Friday, May 27, 2011

Misty Eyed Memorial Day Memories

You can keep your barbeques, your parades, and your sparklers. What really says Memorial Day to me is a large piece of sawdust sending shooting pains through my eye.

The Memorial Day Picnic of my childhood was epic. Living on one side of a driveway shaped like a capital "T", our little stretch of asphalt was the locus for an all-day party for the neighbors up and down Branford Road. It started in the morning when someone would show up to string a volleyball net across the driveway; meanwhile, kids knelt in their driveways with rolls of crepe streamers, tricking out their banana seat no-speed bikes.

By noon the grills were lined up in our driveway and people were showing up with folding chairs and dishes to put down on the long tables, jello molds and iceberg lettuce salads and bowls of pretzels. The Genesee Cream Ale keg was tapped right around the same time that the fire engines showed up, not to douse the roaring gas-fueled flames of the barbeques ("stand back, kids, this might jump a little!")  but to lead the kids around the block in a costume parade, streamers flying backwards off the bike. Truly, my dad's role as a volunteer fireman provided no end of perks for us.

We didn't have marching bands but whoever had a flute or a nose whistle would chime in, a cacophony of sound syncopated by the playing cards that the boys stuck in their bike spokes so the wheels would click-click-click with every turn.

By 2 pm the kids were back, the beer was flowing, the moms were laughing, and the volleyball was careening dangerously across the makeshift court. But the real action came when the sawdust pile was unveiled. Where my father found a 6 foot by 4 foot pile of sawdust standing three feet deep every year was and remains a mystery. But what it held was no mystery: coins, wrapped hard candies, lollipops, and plastic toys, all buried inside the sawdust pile by the grownups.

In the seconds before the whistle blew, we kids would line up with our toes on the square plastic tarp that held the pile, trying to plan a line of attack. But once the whistle blew it was kill or be killed, all of us diving in and feeling around for the goodies, quarters and nickels and Jolly Ranchers  and Bazooka gum that would set us up for the whole summer.

It usually took about 30 seconds of flailing before the first casualty. "Aaaagh! My eye!" someone would scream, staggering away with a chip of sawdust in one watering eye and looking for his mom with the other one. "Aaagh! Ouch!" followed in short intervals until pretty much all the kids were standing around pulling upper eyelids over lower to flush out the pain, sawdust clinging not just to eyes but to hair, shirts, and legs. Within a half hour everyone was back to normal, settling in for some serious socializing until way past bedtime.

If the firetruck was there to entertain the kids, I'm firmly convinced that the sawdust pile massacre was the main Memorial Day entertainment attraction for the grownups.

Here's a little scene from the Talking Heads movie "True Stories" that I always loved because it reminded me of the merry band of miscreants with whom I grew up on Branford Road. And the little girl in pigtails is a dead ringer for me at age seven. "I am the king of the world! The boss of the boys and girls!" May you have just that kind of Memorial Day weekend.


  1. What a cute post and video. The pile of sawdust hiding prizes, I have never heard of that. Other than the whole eye irritant factor that is pretty clever.

    In the Midwest when I was a kid, there were Memorial Day picnics but nothing so creative as kiddy parades or sawdust piles. More like adult beer drinking and children playing "Red Rover" and Tag.

  2. I have very fond memories of a the sawdust scavenger hunt at my dad's company picnics. My first thought was about getting sawdust in my eyes. The biggest challenge was finding the right balance between keeping your eyes open to find the treasures, but not too open. I haven't thought about that for ages. Thanks for bringing it back to me!

  3. I'd just like to know why you weren't doing your homework on Memorial Day. It was a day off from school - 10 whole hours to get ahead on that report on Monarch Butterflies!

  4. Great post, makes me think of that Christmas holiday special with the Red Ryder BB-Gun. This is like the lost chapter to that story. Instead of "you'll shoot your eye out", you've got the whole saw dust in the eye thing going. Have a great long weekend!

  5. The picnic was on the Monday, I always made sure my homework was done by 5 pm on Friday, James. OBVIOUSLY.

    Ed I think this is the feminine, summer counterpoint to Christmas Story. We even had a Scott Farkle whose name was...wait for it..."Saturday Killer."

  6. I just don't even know what to say about the sawdust thing.

    And to think I thought pinatas were wacky and dangerous.

  7. I am back...Nancy, you have been tagged over in a game at The Art of Being Conflicted (if you want to play)



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...