimous, carefully providing a credit card: Put it all on there.

Waitress: Where are you from?

Dad: Minnesota.

Waitress: Is that by Ohio?

Dad: [Implied displeasure] Yes it is.

Waitress: Have a pleasant visit. Thanks for coming.

Dad, Peter Falk style: Say, one more thing. Where around here is a good place for the 4th of July?

Waitress: Oh, downtown Boston always has the best fireworks.

Dad, almost groaning: Well, we wanted something a bit smaller. Someplace around here…

Waitress, long pause, uninterestedly: I don’t know. I think I’ve heard people talking about Rockport.

Dad, eagerly: Rockport?

Waitress: Yeah, people say that’s nice. It’s about 5 miles away, up the shore.

Dad: Wow, thanks so much!

Waitress, relieved: Have a nice day.

Se we ended up going to the seaside town of Rockport, the next town over and easily locatable on the Rand McNally US Road Atlas, just up Highway 127. The drive was blissfully not-Bostonian, and as we reached the town, locals seemed to be gathering. We parked the car (for free, on the street) and joined the clusters of New Englanders headed for the harbor (prounced “haa-baa” of course) down the hill. Mission accomplished..

It’s relatively easy to follow a crowd, and after a week or two of organizing and micromanaging every detail of vacation life, must have come as a felief. You simply go where everyone else is going, and in thi case everyone was gathering around Rockport bay, a horseshoe shaped inlet lined with old coloian homes, and boat masts. We followed the people out into a wide rocky point that jutted into the water, and amazingly found a some wide flat patches that could seat our large and sometimes unruly family.

rockportOur parents looked pleased with themselves, the relief of not being in Boston like a drug. As the evening darkened we sat there and waited amongst the gathering groups ofpeople. I remember playing cards with my brothers and sister, a game we called “idiot” that guaranteed at least one loser every round. At some point someone lit a large campfire across the harbor. Night fell, and we kept looked up, waiting for the sky to fill with color and sound.

I’m not sure what happened. At some point, in between checking his watch, my father (or more likely, my step-mother) must have noticed nearby strangers starting to wander away. This was the conversation:

Dad: Say, we’re from out of town. When do the fireworks start

Rockportian: Fireworks?

Dad: You know, 4th of July fireworks

Rockportian: No, there’s a bonfire. (Prounounced “bawn-fie-a”)

Dad: Bonfire?

Rockportian: Yeah, see over there? A bonfire!

Dad: Bonfire?

Rockportian: That’s the largest bonfire in the US right there.

Dad, pause: So, no fireworks?

Rockportian: You aren’t from around here, are you.

The bonfire was large, I’ll give you that. From across the harbor we could see it, probably 45 feet high, burning on the shore. If you’ve ever wondered what fireworks looked like in 1680…

rockport bonfire

The bawn-fie-a

Bill Lindeke

About Bill Lindeke

Pronouns: he/him

Bill Lindeke has writing blogging about sidewalks and cities since 2005, ever since he read Jane Jacobs. He is a lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota Geography Department, the Cityscape columnist at Minnpost, and has written multiple books on local urban history. He was born in Minneapolis, but has spent most of his time in St Paul. Check out Twitter @BillLindeke or on Facebook.