Destinations & Diversions: Independence Day sparks treasured family memories

J. H. Osborne • Jun 30, 2017 at 11:07 PM

Independence Day has always been a red-white-and-blue-letter day for my family.

My father, John H. Osborne Jr., and his mother, Maude Ward Osborne, each loved parades and fireworks and rarely missed a chance to see either. Picnicking or cooking out also ranks high on our list of favorite family activities. And from an early age my siblings and I were taught a deep appreciation for our nation and its history. So, no wonder the Fourth of July holds a special place in our hearts.

“The Fourth of July has given us many good times and wonderful memories,” my mother, Wanda, said last week, as she began to rattle off more reminisces than I could recount here even if they gave me a whole section.

As a family, our activities evolved over the years. The highlights of the day changed, somewhat, as time passed. But one thing remained consistent: going to “the” parade.

What is now (rightfully) titled “The Kingsport Mack Riddle American Legion Independence Day Parade” was always the centerpiece of the day, from the time I “came along” and joined my older sister and brother, until my father’s health began to decline about a decade ago. Even then he looked forward to watching the parade on television, usually taping it, too, on his VCR (remember those?).

In the 1960s, vehicles were allowed to park along the parade’s route. My father would rise early, we three kids would be up and almost as excited as if it were Christmas, and he’d load our bicycles in the bed of his 1949 Ford pickup. While we were driving over to find a good parking spot along the parade route, Mom would be up making a giant breakfast. After parking the truck in a prime viewing spot, and perhaps unfolding some lawn chairs alongside it, the four of us would ride our bikes home and we’d all sit down and eat.

Then we’d walk back to the truck, probably be joined by aunts, uncles and cousins, and the kids would climb up into the truck bed — our very own reviewing stand. Among our favorite parade participants were the belly-dancing Shriner and the jalopy that popped wheelies. When the horses finally passed, signaling the end of the parade, we’d ride home in the truck and Dad would grill up burgers. We’d likely have a nice ice-cold watermelon, maybe from the Roadside Market on West Center Street, where I’d go with Dad and a clerk into the walk-in cooler to pick one out — after they’d “plug” the melon so Dad could judge its ripeness. Sometimes rather than a cookout at home, we’d have a family get-together on Duck Island at the lake. If you have to ask which lake, you’re not from around here.

No matter where we ate, we were always joined by family and friends. One of Mom’s particular memories from such a gathering was July 4, 1965. Several of her family joined us for a post-parade cookout at home, including her father (Null Wallen) and stepmother (Mary Tankersly Hurd Wallen). I would have been less than 3 years old, but I can’t help imagine Mary brought one of her famous stack cakes.

“There was a good-sized crowd. I can’t remember who all was there,” Mom said. “But it was the first time we all got to meet Phyllis. I’m pretty sure it was the Fourth, the first time Waymond brought Phyllis to meet us.”

That would be Waymond Manis, Mom’s nephew by her sister Ann, and his then soon-to-be bride Phyllis Hunt. She’s been Phyllis Manis since shortly thereafter and has been so close to my family that over the years friends routinely mistake her for my blood-cousin and Waymond for my cousin-in-law. Phyllis and Mom began celebrating the Fourth early this year with a night out together at the Lamplight Theater.

Back in the old days, the other big July Fourth event was “the carnival.” As we recall, the Fourth was always its last day — the day they gave away the car. A local dealership (Latimer-Looney?) donated a car each year for a fundraising effort. All the tickets were in one of those mesh cylinders that they would spin and spin before picking a child from among the onlookers to stick a hand in and draw out the winning ticket. We never won the car. But each of my siblings — as well as our cousin Judy Manis Baker (Waymond’s sister) — had the honor of being the child plucked from the crowd to draw the name. My sister, Pamela Osborne Fagans, remembers the thrill of being picked to draw the winning ticket and the bigger thrill that came a couple of days later.

“A big, shiny new car pulled up in front of the house,” Pam told me last week. “And a man and woman got out and came to the door. They’d won the car. And they handed me a $20 bill. To a child back then, that was like a million dollars.”

A year or so later, my brother, Keith, was chosen to pick the winning ticket. But he only got that one thrill. There was no follow-up visit from the winner. Pam says she can remember him sort of hanging around the front yard looking hopeful for a few days afterward.

Mom has her own childhood memories of the carnival. Growing up in rural Lee County, Va., she recalls, “Are you going to ‘The Fourth’?” being a common question among her friends, family and neighbors. It meant were you going to Kingsport. Perhaps for the parade, but certainly for the carnival.

“I loved riding the Ferris wheel,” Mom told me, much to my surprise. “But you couldn’t tie me up and make me ride one now.”

My siblings, cousins and friends all liked going to the carnival for the rides. I liked to gamble. My sister laughed when I told her that. But she knew what I meant. I spend most of my time — and all of my dimes — playing the games of chance that might garner me a stuffed animal, or better yet, a real live goldfish in a bowl of colored water.

By the 1970s, after watching the parade, our picnic destination became Eastman Cabins. My cousins who worked at Eastman would coordinate and plan far in advance to secure us the much-coveted shelter No. 8 — a large, open pavilion on the left as you enter the property — for the whole day. It overlooks the creek, right where it’s dammed. That pool of water provided the distraction for us young ones as the meal was prepared and tables were readied. The ultimate finale was “homemade” ice cream, made right there in an electric ice cream freezer. These became large gatherings of my maternal relatives.

By the mid- to late1980s, we’d all scattered. Picnics returned largely to our house or my paternal grandmother’s house — on five wooded lots at the end of a cul-de-sac — which had an expansive, well-shaded patio.

The carnival wasn’t what it used to be. I don’t remember when they stopped raffling off a car.

But the parade still drew us, especially my Dad and his mother. She lived until 1997. She was almost 95. She went to the parade until a very few years before she died. I’d drive her and Dad to the corner of Lamont and Center and unload them and their chairs, then go park the car somewhere. Eventually, though, she chose to watch it on TV.

I’ve been to the parade in recent years, but mainly as a reporter. It just isn’t the same without Dad, who died in 2013. My last vivid memory of a family outing to the parade is from a full 10 years prior to then — 2003. It was a beautiful, clear, not-to-hot Fourth of July. Pam and her husband, Larry, drove up from Knoxville. I had a friend visiting from Delray Beach, Fla. We found a good spot and watched the whole parade. And then made our way home and fired up the grill.

Happy Independence Day! Go to the parade. Visit with family and friends. Eat well. Play in the water. Watch a fireworks show. In other words, have a good time and make wonderful memories.