Bottle rockets, BBQ and Cardinal baseball.
Growing up in East St. Louis, the Fourth of July holidays hold some of my fondest memories. My cousin Booky and I woke at daybreak to help my Uncle Ross clean the grill and get a first crack at the box of fireworks.
When Aunt Gerry wasn’t looking, he’d sneak us a few boxes of sparklers and a book of matches he knew we weren’t supposed to have. Booky, a crafty Svengali, always managed to come up with a cache of forbidden bottle rockets.
Uncle Ross placed the large American flag into a metal bracket affixed to a freshly-painted white column on our front porch. He was proud of that flag, proud of his Army, proud to have served his country in the Korean War.
I, along with several cousins, my brother and nephew, would later follow in his footsteps. My paternal grandfather had served as well. Ross would have been mighty proud of us. He passed away in 1984, a few years before I enlisted in the Marine Corps.
In so many ways, since my own father’s death in 1973, Ross filled my daddy’s shoes until they overflowed.
Celebrating our nation’s birth was always a big deal in our house. We couldn’t put on our brand new short sets and sneakers until late afternoon, when the rest of the family would start to arrive at the big green house on 10th Street. We could roam about in our “play clothes” until then, as long as we stayed within a two-block radius. You had to be close enough to hear Ross call your name.
As we played in a dusty, grass-less backyard over on 9th Street, in the shadow of the Gateway Arch, we felt free. We were unaware that big corporations, like Monsanto and Pfizer, had poisoned the air, water and soil that surrounded us, and that infant mortality rates would be among the worst in the country.
The sound of the first bottle rocket would bring neighbor kids from across the street and the back alley running. Little Donald “Don-Lo” Caradine always got there last, out of breath, bracing his hands on his knees. He passed away a few years ago from esophageal cancer. Ironically, Don Lo’s son “Deeno” grew up to be stand-out wide receiver at East St. Louis Senior High School that can bust a 40-yard dash in 5:08 seconds. He will be a Georgia Bulldog this fall.
Back in 1976, we were brown, small and indifferent to the world swirling around us. Don Lo’s father, who specialized in short-term, high-interest loans and was known in the neighborhood as “Rent Man,” gave us bicentennial quarters minted in celebration of the 200th Anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. John “Rent Man” Caradine was quite literally the only “bank” in town who would loan money to seed a home business, bail your son out of jail or pay the light bill.
Unbeknownst to us, we were living history too, the children of the Great Migration. Our grandparents had joined the movement of six million African-Americans out of the rural South, in search of good paying jobs, housing and a basic fairness they had never known. My mother’s family had come north from Tunica, Mississippi, my father’s family from tiny Spadra, Arkansas. Some took jobs in factories, others as domestic workers. But that was everybody’s story. It wasn’t unusual for somebody’s cousin to be visiting from “down South.”
We were 134 years beyond the Declaration of Independence when the migration began around 1910. However, it had to be abundantly clear to my grandparents that despite the passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, rights on paper did not always equate to rights in practice.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” — so begins the oft-recited second sentence.