The Fourth of July brings the pride of America to the forefront. No matter what the flavor or tone of the political scene, July 4th is every American’s birthday party. Lucky for us the forefathers declared independence in the summer when days are ripe for picnics, parades, and spangly celebrations.
In my world, the 4th of July usually involves a day at the beach and a night ooo-ing and ahhing at fireworks over the Great South Bay. There is no better seat for fireworks than on a boat. If the night is clear, the show is bound to be fantastic with high rocketing colors and fire stars glittering above. Sometimes local radio stations broadcast patriotic band arrangements or a contemporary music playlist to complement the show.
There were many memorable July 4ths, but I think my favorite was in 1997. My dad and mom traveled on their 41-foot Morgan sloop rig sailboat, the Trulee, from our Great South Bay through Fire Island Inlet and docked it in a Brooklyn marina. Dad, who makes new best friends everywhere he goes, endeared the shabby dockmaster to allow him to stay in a slip not meant for a broad-beamed craft on a holiday weekend. Mom’s antipasto and meatballs also helped the rules relaxed.
Very early on July 4th, my husband, Matt, three daughters ages 8 to 14, and I drove through the Southern State Parkway and navigated the dreaded Belt Parkway to meet my parents at the Brooklyn marina. The dockmaster exclaimed,” Oh, you’re Bill and Diana’s kids! Go on in. They’re expecting you.” The conversation and meatballs were that good.
We piled into the boat, the girls claimed their bunks, and we set sail for the East River. Set sail is more of a term than an actual thing for my dad. In his heart, he is a motorboat captain, not a sailor. Since he was ten years old, he always had some form of a motorized boat. Dad delighted in the mechanics, tweaked moving parts, and continuously repaired an engine to get a boat from point A to point B. Sometimes, repairing happened at sea. He was the original MacGyver who could make a carburetor sputter to life with twisted bobby pins and rubber bands. When an engine hummed along, Dad felt assured that the targeted destinations will be met.
Sailing, however, was a bit frustrating for him since it frequently involves zig-zag tacking due to wind directions. It was easier to turn on the engine and head directly for Point B. Besides, Dad always claimed that the engine needed to charge the batteries or heat water. I believed he liked to hear the diesel rumble.
The Trulee was originally a bareboat charter sailboat stationed in St Thomas, Virgin Islands. Back in the 70s, my parents invested with an uncle and cousin as partners. My siblings and my family took turns to sail the BVI with my parents. When Matt and I had money for a vacation, our daughters always voted for sailing with Grandma and Papa T. We never did get to Disney. These trips hold beautiful memories.
After four years, the chartering company required the owners to sell the boat and invest in another round with a new model. However, the 80s economy did not support the investment any longer, so the partners decided to bring the the second investment, the Trulee, to Long Island, where my Dad took care of the boat. There were other bareboat ventures in the Virgin Islands, but the Trulee stayed in Long Island.
Although it was not a motorboat, the Trulee had three important features for my dad:
That 1997 July 4th was simply beautiful. Clear skies above and cool winds made for a perfect boating day. We chugged through the upper bay of New York Harbor into the Hudson River, marveled at all of the boats and got a great view of the Intrepid, a retired aircraft carrier. We turned around and headed to the west side to see Lady Liberty close up. Mom told my girls of how her grandmother and mother traveled across the ocean in the belly of a ship and ate only the bread they brought and drank only rainwater. Imagine the relief they felt upon seeing the Statue of Liberty. Hope was restored as they began a new life in the New World.
As the day wore on, more boats came into New York Harbor. We were all vying for a perfect spot to see the big Macy’s Fourth of July Fireworks Show. The harbor was getting crowded with sleek boats, packed party boats, majestic yachts, annoying jet skis, and a variety of sailboats that were actually sailing. One could worry that this was a scenario for Boatnik mishaps. The weather was too good, enticing anyone with a smidge of boating skills to feel confident enough to participate. And just about anyone did. It was a mob scene.
The Trulee happily chugged along. Mom had a constant flow of cheese, crackers, fruit, and chips out for everyone to nibble on through the day. No one felt queasy, and the diesel engine thankfully cooperated while getting us to Points B, C, and D and charging batteries and heating water.
We finally settled on our perfect spot below the Brooklyn Bridge on the East River. Matt dropped and set the anchor. As the sun set, we finished Mom’s sausage and peppers dinner. Fruit and Entenmann’s crumb cake were for desert. The deck lights cast a soft illumination during our dinner conversations recapping the day’s sights. More boats anchored around us. It could have been a crazy scene with reckless and loud party-ers New York style, but somehow everyone respected space, remained friendly and reasonable so all could enjoy the celebrations.
Finally, night fell. A gentle breeze cooled the heat from the day. The sky twinkled clear and bright. We situated ourselves on the Trulee’s deck-all cozy in excited anticipation. Dad tuned in WPIX radio for the broadcast. Finally, we heard the rockets boom up the river. The sky glittered into a stage of incredible colors one after the other in perfect synchronization to the music. Smiley faces, flower bursts, and images of Old Glory and Lady Liberty showered over our heads. The gentle breezes waft the smell of the gun powder in our direction. My girls genuinely ooo-ed, ahh-ed, and clapped through the 40 minute show. We all did, including our boat neighbors. My daughters had seen fireworks before on our bay but never had they witnessed such a glorious production. I had never seen such a show, either. At the end of the show, we shouted back and forth to our boat neighbors as to how fantastic this whole day had been.
As midnight approached, Matt hauled up the anchor and we said goodbye to our new best friends. We headed back to the slip in the Brooklyn marina. The night was as beautiful as the day. Lighted boats and Lady Liberty’s torch brightened the harbor as we chugged along. The girls washed up (with hot water) and settled into their bunks. When I kissed them goodnight, we all agreed that this was the best birthday party, ever.
Antoinette Truglio Martin is the author of Hug Everyone You Know: A Year of Community, Courage, and Cancer. The memoir is a wimpy patient’s journey through her first year of breast cancer treatment.