The Fourth of July is a time of family, fireworks, a hot grill, and a scorching sun. For me, many of my Fourth of July memories revolve around the small Iowa town of Clearfield.
Clearfield is a rural town of only a couple hundred people. Broadway is a wide two block street flanked by crumbling brick buildings, most of which are empty these days, but back then the Fourth of July was our time.
It felt like every person in the county came to my home town for the Fourth of July. It seemed so big then. The two blocks of Broadway branched north and south for eternity. Blocked off at both ends, the street was filled with concessions, flea market booths, and carnival rides. I remember beach volleyball and basketball tournaments, and the central attraction a tractor pull behind the car wash. Not to be outdone, the kids pedal tractor pull took place smack dab in the middle of Broadway. After dark, the night sky would explode with fireworks.
I had lived in Clearfield my entire life. I knew every pothole in every gravel-covered street. I was a survivor of numerous bicycle wrecks as a result of them. Every house was old hat, every person as familiar as family.
But on the Fourth, Clearfield became exotic and dangerous, filled with people I had never seen. The flea market boots were mysterious places where you might find anything. Tables waited, full of pocket knives, ninja stars, snappers, and black snakes. Money exchanged hands over folding tables in a way that I imagined only occurred on foreign black markets.
I ran the two blocks from my parents’ house, usually along with cousins or my sister, and experienced the strange noises and smells of crowd and carnival. There, in the center of it all, one of my great fears was born.
I’m terrified of heights. I can work around them, but it means dealing with a constant sense of dread, a feeling of too-much gravity and not enough security. Every moment seems to cheat death and my bladder trembles, asking me exactly what the Hell I was thinking. It all started on one of those Clearfield Fourth of July Days, and a Ferris Wheel.
I sat in that Ferris Wheel with a cousin, my first time riding it. As we began our ascent in the claustrophobic buckets secured by not enough bolts, my cousin began rocking the bucket back and forth. I held on, terrified of falling, but even more terrified of admitting fear. The ride lasted for both an eternity and a moment. It was frightening, yet exhilarating. I have always remembered it.
One of the things I’ve learned about aging is that it damages our childhood perceptions. As I got older, it seemed like a different place: smaller, less mysterious. The booths were no longer the bazaars of the bizarre that I remembered. The street was no longer than it was on the Third. The magical expansion that happened once a year had ceased. The millions who filled the streets were probably only a couple of hundred.
I know now that the Farris Wheel that spawned my fear of heights is not that high at all. If I had somehow fallen, I would have walked away with nothing more seriously damaged than my courage. The figment of my fear was small enough be towed on the back of a pick-up truck.
Being around my son reminds me of that realization. The real tragedy is that we lose a child’s mystique about the ordinary. Our fears of imaginary things are replaced by real-life terrors of a much less sinister nature. We no longer fear what may lurk in the dark. We fear what we know awaits us in the real world.
But as we lose those fears, we lose the excitement we once had. Simple things excite my son. Parades are endless showcases of the amazing. Playgrounds contain unimagined possibilities. I experience his fascination vicariously, and mourn the loss of my own.
Broadway doesn’t seem as big anymore. It doesn’t contain the magic it once did. Clearfield is no longer familiar. We grew apart. Still, every Fourth of July, I see fireworks, and almost expect to find myself standing next to that terrifying Farris Wheel, surrounded by a million exotic strangers. It is a few moments of child-magic in an otherwise horrifically adult life.
I will always be thankful for my childhood in Clearfield and the influence it had on my dreams and nightmares, and my writing by extension. I hope my son finds a place that will fuel his. I hope it is a long time before the magic of his childhood slips away.