July 4 has always been one of my favorite holidays. Spending most of the first 20 years of my life in Trenton, New Jersey, one grows up surrounded by the birth of the United States as a nation; Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell were just a short drive away in Philadelphia, the site where Washington famously crossed the Delaware just 5 minutes away.
But my fondest memory of Independence Day took place 6 hours up the Pennsylvania Turnpike, in a suburb of Pittsburgh known as Allison Park.
In 1972, a little after my 7th birthday, my Father lost his job at RCA, where he had worked for many years. After months of searching, he finally landed a new job with a chemical company located just outside of Pittsburgh. And in November 1972, we packed up the house and moved to Allison Park.
The neighborhood, especially for a kid, was amazing. We lived at the bottom of a large cul-de-sac; another large cul-de-sac was at the other end of the street. The road leading into the neighborhood ended at a vacant lot full of dirt mounds, the perfect playground for games of war, or digging up snakes or creepy crawlies under the rocks. Adjacent to the neighborhood was a field with a large hill that was perfect for sledding in the winter. On my cul-de-sac, our next door neighbor had painted bases, and impromptu baseball games were a common occurrence in summer. It was a great place to be a kid.
But what realy set the neighborhood apart were the neighbors. Never before or since have I lived in a neighborhood where the neighbors did so many things together. They bowled together in bowling leagues. They held occasional dinners where each course was held at a different house. And none of today's fancy Christmas light displays hold a candle to the simplicity of every neighbor in Allison Park putting luminarias along their curb on Christmas Eve. But July 4 was special, because that was the day of the annual neighborhood block party.
Every July 4, the neighborhood gathered at the field next door (atop the great sledding hill) for a full day of food, fun and games. The adult men would play game after game of softball, at least until Mr. Westrick inevitably hit the ball across Babcock Boulevard. A numbered grid was set up, and you could purchase one of the numbered squares. In the early afternoon, parachutists would jump into the party, and whoever had the square the man landed on would win the money. The kids played tag or climbed trees or did whatever. It was just a great day. And July 4, 1976 was the most special day of all.
Living behind us was a wonderful retired gentleman named Al Gressler and his wife. I never knew what Al had done for a living, but I knew that he had a soft spot in his heart for us kids. I, for one, spent many summer afternoons at Mr. Gressler's house. He had two things in there that were fascinating to me - a short wave radio and a darkroom. Looking back, it's funny to think that my 10 year old son can use a computer to instantaneously talk to someone on the other side of the world without the need for call letters and a fine tuner to reduce the static, and he has no real concept of what a darkroom is in this age of Photoshop. But for a 10 year old boy in 1976, those things were magical.
July 4, 1976 was a special day - it was the Bicentennial. This special day called for more than just a neighborhood block party - it required a celebration. Al Gressler had the vision for this celebration; bringing the neighborhood kids together to produce a neighborhood variety show.
The Heatherton Heights Musical Mob was born.
Here we are posing for our "cast" photo* - that's me in the front with the Liberty Bell shirt on doing the Fonz...Aaay!
*Yes, this photo was developed in Mr. Gressler's dark room...
We modeled our show after the " Donny and Marie " variety show popular back then, except we had "Donny and Leigh." All of us kids either performed or worked behind the scenes at the show, any we spent many hours rehearsing. The Nelson's driveway was the perfect stage, with the small hill in their backyard the perfect amphitheater.
On July 4, 1976, the festivities began early. Each house on my side of the neighborhood had a banner representing one of the original 13 colonies (naturally we had New Jersey). The kids all decorated their bikes patriotically, and the best won prizes. Then my next door neighbor, Jamie, appeared on a horse as Paul Revere, and us kids, dressed in our tricorn hats and with our toy muskets, reenacted the first battles of the Revolution. Finally, the Declaration of Independence was read. Time to celebrate!
We gathered in the field, just like every July 4, and had a wonderfully good time. The beer was flowing for the adults, and soda and juice for the kids. Hamburgers and hot dogs and chips and salad were consumed in mass quantities. Mr. Westrick hit yet another softball across Babcock Boulevard. The parachutist missed the square my parents bought, but no matter. It was the 200th birthday of America!!!
And then, as the daylight began to fade, the Heatherton Heights Musical Mob took the stage.
35 years later, I still have many memories from the show. I remember Barb Cox breaking down while singing a beautiful anniversary song to her parents, and her little brother Greg, no older than my Julia at the time, being too shy to sing his song about his tricorn hat. I remember Donnie and Leigh being "a little bit country, and a little bit rock and roll." And I remember that I was to hide behind the crowd and walk through them to the stage singing Home on the Range, but my dog snuffed me out.
Most of all, I remember what a wonderful time we had at the show, and over the course of the whole day. It was the best possible way a little neighborhood in Allison Park PA could celebrate the Bicentennial of America, thanks in no small part to a man named Al Gressler.
What made it special too, though I didn't know it at the time, was that it was the last July 4 block party for my family. In September 1976, my sister would marry that boy next door who posed as Paul Revere, and Jamie became my brother in law. Shortly thereafter, my Father, sensing we had fulfilled our purpose for moving to Pittsburgh, took a new job in a small town near Philadelphia. And we moved back to New Jersey, settling in a neighborhood just a couple of miles from where we had lived before. It was a lovely house, with great neighbors, and a creek running through the backyard where I wiled away many a summer day. I had great friends who would play pickup games of basketball no matter what time of year, or football on the lawn of the church nearby. It was good to be back in Jersey; good to be home.
But Allison Park was good too. 35 years later, thanks to the magic of the internet and Facebook, I reconnected with two of my best friends from the Heatherton Heights Musical Mob. And thanks to the miracle of digitalization, I was able to share our group picture, one I don't think either of them had seen in, well, about 35 years. One developed in a dark room in the house of the kindly man with the short wave radio that fascinated me all those years ago.