by Dorothy Wilhelm
We sat on the cellar door and waited for the root beer to stop exploding,
Every year, my mother brewed root beer for Independence Day and every year it exploded. Traditions are very important.
The one room General Store in our tiny town of Warland, Montana (pop.100) didn’t carry root beer. The small, dark sales area offered such necessities as a pickle barrel and Campbells Soup, and Jello. There was canned corned beef or ham but If you wanted fresh meat, someone in your family needed to be a good shot. There were Lucky Strike cigarettes and roll your own. There was Mail Pouch tobacco for the non smoker. The woman unsure of her future could buy Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound. “A baby in every bottle,” was the promise. Definitely no toilet paper. What do you think the pages of the Sears Roebuck catalog were for?
And of course, there was Coca Cola. By this year of 1938 Coca Cola was available in Australia, Austria, Norway and South Africa – and Warland. Never mind. We wanted root beer.
So every year, my mother worked over the wood stove in hot July with no electricity and no refrigeration to carefully concoct her special root beer brew. Finally she poured the golden liquid into bottles, following these instructions:
Keep bottles at room temperature for 36 hours, then open a bottle slowly and carefully to see if it is carbonated enough. If it is, then go on to step 4. If not, reseal the bottle and let rest for another 12 to 24 hours until desired carbonation is reached.
It smelled heavenly but it exploded.
by Dorothy WilhelmAfter the bottles were through exploding and the broken glass was cleaned up, we’d finish our traditional 4th with festivities at the one room school house. Ada Mae Noble who was the entire 7th grade for five years recited something from memory like The Ballad of Barbara Freitchie by John Grenleaf Whittier. It didn’t take long, because she didn’t remember much. “Shoot If You Must This Old Gray Head, but spare your country’s flag,’ she said.” Something cheerful like that.
One year firecrackers set the school on fire. Joel Ryburn, who taught all eight grades, csame from the well with buckets of water, “his heels higher than his head” admirers described, as he ran back and forth to put the fire out. The poor young teacher was rewarded for this heroic effort by being inside the school’s privy when the boys turned it over. I doubt Mr. Ryburn ever really enjoyed the 4th of July.
Of course, there had to be ice cream. Usually, ice cream making was confined to winter when icicles from the roof could be used. But for the 4th of July, ice had to be carried somehow from the ice house miles away.
Rebecca Morgan, Psychological Safety Expert, recalls that she was the Designated Sitter for ice cream making in her community. That was the small child, little enough not to impede the crank, who sat upon the freezer after the ice cream started to freeze hard to keep it from jumping around while the handle was turned. “I had a very cold butt,” she reflected thoughtfully.
My own family moved to Spokane in 1940. All the stores had root beer. Our new tradition was to carry blankets to sit upon and walk five miles to the hill above Natatorium Park for a wonderful fireworks display. Unbelievably better than upending privies or exploding bottles
We learned to get by without most of our treasured traditions this 4th of July, 2020. Humorist Patt Schwab reports that she asked a little boy if he minded wearing a mask. “I love it,” he said, “I can stick my tongue out at everyone, and My Mom can’t see.”
We’re all experimenting with new ways of doing old things. I’ve learned you can make a pretty good sherbet by freezing a can of fruit and then whirring it up in the blender. Remove from the can first.
My daughter and I watch television together at a distance. We synchronize a show on Netflix and then watch together on Zoom I have a friend who comes by almost every day to water my neglected flowers. She thinks I don’t know. But I do.
We need each other.
The Fourth of July may be past but we’re a long way from Independence Day.
As Printed in The News Tribune and The Olympian Jul 3, 2020