The Last Windrow: Memories from a farm kid's Fourth of July

Food and fireworks were the highlights of the day with family

Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

The smell of burnt gunpowder hung over the corn and bean fields as the family Fourth of July festivities concluded on that long ago hot Iowa evening.

The ice cream had been consumed and the bottles of cold beer and pop had been diminished in the cattle water tank. Folks started packing up to head back to their respective households.

It had been a good day.

We hurried to get the cows milked and the chores done early that Fourth of July morning. Excitement was before my brothers and sisters because we knew this was a special day. We were heading for my uncle and aunt's farm where all of my 30-plus first cousins would be assembling later in the day.

We knew that tables full of scratch baked beans, fried chicken, cold salads and desserts aplenty awaited us. The thought was enough to cause me to slaver much like one of our coonhounds awaiting a bone from the kitchen.


I also knew that the day meant my dad's annual trip to River Sioux and the fireworks stand that only appeared the week before the Fourth. Until that week the riverbank remained a muddy, slippery place with the Big Sioux River ambling its way to the Missouri River 12 miles to the south. The stand was always decorated with brightly illustrated panels showing fierce black cats, roaring gorillas and maybe an alligator or two.

I often wondered how this stand made it through the floods as it was patched with assorted lumber to hold it together.

Even though there were "No Smoking" signs hung around the parking lot, my dad would casually roll up his handmade cigarette, light it and lead me up to the stand. I found that in itself to be exciting as at any moment we might be blown sky high, but it never happened and the guy inside the booth hardly seemed to notice.

He was smoking too. God protects the innocent, I guess.

We came away from the stand with an assortment of sky rockets, buzz bombs, sparkling fountains and firecrackers. I was not allowed to handle anything but the lady fingers, but they made enough of a bang to satisfy me.

We headed out to my uncle's farm where the "illegal" fireworks accumulated from other relatives were assembled and readied for the night's display.

Noon lunch found my many uncles reclining under the shade of the ash and elm trees while all of my aunts were busily catering the meal. I never thought that balance was quite right, but it was what it was.

Soon the picnic tables were filled from one end to the other and the meal was announced. Adult men ate first after Grandma, then the older kids, then the younger kids and finally the women who had done all the work.


Call it what you will, but that was the order of the service.

The afternoon found games of badminton at which my older uncles tried in vain to compete with 16-year-olds and finally descended into a horseshoe pitching contest in which many cusswords were spoken away from little ears.

Our day ended with the lighting of the fireworks by a bunch of farmers without the proper permits. I'm sure there was no insurance coverage involved as they tended to light the fuses with glowing ends of cigarettes and cigars. It was exciting to know that at any time one of my uncles could be propelled skyward!

When the smoke cleared, most still had their fingers attached even though their hearing was forever impaired. The smoke of spent gunpowder drifted slowly across the cattle pens.

The day had been a treat. We milked the cows late and slept with the aroma of baked beans and scenes of fireworks exploding in the skies drifting through our dreams. It was a farm Fourth of July!

See you next time, and Happy Fourth of July! Okay?

John Wetrosky - Last Windrow.jpg

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