LIGHTING UP THE SKY OF THE PAST

Times Arts Editor

It was only years later that I realized it must have been next to impossible to keep a small-town jewelry store afloat during the worst days of the Depression, which was why Peter Kapral sold fireworks in season. His may have been the only jewelry store in history that was popular with small boys.

Pete kept the fireworks in the windows. There were cherry bombs then, those lethal balls that exploded on impact. The big guys, as we thought of them, used to roar through town throwing cherry bombs from car windows, terrifying everyone, not least the small boys.

There were also firecrackers the size of hot dogs, explosive enough to lift a tin can several feet off the ground, or detach a thumb. I retain very little nostalgia for the cherry bombs or the giant crackers, although the skyrockets arching over the lake in the early evening were items of beauty.

The embalmer from the local funeral parlor used to come into the store and lean over the displays with a cigarette drooping from his lips. He was a good customer for the skyrockets and the Roman candles, and it used to drive Pete crazy. He would bolt out from the back of the store, then check himself and only say something cheerful to make the man turn around, just as the sparky ash was about to fall from the cigarette. It plays like a scene from a movie for me, every time this season comes around.

Even in the Depression, the observance of the Fourth of July was so traditional that Norman Rockwell could have painted it, and I wish he had.

The summer cottagers would have arrived and the lake would be full of sailboats. The stores and the village square would be full of unfamiliar faces, and it occurred to me once--again, years later--that we might even have been thought by the visitors to be picturesque. We may have been, but it was really only after you got to know us and our decades of ribald anecdotage.

If you had good ears and listened at the fringes of the gang at Putnam's dock, or in the park or at the gas station in winter, you grew up on a diet of, "Oh, Judas Priest, you remember the time. . . ? " and then the tale of the Model A reassembled on the roof of the school one Halloween, or something shockingly carnal about a woman on the hill who, alas, had since moved away: stories expanded, improved, newly dramatized and polished with every retelling. Our past was doubtless always more picturesque than our present, and nothing has changed.

There was a parade, of course--a march to the Presbyterian cemetery in town, a speech, a prayer, often long, the firing of rifles by a squad from the local American Legion post commanded by Arthur Swartwood, one of the town barbers. Some years the parade would reassemble for a second ceremony at another cemetery, and you got to stand through two orations.

Bombast was still in style, and the themes were historical and patriotic. The Revolutionary War was made to seem only yesterday, its echoes almost to be heard in the warm July air, though it was likely those faint sounds of musketry were the flags, snapping in the breeze.

Even in the prewar days I am remembering, the world was moving in on us, and on the last of the Fourths of July I spent at that lovely lake village, the war had begun and the oratory was more fierce and confident than ever.

I've wondered lately what those platform performers (county officials and an occasional congressman), who could make everything so simple, would have to say of the subtleties and complexities of our times. What do you say, amid the flags and the medals, about the hostage crisis? All that seems clear to me is that the rhetoric doesn't quite do it. The problems are too deeply embedded in tangled histories of which we have learned too little; the issues are beyond slogans and indignant appeals to wounded national pride.

Some of the ex-hostages, I see, are already being taken to task by some commentators for their willingness to try to understand their captors, as if this were a shotgun compassion to be dismissed as folly. But to take the hijacking simply as an aberrant and murderous deed (which it was), instead of as a symptom of a more profound malaise requiring more imaginative response than we've given it, is the larger folly. I hope the former hostages stay with their perceptions, preserving some light out of the long darkness.

Actually, remembering the sense of the past that was nearly tangible amid the ancient lichened tombstones in the town cemeteries as we celebrated this most national of holidays, it's tempting to stroll all the way into that past, to revisit those first grand dreams of the American experience--freedom, independence, equality, tolerance, opportunity, self-determination. It may be that the dreams, still so meaningful elsewhere in the world, have been hardened by our two centuries of heroic achievement. Perhaps it's time for a fresh, unhardened look at the way we once were.

The past has its lessons, even if not all the orators would agree on what they are. I would settle for fewer firecrackers, and more illuminations.

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