I’ve always enjoyed the 4th of July, also known as America’s Independence Day. Growing up in New Jersey in the 1960s and 1970s gave me a special perspective of the holiday and the freedoms we Americans enjoy.
I graduated high school in 1976, the year of America’s bicentennial. The country had just gone through an unpopular war in Vietnam and the scandalous exit of its president two years earlier, Richard Nixon. Like so many other times in the country’s history, America was hurting.
But we were bent, not broken.
My earliest memories of the holiday were probably when I was in kindergarten. Early on, I knew it was a festive day, marked by a lengthy parade in my Ridgewood hometown, followed by a picnic at home. In the evening, the day’s activities were capstoned by a concert, then the fireworks. We never sat through the concert, but we always found a way to enjoy the pyrotechnics, usually on the same field where they were set off.
It seemed the display became more elaborate every passing year. And only on occasion were they postponed because of the weather. Nevertheless, the 4th of July remained a pivotal point in my year, happening less than two weeks after school ended and about a month before our family’s annual vacation.
Fatherly Love for Cars
I inherited my love for cars from my father. He wasn’t especially handy, so he did not work on them. Nevertheless, he had a keen eye for identifying antiques and classics by make, year, and model. This was a gift few possessed, but something he readily shared with everyone within earshot.
The Ridgewood parade, especially in the 1960s, featured some of the earliest examples of automobiles built in America. Car clubs and individual antique enthusiasts lined up their vehicles for the two-hour parade. Many vehicles were festooned with banners, identifying the dignitary riding in each car and sometimes the type of vehicle. The mayor, councilmen, state and federal politicians, and one or more beauty queens were always featured.
I never paid much attention to the passengers, but my eyes did scan each vehicle’s body lines as they slowly moved past. And when I was especially young, retrieving pieces of wrapped candy thrown from each vehicle became a quest. Nonetheless, I enjoyed every Ford Model T, Pierce-Arrow Series 36, Packard Standard Eight, Dodge Brothers Series 124, Hudson Super Six, and Duesenberg Model J that sailed by.
As the years went by, very few antique cars participated in the parade. Then modern cars from the 1960s soon dominated, including an assortment of full-size convertibles. Cadillac Eldorado. Chrysler Newport. Ford Galaxie 500. Chevrolet Caprice. The beauty queens now sat on top of the rear seats, making it easier for them to smile and wave as they glided by.
But something was lost as the parade went mostly from the classic to the modern. Today, those same “modern” vehicles would enhance any parade, what 50 years will do when the market shifts and changes. Nostalgia always sells and that is exactly what my father prized about the vehicles of his youth.
The Ridgewood parade also featured emergency vehicles, including fire engines, police cars, and ambulances. Ridgewood was not the only town represented as equipment from Fair Lawn, Waldwick, Ho-Ho-Kus, Allendale, Ramsey, and other nearby towns participated. If a fire department had an antique water truck in its fleet, it was always vigorously detailed before the parade. A 1940 American La France Pumper in one department might be followed by a 1922 REO Speedwagon from a neighboring town. My father wasn’t as well versed in fire truck names or at least I do not recall him identifying them as they strolled by.
These days, I am living in North Carolina where Independence Day doesn’t seem the same. For one, it is usually too hot to hold a parade. For another, people love to hit the road, by visiting the beach or lake with family. Even so, the small Cleveland community in Johnson County holds an annual parade. It features a small-town vibe with plenty of classic and exotic cars to give it a unique touch. And candy, lots of it, is thrown from cars and floats… allowing yet another generation to build memories of their favorite 4th of July.