uly 4th, Independence Day, was always a lot of fun. It was summer. No school. There was even a grand parade along the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. I stood among the crowd watching the parade at the corner of 170th Street on the Concourse when I heard the distant sound of drums, drums I had heard before, drums that echoed the sound of those menacing drums I had heard in a cowboys and Indians film I had recently seen at the Luxor Theater. The closer the deep sound of the beating of those drums came, the more frightened I was. Then I could spot the headdresses of some Native Americans and that did it. Terrified, I ran and ran down that hill to Morris Avenue and around the corner to home.
For us kids back then, fear was something reserved for dark theaters on Saturday afternoons where "The Thing" caught you by the spine and curled it. Those were the days when kids could ride the subway alone in relative safety. I often did and took the D train into Manhattan to sit with my father at his office in the garment district when there was a day off from school. I even took the subway alone into Manhattan after school to go to a nose and throat specialist somewhere on East 90th Street to get my nose drained and sometimes had to leave school early to make my appointment in time. Kids played outside until dark and often after dark in summer and no one thought much about any real danger. You left your apartment door wide open in summer to try and relieve yourself from the blistering heat. No one really thought about strangers in the night or during the day for that matter whisking you away or worse. If anything bad happened to people, it happened in the pages of The Daily News or Daily Mirror, not on Morris Avenue between 169th and 170th Street.
One summer it all changed, and that dark underside that had always been there but seldom reported or talked about came to our neighborhood.
It was July 4th, some time in the early 50's. I was about seven years old and my friend Steven and I were able to get some firecrackers. From whom I forget; it certainly wasn't from Chinatown in Manhattan because everyone knew if you went there you could get kidnapped and sold into slavery and never be seen again. Silly, but that's the sort of prejudices you heard at the time from many adults as well as from teens. That's not to say that danger didn't lurk but it was much closer to home than anyone thought or wanted to believe.
I remember the heat that day; it was awful and Steven and I were having a great time lighting firecrackers at the edge of the alley that was between the apartment house we lived in and the private house next door. The noise drew some of the kids from across the street including Franny, a nosy, little yet bold chub of a girl who delighted in the loud bangs of exploding firecrackers. The other kids left after a while as Steven and I continued our noisy escapades. Suddenly I felt a harsh tug on my arm and when I looked around on this very hot summer day, a man in a black raincoat had me by the arm and had Steven by the arm as well.
"Do you know it's illegal to light firecrackers?" he demanded.
Steven didn't say anything, and I just murmured " "No."
"Come with me," the man said. "You're under arrest."
He then tightened his grip on both of us and began walking us out of the alley onto Morris Avenue heading toward 169th Street. He didn't have a uniform on, and there was no police car in sight. But he had us.
I was crying and couldn't stop. About halfway down the block, I heard running and my sister, who was eight years older than me, showed up, grabbed the guy by the arm to stop him and said, "What's going on here and where are you taking these kids?"
The man just stood there, still holding us, and with a face made even more sinister with deadpan eyes said, "They're under arrest" and he started walking us away again.
My sister got in front of him and demanded to see his badge. He briefly flashed one from inside his wallet and then started taking us away again.
My sister stopped him again and challenged, "You showed that too fast. Let me see it again."
The man paused, face to face with my sister. "I want to see that badge again," she demanded.
It was just at that moment of hesitation when he no longer had us by the arms that my sister told us to "RUN!" And run we all did, right back to our building and inside to our apartments.
How did my sister find out what had happened to us? That little busybody Franny had seen it all from across the street and ran to my apartment to tell about the man in the raincoat who was taking us away.
It wasn't until I was much older that I realized what had probably been going on during that hot July 4th day. We never learned who that man really was, what his intentions were, or where he was taking us, but it was obvious in retrospect that he certainly wasn't a policeman. My sister never spoke to me about it and I don't think she ever told my parents because they never discussed it either, at least not with me. We never saw the man with the badge again.
So when I hear someone wax nostalgic about those good old days, while so much of it is true, there were days that weren't so good. Steven and I were just lucky that July 4th was a day to celebrate after all.