In our little neighborhood on Gayle Road, Fourth of July weekend was very special. It tapped into some real primordial DNA, at least when I was a little kid.
On the third of July we would have a neighborhood picnic at our shared beach that would go way beyond my normal bedtime and into the night. It was Flare Night.
Gayle road was its own little self contained community back then. It was a tribe, with tribal customs. The men cooked the meat, the women made the macaroni and potato salads, the kids would run around like feral woodland creatures and everybody broke bread, got drunk together, and collected around a huge bonfire. Toasted marshmallows washed down with Kool-Ade were the ritual hosts for the rugrats.
The first signal that July 3rd was just around the corner was the arrival of "Peanuts" in the Rossi family driveway. We only saw him once a year. He was a man of mystery, and to me the summer version of Santa Clause. Just as fat as Santa if not more, but clad in Raybans, a pencil thin William Powell moustache, and a half a tub of pomade in his hair. A white panama straw fedoroa floated atop this saintly creation, which not only looked like a halo in the sunset, but was also color and style coordinated with "Peanuts'" choice of summer sleigh.
He would back up the driveway of 12 Gayle Road in a huge ass white Caddy (He drove a new one every year). He never rang the doorbell or set foot in the house. My father was expecting him, and always subtly recused himself from the family dinner table on "Peanuts Appointment Night".
That didn't last long, however. I think I was about five when I snuck away from the table too, and followed my Pops down to the driveway to see what he was up to. You can't keep Santa Clause a myth forever, and "Peanuts" wasn't going to stay mythological around me for long.
Pops and "Peanuts" would have a brief conspiratorial discussion out of my earshot, and then "Peanuts" would hop out of the car, and pop the trunk lid of The Peanut Mobile.
That lid lifting was akin to cracking open the Lost Ark of The Covenant, or the Briefcase in "Pulp Fiction" along with the pre-requisite choir of angels "ahhing" in the background soundtrack of my imagination. "Peanuts" opened it in a tantalizingly slow manner for maximum dramatic effect. The only thing missing was a golden light emanating from within.
Lo and behold, there they were. A pirate's booty beyond a child's imagination.
Fireworks. Tons of fireworks. Illegal contraband of the highest order, all wrapped in a kaleidoscope of kiddie eye catching packaging.
Every imaginable incendiary device, from the most benign sparklers, fire crackers and bottle rockets to heaviest of Italian hand crafted heavy artillery, was loaded in that trunk creating a mighty strain on the Lincoln's rear suspension. "Peanuts" was the ATF's worst nightmare and wet dream rolled into one.
My father's contribution to the annual Gayle Road Pow Wow was the evening's entertainment for the kiddies, and the visual climax for the adults after a day of over-eating, kid wrangling, and copious collective booze consumption.
Pops did not approach this responsibility conservatively, and he always went big. Lots of crisp cash traded hands, and it took several trips to get all that booty stored in our basement closet along with our skis, poles and ski boots; all of which were in hibernation for the summer.
This was my first exposure to the "fell out of the back of a truck and into the trunk of a car" economic direct distribution system, and probably subconsciously in my adult life as I sold Shuffling Hungarians discs out of the back of MY trunk, I was channelling my inner "Peanuts" business model.
July 3rd was like Christmas as far as the little kid anticipation factor went. Although the tribal picnic started in the daylight hours, you couldn't wait for that sun to go down.
The tribal mass was based in night-time gun powdered sulphuric pyromania and the whistling, exploding bombast of rockets while sugar buzzed children danced around the blast furnace heat of the bonfire, waving sparklers with melted marshmallowed smeared faces.
It started with the lighting of the flares at sunset.
Like some ancient Druid ritual, all the inhabitants of Skaneateles that had beach access would line their shores with flares, and light them as the sun made its final descent over the western horizon line.
There is nothing quite like seeing the entire shore of the lake rimmed in a ring of red fire, before it dog legged to the South East and out of sight.
Nothing compares to witnessing that red fire ring. It will be forever etched in my memory.
The light fireworks of sparklers and bottle rockets were like foreplay to the big event, where the men folk would self-importantly make sure that the women and children were corralled at a safe distance. Then they would light the air borne bombs as you nestled in a beach chair with your mom, amid much "oohing" and "ahhing".
The flares would become nubs, the bonfire a massive pile of glowing embers. The Pagan ritual mass came to an end, and we all trudged up the hill in the black dark to our respective huts for the night.
The next day was spent clearing the debris painfully hungover, unless you had a kid old enough to send in your place.
That Gayle Road throwdown was the best night of the year.
One time my sister Becky was running around with a roman candle and aimed it at her best friend, Danielle Kane.
She nailed Danny's derrierre with a roman fireball from 20 feet. It stuck to Danny's cut-off jeans and lit her ass on fire. The men folk threw her in the lake, quickly averting crisis.
After that, the tribal fire mass was never quite the same, due to obvious liability issues. "Peanuts" would still make his annual visit to the driveway, but the fireworks displays were toned down to the point of utter boredom. You can only go so far with a sparkler.
Since moving back home a few years ago, I've spent flare nights with my family. Mom and Pop live in a condo in downtown Skaneateles, but their building still as lake access.
And although flares are still dutifully lit at the shores of Legg Hall, its not the same. Its an ancient custom and ritual that is dying out. There is no more "ring of red fire" that rims the lake, only a sporadic dot or two pathetically blinking along the shore.
They feel like desperate little signals of red light that the last of the Druids send to each other.
"Remember who and what we were? We are not that now."
"You may shoot for the stars and end up in a back alley behind Pluto, beaten and bloodied, but at least I dare to dream, and that’s better than being Earthbound, mired in the muck of mediocrity.
I judge my forward progress and success by the crushingly epic nature of my failures.
The more epic the crash, the more I’m convinced I must be doing something right"
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COLONEL BEAUREGARD "IRON THIGHS" JEFFERSON, A.K.A. "THE MANAGEMENT"