The Best Of Independence Day

I think for most kids, the Fourth of July is a special time of the summer.  It’s the only holiday during the summer.  It’s a time kids can stay out late in the middle of the week if the Fourth falls right.  Also, if a kid is lucky, he can blow something up that doesn’t involve body parts.

Sports has always played a big role on my Fourth of July activities.  However, when I was really young, it was a certain fireworks display that I really looked forward to seeing.  Apparently, the men of Clatonia, my hometown, would take a trip to the Missouri border before Independence Day.  Missouri has much looser rules on fireworks.  

As the sun would set, the men would take a dirt road to the highest hill near Clatonia.  It was a mile south and then about a quarter mile on the dirt road.  It just so happened I had a great uncle that lived at the foot of that hill.  While the rest of Clatonia watched from a mile away, I had a front row seat.

It didn’t take long before sports took the main focus of the Fourth of July ceremonies.  The men of Clatonia abandoned the hillside as they grew older and I took my Independence Day celebration to the town of DeWitt, seven miles from my hometown.

It was a real event in DeWitt, with something going on around every corner.  I never ventured very far.  On the southwest edge of DeWitt was the ball diamond.  On most Fourth of July’s, the local DeWitt men’s softball team played a team out of Lincoln called Kings.

Kings was sponsored by the restaurant of the same name.  If you never had a cheese Frenchie from Kings, you have missed one of the great culinary treats of the time.  To top it off, you got to order by phone from your booth and they had great butterscotch malts.

Back in the 1950’s, the great softball teams would pay a player or two to compete with your team.  Most of the time those players would be pitchers and no one could hit them.  Those games in DeWitt would be double headers and the games went very quickly.  Both DeWitt and Kings paid their pitchers.

Clatonia had an excellent softball team. The 1958 state champion basketball team had more great athletes than most small towns.  All but one, Rodney Sagehorn, the team’s leading scorer, lived close by or in Clatonia.  They were really good, but they weren’t in the same league as the teams that paid their pitchers.

I was amazed at how they threw the ball with such precision.  The pitchers could make the ball do strange things.  Sometimes it would rise, sometimes drop and other times it just curved and came in so slow the batter could swing twice before it reached the plate.

I rooted for DeWitt to win, but I never turned down a cheese Frenchie or a butterscotch shake on my trips to Kings in Lincoln.  Usually one of these two teams won the state championship.

After the game, the fireworks featured bombs being tossed in the air.  I have never felt more shock waves from a fireworks display as I did with those in DeWitt.

In college, I went to view a different sport on the Fourth of July.  Kearney, Nebraska would have stock car races at the Buffalo County Fair Grounds.  It wasn’t a ball game, but with all the dust flying, you left looking like you had played nine innings.

I had summer jobs in my first two stops as a teacher and coach.  The jobs were with the city and I would have to get the ball fields ready for some kind of game.

Usually it was slow pitch softball.  It didn’t come close to the level of those softball games at DeWitt.  I would catch the fireworks shows but not the games.

Then things changed.  When I became the head girls’ coach at Wilber-Clatonia High School, for the first time, my Fourth of July’s were free.  I soon discovered the best baseball and fireworks could be found at the same place in Omaha.

I would get tickets early in the year because it was always a sell-out.  I loved the minor league baseball game that featured the Omaha Royals.  You could get an early look on future Royals and I bled Royal blue.  

However, the real feature was the fireworks show.  I first heard about Grucci’s Fireworks during the 1976 Bi-Centennial celebration.  They choreographed the fireworks display over the Statue of Liberty.  Even on television, it was impressive.  I was sold.

I’d buy a big bucket of chicken and a cooler full of drinks and take off early in the morning for Omaha.  I would buy a parking pass, so I would be guaranteed a place to tailgate.  This was at the old Rosenblatt Stadium by the zoo and parking wasn’t easy.  

By the time the game ended, and the fireworks were underway, Omaha had estimates of a 100,000 people in and around the stadium watching the Grucci group spin their magic in the sky.  Even traffic on I-80 would come to a halt during the fireworks.  One year, an Omaha pitcher had a no-hitter until the ninth inning.  The game went so fast, we all had to wait for the skies to darken.  

Getting out of the parking lot posed another problem.  That’s why I had the bucket of chicken and cooler of drinks.  If we made it to the interstate by 11 or so, it was good.  I loved those Fourth of July displays.

I’ve been to a Royals game for one and the St. Joseph Mustangs for a couple of Fourth of July’s.  They were good, except Sam was very young in Kansas City and I had to go under the bleachers to avoid a melt-down.  I went to the fireworks display at Mozingo Wednesday.  It was a good display.

I guess I’m a tough sell on the Fourth of July.  There’s just something about it. Small towns and ball games go the best with Independence Day.