Friday, July 3, 2009

Fourth of July--The Alley Cats Picnic

Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin is a terrific place to raise a family. It’s a small city of 9,000 people about 35 miles North East of Green Bay right in the middle of the Door Peninsula.

Green Bay is on one side, Lake Michigan on the other and the city is divided by Sturgeon Bay which because of a ship canal at its south end, connects the 2 bodies of water.

We lived just 3 blocks from downtown in a quiet neighborhood with mature trees, older homes and full of families and kids. This is a story of the “Alley Cats”. I came up with the term Alley Cats because our block featured a paved one-lane alley which ran the length of the block. In our “half” of the block there were 4 families with a total of 8 kids all the same ages.

Four of these plus another “little urchin” who hung out with this bunch all the time were in the same kindergarten class together (something which the school thereafter “banned” because they were such a little group of “hoodlums” who knew how to press one another’s buttons and drive the teacher crazy).

We went from big wheels to training wheels to 2-wheels with this unholy tribe. There’s something about the cacophony of a half dozen big-wheels rumbling down asphalt simultaneously! Our back yard had the biggest open space on it and I could never get grass to grow in major areas of it because of the permanent kick-ball game which seemed to go on pretty much every day.

But I digress. The Fourth of July dawns. A nice, sunny, cool morning. I’m the first up because Michael and Susan sleep in late during summer vacation. It’s a great time for sipping coffee and reading the newspaper. Then it’s time to make sure that everything is ready for the Annual Alley Cats Picnic. This is an annual event where all the families get together in a back yard for a pot-luck cookout on the 4th of July. I’m whistling as I go out the back door through the basement to smell the clean air, listen to the birds and scratch our cat Petey behind the ears.

We’ll have burgers and brats, beans and chips, soda and kool-aid, pie and cake, watermelon. The kids can run around and eat what they want, when they want. The adults will talk and laugh and joke watching the kids.

Earlier in the week, I had coordinated with the Dads—each household chipping in a bit of money. Because this morning the Dads are going shopping. For fireworks! Illegal fireworks. The fireworks that will precede the World Championship of AfterDark Kick the Can.

Three of us hop in one car—Craig Ostrand, Jeff Harding and I—and we head across the bridge to the other side of the bay (about 5 minutes) to Carl’s Baitshop. Now Carl’s has been there a long time. The owner sells minnows and crawlers and leeches along with some fishing tackle and, in the backroom for a couple of weeks every year, illicit fireworks. The good kind that go way up in the air with lots of color and more than enough noise.

Carl won’t just sell fireworks to just anybody. He has to know you and know that you’re responsible. After all, he was the Assistant Chief of the city’s volunteer fire department. You would be amazed at how much you can get with the $80 you’ve collected from the neighbors—including the female couple next door who run a bed and breakfast and Ted and Katie on the other side of us who both work in social services.

We’ve got a gross of bottle rockets, roman candles (big ones), pop-ups, self-contained star shells, a few strings of small firecrackers and sparklers (enough actually for a couple of nights worth). The kids get to stay up late—after 10 which is late for 5 & 7 year olds. And the adults will do all the shooting to make sure the kids are safe. We’re giggling just a bit as we head back to our block—amazed and tickled by the “stash”, by our “haul” of Independence Day goodies.

The day progresses to the time for the Alley Cats to start gathering. We’ve dragged picnic tables to our yard along with 2 extra grills—one for cooking and one to light a wood fire in. The food comes out and the cooking begins.

To fast forward this whole event—it’s now getting dark. Dessert has been devoured and all the detritus from the picnic has been cleaned up. We’ve had a great time talking and joking. The kids are running around having a good time without the usual squabbling. The can gets tossed in the middle of the yard. Dads take off with their kids to hide and the countdown begins as the Dad/kid “it” gets ready.

This after-dark game of family “tag”—Kick the Can--gets off and rolling full of laughing and running around in the dark like a bunch of banshees. And then “kerplunk” someone manages to “kick the can” and the last group in is the new “it”. Another round of this Alley Cats World Kick the Can Championship begins! It lasts until the Dads are tired or someone cries, whichever occurs first. But it’s the laughing and enjoying the end of the day that counts.

Now it’s time for fireworks! Dads gather the incendiaries. The kids gather around with their Moms, most sitting on the ground a safe distance back. It starts when a string of firecrackers is tossed—pop, pop, popping making the youngest kids cover their ears. Then on to sparklers! Everybody gets one and starts writing in the air, kids supervised to avoid burns. Burnt out sparklers are dropped in a bucket.

Sizzle, pop—ahhhhhhh. A Roman candle starts to let loose its colored balls up in the sky. The kids watch in awe thoroughly amused at this ritual of the Alley Cats. Then pop-bottle rockets followed by bigger rockets shooting up in the air, trailing sparks to crack out a loud report at their highest point. The kids really like these. Who’s having more fun? The kids watching the fireworks? The dads lighting them off, giggling like kids ourselves? The Moms, relegated to spectator status, supervising both the Dads and kids?

But it’s like one, large extended family. You love all the kids, even the ones who are pains in the butt because we’re all Alley Cats! We live together, wandering up and down the alley, visiting, sharing, helping with various projects.

Living just doesn’t get better than that. And that’s what the Alley Cats are all about!

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