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July 14, 2009

Travels with Uncle Chet: Fourth of July is a time for family


OLD LYME, Conn. _ The sea and sky are streaked with lavender and orange, although the colors are dimming fast as the night darkens.

It's the Fourth of July, and we're on Hawk's Nest Beach in Old Lyme, Conn., a rim of paradise on Long Island Sound. The beach is busy and getting busier as rumors have spread from cottage to cottage about a fireworks show tonight.

Several people sit on beach chairs; others mill about, talking, drinking, socializing with new neighbors and old friends from previous summers.

The waves are small but relentless, falling as soothingly as a baby's breath. The sand is cool on bare feet and my toes dig in. A light breeze is blowing and as I breathe in the salt air, I can feel my blood pressure drop. Stress melts away because we aren't home, aren't on call, have no television or phone.

We don't know what's going on in Iraq or Afghanistan, Washington or Albany, and for a week, we don't want to know.

We're eight strong _ our four plus our daughter's best friend, Uncle Chet, Alice and Cousin Bruce _ on a vacation we wouldn't have booked if we'd foreseen the financial shenanigans of the last year. It's a good thing we have no foresight, I think, because we've finally made it to the water's edge.

``I would have thought we could see something from here,'' Uncle Chet tells Buddy, who's 8, and the two teenagers, who are dying to be off on their own.

More people are pouring out of cottages now, some with beers in hand, kids in tow, old and young, short and tall, black and white, gathering to celebrate the nation's birthday.

``Maybe they don't allow fireworks on the beach,'' says Alice.

``No way; I think something's coming soon,'' says Cousin Bruce and not 10 seconds later, just after 9 p.m., a bottle rocket shoots off right behind him.

Swearing, startled, he jumps out of his flip-flops, and Buddy squeals with delight as the rocket explodes over the water in a fusion of red and silver spangles.

``You called that right,'' I say.

``That was way too close,'' says Hon as other rockets in the same tube launch quickly, and people cheer and whistle in appreciation.

An answering fusillade comes from the raft in the swimming area, peppering the sky above us with fiery designs, then other firefights break out on the beaches.

``Look over there!'' Uncle Chet points, and our eyes follow across the water. ``You can even see them on Long Island.'' Like distant strobes, little lights wink across the Sound.

``I'm looking the other way,'' says Cousin Bruce, eying a man wheeling a cart that appears to be full of beer. ``Wonder if he's giving those away?''

``Our own fridge is only a minute away,'' I say.

``Wait a minute; that's not beer. Those are fireworks,'' says Uncle Chet, as several men divvy up the boxes and go separate ways.

Seconds later, the beach begins to erupt as if the Navy were softening it up for an amphibious assault.

``This is anarchy!'' says Uncle Chet. "I don't think anyone's in charge.''

``This is great!'' says Cousin Bruce. ``I've never been this close before.''

``This is too much; I'm going back,'' says Alice.

``What do you think, Buddy?'' I ask the little boy, who's looking up at the light show in the sky.

``Great!'' he echoes. ``Do they do this every night?''

``They'd better not,'' says Hon.

``Just once a year,'' I tell him over the din. ``It's a birthday party for the United States of America.''

``How old is it?'' the third-grader asks.

``Well, let's see: 223,'' I calculate.

``I want fireworks like this for my birthday,'' says Buddy.

``You'll get them, too, when you hit a hundred,'' I say.

``Never can tell, he just might do it,'' says Uncle Chet. ``All he needs are universal health care, a good woman and a trip to the ocean at least once a year.''

___

Cooperstown News Bureau Reporter Tom Grace is traveling with his Uncle Chet, who he says is imaginary. Grace's column appears every other week.