It was July 4, 1935, in southwestern Missouri. The restaurant/nightclub my parents owned, called Half-A-Hill, was five miles south of Springfield, “the heart of the Ozarks.” Motorists heading toward
Branson, Mo., (in those days, it was a tiny center for recreational fishermen) would be attracted to stop at our inn. The log and stone exterior was appealing. Later, they would be glad they had stopped. My mother’s fried chicken dinners were legendary. Even Tom Mix, the famous movie cowboy, had once driven all the way here from Tulsa, just because he’d asked someone, “Where can I get a really good fried chicken dinner?”
The setting for Half-A-Hill was a small valley between a steep hillside and a slight rise to the east, topped by the Parsons’ farm. In between these elevations there was a pasture where the Wilhoits’ cattle sometimes grazed. A graveled road, which is now called Battlefield Road, separated Half-A-Hill from the pasture. From high above it soared the songs of meadow larks. They were the first sounds I heard each summer morning. Beyond our 100-feet long dance hall was a dense cluster of deciduous trees that partly concealed a curve in the highway that led to Sequiota State Fish Hatchery.
I remember how intensely hot it always was on the Fourth of July. Almost the only air-conditioned buildings in Springfield were the movie theaters and a few hotels. Half-A-Hill only had ceiling and oscillating floor fans in the fountain room, dining room and dance floor. All the windows were kept open to catch the least bit of a breeze. Years later, my mother had nightmares about thunderstorms that suddenly exploded during the night when all the window were open. The torrent of rain that poured in was about to ruin the precious wood floor of the dance pavilion and inundate the tables in the dining room.
In July, there were always sticky fly traps on the front porch of the “Hill,” as it became nicknamed over the years by our customers. Long strips coated with a glue-like substance hung down from the ceiling with dead flies stuck to them. They looked revolting. The alternative fly traps were the squares of gray, treated paper that my father placed in saucers of water, mostly on the floor of the fountain room. The sound of fans and the rusty hinge creaking of a screen door swinging open, then closing were all a part of my 1935 July Fourth.
Once that day, some ornery kid from a rumble seat in a roadster tossed out a lighted cherry bomb as he approached Half-A-Hill. The noise was so loud, it rattled our windows. Then the driver sped away to avoid having his license number recorded by my father. There were other, milder incidents involving firecrackers that day, but that was to be expected on Independence Day.
If Springfield had a big parade on this holiday, I’m not aware of it. Days before the holiday, fireworks stands were erected on major thoroughfares throughout the city. Every family had its own stash of
Roman candles, sparklers, skyrockets, pinwheels and the innocuous “snakes” I loved best. Lady crackers were great favorites of mine, too, because they only made a series of mild little “pops” when I lit a string of them.
My father used to tell me about the times the circus came to town when he was young in the 1880s. He described the games his friends and he played in a vacant lot on the north side of Springfield. They made a rope swing and invented playground equipment a much later generation would take for granted.
The boy side of him emerged on the Fourth of July. He loved to buy a huge array of fireworks and lug them over to the hillside opposite Half-A-Hill. Before dark he lit a stick of punk, and I could ignite those dark gray bits and be enthralled as a twisted, cylinder of ash emerged slowly and kept twisting and turning, back and forth, like a real snake before it strikes. Delightfully creepy!
My entire family gathered at twilight on the hillside. The help stood on the porch across the highway to watch my father’s fireworks show and to be available to take care of customers. To kill time before darkness arrived, we young ones ran around in our bare feet through the cool, damp grass. We carried lighted sparklers, sometimes bending them to make handles so that we could twirl them around to form circles of silver sparks. Our mothers invariably cautioned us not to drop the sparklers on our bare feet.
My father nailed pinwheels to twin trees with a short wooden bench between them. He built a trough for skyrockets. Finally, it was dark enough, he decreed, to begin the main event. One of us lit the pinwheels. My father warned each of us to be careful to aim a Roman candle toward the pasture and not Half-A-Hill. The live-in waitresses, maybe Ethel or Orla at that time, oohed and aahed as each candle made a series of colored fire spurts. It was my father’s honor to set off the skyrockets. They scared me with their frightening “whish” at liftoff, then soared up into the sky. The finale this year is a special rocket’ that when it reaches its zenith, a tiny tin parachutist is released and floats down from the now starry sky. That is the end of the show and the conclusion of the Fourth of July at Half-A-Hill.
It’s time to cross the highway and for the mothers to put us to bed. The men go out to the dance hall. The clarinets, trumpets and saxophones are tuning up. Someone tests the microphone. We fall asleep as the band plays “Stardust” and “Melancholy Baby.”