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July 4, 2006

Which Fourth?

Roy Meachum

Independence Day always reminds me of a great truth about the city where I grew up: New Orleans saloons never closed, not even the neighborhood variety - unless they wanted to. Only after the Army sent me to rural Missouri (Camp Crowder) did I understand there were bars that didn't stay open 24 hours and 7 days a week. Beer halls on the post didn't count. They were, after all, under military control.

So, what does that have to do with the 4th of July? Well, I was no more than 8 when we gathered in a joint, at Jackson & Dryades. Earlier arrivals, of course, had to hang around until the others showed up. Hanging around at five o'clock in the morning meant coffee and an optional slug of whiskey. More timid souls called for Jax, brewed next to the French Quarter, in a building that now houses tourist shops.

To commemorate that Independence Day we were going over to Ocean Springs, virtually a fishing village very close to Biloxi. The interstate system was still decades ahead. Many of the local Mississippi roads were still "paved" with oyster shells. What would be an hour-and-a-half trip now took more than twice that time. Since nobody wanted to be out on the water when July's searing sun beat down, we were hoping to start out in the darkness.

As I recall, on the way out of town the first sun rays were breaking through the night gloom. It may have had something to do with the fact saloons stayed open 24-7. I don't remember. At that tender age in a day when no cars enjoyed air-conditioning, I zonked out on a horse hair seat, snatching a snooze shortly after we left New Orleans behind.

In the event, another 4th of July my "Uncle" Frank Viccaro decided it made no sense that this South Louisiana boy didn't enjoy the pleasures of pulling in fish. He rented a boat that he rowed along the far shore of Lake Ponchartrain, where few people came and went and nobody lived, as far as I knew at that age (10).

Mosquitoes made up for the lack of human beings; they swarmed in droves that zoomed up from the bushes on shore, forcing Uncle Frank to move out farther in the lake. That was the only excitement I recalled from an entire day spent bobbing and waiting, sweating out a dangling line that was periodically inspected for bait by my tutor. Once we escaped the mosquitoes, there were no more bites; certainly not among Ponchatrain's fish population.

When I reached my teens, I spent one Independence Day back on the lake, but in a cottage built over the waters. Every once in a while, someone - but never me - hauled into the house a crab caught in a trap; there were several off the dock that jutted out farther into Ponchartrain. I spent my time dancing, trying to flirt with girls all slightly older than my 15 years.

Artie Shaw was very big then; I recall his soaring clarinet on Begin the Beguine. Jimmy Dorsey's Amapola helped while away that long afternoon while my romantic hopes faded away.

Later in the Army, in the old castle along the Main River, we celebrated Independence Day 1943, when Great Britain first heard the American Forces Network, courtesy of the BBC. After D-Day the U.S. military's radio system came under full American control. At the time I joined them, AFN was heard through former German radio stations, including a powerful short-wave transmitter, located at Bayreuth, the home of Wagnerian operas.

For three years I enjoyed the party held in the 18th century garden of Bruening Schloss, whose walls had first gone up in the 10th century; visitors to my home can see the old castle in a print from Germany's 30 Years War, hanging above the front stairs.

When the last guests from the 4th of July dinner and dancing vanished into the night, passing over the ancient cobble stones that led out to modern streets, we went to bed. I slept in the original tower built in 900-something. Each June several weeks before the annual AFN party, a Hoechst village brass band appeared on the other side of the moat. They offered Corpus Christi Day songs to serenade the castle's former masters; we enjoyed them anyway.

Having spent all my adult life in the media, broadcast or print, I seemed to have spent more holidays working than enjoying fireworks, which - in any event - came late into my life. The Fourth was no great New Orleans feast day, not just compared to Mardi Gras. I suspect memories of Reconstruction with its carpetbaggers and "blue bellies" occupation may have been too close for our older generations.

Then, not far up the river stood Vicksburg, which endured a mighty siege that forced residents into eating pets and rats to survive while waiting for relief. It never arrived.

Ulysses S. Grant came instead and enforced his concept of total war. The begrimed and not so gallantly gray-clad garrison surrendered on the Fourth of July, on exactly the same day Union Gen. George Meade knew he had finally won out over Robert E. Lee, at a Pennsylvania town best known in those days for its Lutheran seminary.

In these parts our celebration is both for the nation's birth and for the war-winning battle at Gettysburg.

Happy Fourth of July!

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