Wednesday, July 17, 2024

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Des Moines Forgotten

Rusty washers, sparklers and 3D glasses


The Midwest is one the best places to be to celebrate the Fourth of July. No matter what faith you follow or orientation you swing, you can usually come together for our country’s Independence Day. 

As a kid in the 1990s, I remember my dad picking me up from my mom’s house and taking me to Milan, Illinois, where his home was. If you lived in the Quad Cities, Milan was sort of the Council Bluffs of the metro. You didn’t pronounce it the romantic Italian way either.

My dad had a tiny, yellow ranch house with a rotting wooden fence around the yard and garage. The backyard was the hangout spot with cheap, white, metal lawn furniture that sat on top of a rock garden. The yard itself was nothing special — green grass with some rose bushes in the corners. Dad had a DIY washer toss game that he made in the backyard that used a tuna fish can as the goal. If you lived in the upper-class neighborhoods, you played bags. If you lived in Milan, you played spray-painted rusty washers. There was also a sand pit area behind the garage that served as a play area for me and a public restroom for the neighborhood cats.

My dad would invite his friends over who had kids that somehow became my default friends. One of his buddies named their son Christopher, who was born three weeks before me. My parents were going to name me that first (and “Buddy” knew that) so they changed it to Christian. But then my dad refused to name me after a religion, so he changed it to Kristian. Anyways, default friend Christopher came over with his older brother, Jimmy, whose favorite pastime was beating us up or breaking our things. We were all sitting on the metal lawn furniture eating hamburgers and pulling out the fireworks we bought for cash at the popup stand along the highway. It wasn’t long before Jimmy decided it would be funny to pull the leg of the chair that his younger brother was sitting in, tipping it over and causing Christopher to bite his tongue.

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The screams eventually ceased, and we began setting off smaller pyrotechnics in the driveway. Snakes, sparklers and noise-makers were leaving black stains on the cement and, as far I know, were there when my dad eventually sold the house.

As the sky became dark, we packed up our lawn chairs, glow sticks and coolers and started hiking up the hilly street to an open field that was next to the ballfield where Dad’s beer league softball team played. Along the journey, we would see cars in the field next to it having a mess of a time trying to park. My dad seemingly always needed to feel like he was smarter than others, and today it was, “Look at all the idiots trying to park.” We lived in the neighborhood and could walk without all the fuss. 

We found a spot in the grass to lay our blankets down that wasn’t wet from spilled beer. Random voices would yell, “Hey, Phil” to my dad as we set up camp. This is where we would also see some of the rebels we had purchased fireworks from that might have been considered illegal at the time. This was 1993, so fireworks were still off limits to the common man. People would bring used metal coffee cans and light them up from them. My mom would tell me stories about people who lost fingers and burned their faces doing this. “Your dad even burned a hole in his favorite shirt,” she would exclaim.  

The fireworks would finally be set off. We would spread out flat on the ground, and we would wear 3D glasses to enhance our experience. My dad had his own funny cigarettes to enhance his. There is nothing like hearing a bunch of rednecks in jorts and tank tops howling at a fancy light show. When a design would appear as the American flag spread out across the sky, the crowd would erupt.

And they still do. Happy Fourth of July!

Kristian Day is a filmmaker and writer based in Des Moines. He also hosts the syndicated Iowa Basement Tapes radio program on 98.9 FM KFMG. Instagram: @kristianday | Twitter: @kristianmday

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