Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

July 4, 2012

From Anawalt to the old Hills Department Store, fireworks through the years

Growing up in the small town of Anawalt, we didn’t have a lot of fireworks during the Fourth of July.

The sleepy O’toole community consisted largely of an elderly population at the time, including a large number of Hungarians. They didn’t purchase, or launch, fireworks on the Fourth of July, and that was OK.

We were not rich —  not by any stretch of the imagination, but we also never went without. It’s just that we didn’t really bother with buying fireworks for the Fourth of July. Sparklers, the small ones you could hold in your hands, were normally as exciting as it would get.

It was the 1970s, and my entire Hungarian family was alive and well. Times were tough, but we were happy. Most of my family lived nearby. All of my uncles, aunts and cousins lived just a short distance, or a house or two, from each other. Uncle Raymond lived in the house on top of the small hill. Cousin Frank lived in the house just above ours. Aunt Helen lived right across the road from us along with Uncle James, who lived in Grandmother’s house.

As is still the case today, there were no large stores or restaurants in the small town at the time. If you wanted to see a movie, eat at a steakhouse or visit a large department store, you had to drive to Welch, and more often than not the big city of Bluefield.

But on the Fourth of July, there was only one real destination for my family each year. We would fit as many people as possible into Mom’s car, and head up U.S. Route 52 to the big Hill’s Department Store in Bluefield. There was an old slogan that went to the extent, “Hills is where the toys are.” But it was also where you had to go to see fireworks on the Fourth of July. And those fireworks would never disappoint.

It was a beloved tradition, and something my family did for many years. Yes, the drive to Bluefield in the late evening was always long. U.S Route 52 was as big of a headache back then as it still is today. Some things I guess simply do not change with time. But Mom didn’t mind the long drive to Bluefield, and the seemingly longer drive back home late at night after the big fireworks show had ended.

The fireworks were worth it. We were a family. We were together. And Mom always did everything in her power to make her two children happy. And nothing makes children happier than seeing fireworks on the Fourth of July.

The Hill’s Department Store parking  lot was also a community gathering spot on the Fourth of July. You would see many of your neighbors, friends and other familiar faces waiting patiently outside of their vehicles for the big show. I would not have known her at the time, but odds are I probably saw a young Samantha Perry in the crowd with her family as well, simply not realizing at the time that she would be someone who I would later work with in life at the newspaper. It was kind of funny how everyone came together in a single location back then for fireworks on the Fourth of July.

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The beloved Hill’s Department store is long gone. But we will still have fireworks tonight — both in Bluefield and Princeton. The  Princeton-Mercer County Chamber of Commerce has an all-day Fourth of July celebration planned at Hunnicutt Stadium that will conclude with a grand fireworks display. In Bluefield, the Blue Jays are back home tonight playing Danville, and the big game will conclude with — well, you guessed it — a grand fireworks display. It’s good to know that folks in both Bluefield and Princeton will have fireworks tonight.

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I may or may not make it to a fireworks show tonight, but I won’t really be celebrating the holiday very much either way. That’s because the Fourth of July has taken on a somewhat somber note for my family.

A year ago today, Mom’s health had taken a dramatic turn for the worse. I didn’t expect her to make it through the Fourth of July, but she did. And she lived for another seven days. I remember everything still very vividly. It was terribly hot during the week — just like it has been over the past couple of days.

Losing a parent is a very, very difficult experience. Dad passed away when I was still in high school. He died of a massive heart attack while shoveling snow outside during one of those big storms. At about the same time, I lost two uncles, and an uncle-in-law. It was a tough experience — especially for a teen who was still in high school at the time.

Mom, as always, stepped up and did everything in her power to care for her children. But things a year ago today were still tough. There were fireworks in the community last year, but no one went outside to watch them. They were more of a nuisance at the time than anything else.

I will learn — with time — to properly celebrate the Fourth of July again. But this year will be low key.

Charles Owens is the Daily Telegraph’s assistant managing editor. Contact him at cowens@bdtonline.com.

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