(From my archives, and included in this book – my most memorable 4th of July ever!)
The flags are out, like it’s 4th of July every day, like the pictures I saw of the glorious, Bicentennial 4th of 1976… which I actually sort of missed. Not the date itself, just all the hoopla. The 200th anniversary of our nation, celebrations up the wazoo, and I missed every one of them because I spent the summer in England, doing that cheap-student-charter-BritRail-Pass-Youth-Hostel thing. I lived at home and worked parttime, and finished at Cal State Northridge with a BA and enough money left over to spend the summer traveling. I didn’t go alone, either. My brother JP and my sister Pippy were bored with the prospect of another summer in Tujunga, California. I assume our parents thought the world in 1976 was a much safer place than now, or I was responsible enough at 22 to be at large in a foreign country in charge of a 20 and a 16 year old.
So we missed all the official 4th of July events, but boy, do I remember that 4th. We arrived in a village called Street after three train changes, a bus ride, and a half-mile walk on a dusty road in the hottest, driest summer Britain had endured since 1940, or so older people said. Thirsty, sweating, dusty and longing for a shower, we arrived at the Youth Hostel, which oddly enough, was a three story Swiss-style chalet on the outskirts of Street. The ground floor contained the offices and member’s kitchen, and a combination common-room and dining room. The boys dorm and facility was on the next floor, and the girls on the top floor, right under the eaves. Pippy and I dropped our packs by a corner bunk and went looking for the showers.
We’d have had to walk all the way to Wells to find them. The girls washroom contained a single bench along the wall, with ten or so large plastic basins on the bench and an equal number of large pitchers underneath. There was a single cold-water tap, and a sign directing us to the hot-water tap, next to the kitchen, two flights of narrow stairs down. Pippy and I looked at the basins, the tap, and each other and burst out laughing, our only alternative to sobbing hysterically. When we met JP in the kitchen to do our dinner, he said the boys’ washroom was just as Victorian, and Hatch and Kowalski from Michigan who had been at hostel in Bath were staying here too, and had bang-up plans to celebrate the 4th.
“We have a bet on to drink 10 pints of English beer” said JP. He had been overjoyed to discover that if you appeared old enough to walk into a pub and ask for alcohol, you would be served, no questions asked.
“Gee, think your kidneys are up to it?” I said. Pippy and I resolved to have no part in this, and to stick to lemon shandy.
“The warden won’t let us celebrate here anyway, he says he’s a patriotic Brit. Are there any other Americans here.”
“Just Hatch and Kowalski and us. There’s this Guy from Canada, he says he has a half-interest, so he’s coming too. Everyone else is part of some school sociology class field trip. They have teachers and chaperones with them. Bleah… where on earth is that stench coming from? It smells like something died. About a week ago.”
From where we were eating our dinner, I could see into the kitchen, where elements of the sociology class were prepping their own evening meal.
“Some chicken they’d bought. I think it went bad in the heat.”
After our dinner, we washed the plates and utensils we used, relenquishing them to the school party. We put away our jar of jam and packet of tea and the end of a bottle of milk in one of the small cupboard spaces, hoping the milk bought fresh in the afternoon would be fit to drink in the morning. Youth Hostel amenities usually didn’t include refrigeration, and were usually short of things like mugs and forks.
Wandering outside, I asked directions to the village pub from a older guy in overalls who was doing something vaguely agricultural in an overgrown garden next to the hostel. He pointed out a footpath between his garden and a fenced pasture and replied, unintelligibly. It sounded like
“Argy-bargy-argy-bargy-rhubarb-rhubarb-argy-bargy-rhubarb,” and Pippy apprehensively moved closer to me.
“Thank you,”I said politely.”It is lovely weather….”
“What did he say?” JP asked, when we were out of hearing.
“No idea… but this is the direction we came from this afternoon. It wasn’t that big a place.” The path led to a stile, and across another field, where cows had obviously been grazing, and leaving huge, mud-puddle sized cow-pies.
“Great, just great,” JP grumbled, “Cows with the trots. It figures.”
The lane on the other side of the field was free of cows, and led towards the metropolitan heart of Street, and the excitements offered by a pleasantly shabby pub with a terrace and tables outside at the back. Hatch, Kowalsky and Guy from Canada waved to us.
“Catch up!” Hatch slid a pint in front of JP as we sat down. “Here’s to George Washington!”
“Thomas Jefferson! (cheers!) John Hancock! (cheers!) Ethan Allan! (cheers!) Button Gwinnett! (cheers!) John Addams! (hic-cheers!”
The evening passed, long and impossibly golden in that summer twilight which lasts to almost 10PM in northern Europe, an evening as bright as an afternoon. JP, Hatch and Kowalski’s pint mugs covered most of the table at times. Pippy and I stuck to shandy in half-pints: curious thing, it wasn’t ladylike to drink shandy in a pint, even if Pippy and I could put away two half-pints in the same time as it would take JP time to do justice to a pint. We drank toasts to all the signers of the Declaration that we could remember, to Revolutionary heroes, to Betsy Ross and Lafayette, von Steuben and Paul Revere. Hatch and JP held true to their intent of drinking 10 pints, although both of them did have to make sudden, hasty visits to the WC.
“It’s true,” Guy from Canada murmured quietly, “You really only rent beer.”
It was a lovely evening, I don’t think we were raucous enough to bother the other customers, no one got sick or belligerent, we remembered the curfew for the hostel was 10PM, and paid the tab, weaving only slightly as we walked back along the footpath, full of mellow goodwill and good English ale, bound for our various sleeping bags and pillows.
We were not in the least prepared to see the Youth Hostel all lighted up, and a pair of ambulances and a couple of cars at the front door, people coming and going, frantic footsteps and the sound of noisy barfing, upstairs and down.
Pippy and I climbed the stairs, and it got even worse. Upstairs in the girls’ dorm, one of the girls in the sociology class was throwing up into a basin every ten minutes. The girls who were still there, lay miserable and queasy on their bunks. We washed up, and got into our sleeping bags, while a doctor and the ambulance attendants bustled in and out. Everyone in the school party – which was everyone in the hostel but us Americans and Guy from Canada – had gotten suddenly and violently sick during the evening.
“Food poisoning,” explained the girl on the bunk next to mine. “They think it was the bean salad. We threw away the chicken, but we thought the salad was all right.”
And that was my memorable, Bicentennial 4th of July; believe me, I’ve been trying to forget about the food poisoning part for more than twenty-five years now.