It was late-morning on the 4th of July, 1958. The fast-moving river flowing toward the sea 500 miles to the west cut through black basalt and grass covered canyons. The heat radiating from the rock walls did little to decrease the anticipation of the three boys in the backseat of the Willys Jeepster. No towns (other than a berg across the way and just outside of town) punctuated the narrow gravel road on the 20 mile drive upriver from our home in Lewiston, Idaho. The three brothers in the Jeepster were my brothers and me. Gordon, two years older and the self-proclaimed “boss” of the kid-klan; little brother David, a spunky, head-strong and irrepressible eight- year old, and nine-year old me. We talked, and bickered and poked each other on this road less travelled, on the way to a day on the beach. There would be sodas for the kids, beer for the adults, firecrackers, and bottle rockets, and swimming in the rapid waters of the river. There might also be the possibility of hooking a giant catfish with a rod & line anchored into the sand for the afternoon, or the prospect of an inner tube race to the next rocky outcropping. And of course there would be a picnic with sandwiches, hot dogs on a grill, potato & macaroni salads, chips, cookies, and more.
Picnicking on the 4th of the July on the white sand beaches of the Snake River with family and friends was a tradition for our family. That sand was so fine it reminded you of an ocean beach, and so hot from the summer sun that it hurt your feet to walk on it. Those summer days were always dry and hot, with temperatures reaching well into the 100’s. The heat, concentrated by the black basalt rock and narrow canyon walls compounded and reflected into the bottom of the chasm, creating an unrelenting oven. It baked the bushes, small trees, and the grasses that grew in the wet, spring months. In fact, the heat turned the vegetation into an explosive fuel that was tinder to an errant match, a cigarette thrown carelessly, or a firecracker or bottle rocket aimed in the wrong direction by children too young to know any better.
This deep river canyon country is isolated with no residential areas, no weekend cabins, and only a few local visitors through the year. Just upstream, the stretch of river called Hells Canyon is deeper than the Grand Canyon. It is the deepest gorge in North America. The river divides the State of Washington to the West from the State of Idaho to the East. As children, we didn’t care about these geographical facts. We squirmed in the backseat in excitement as the Jeepster pulled into the shade of cottonwood trees off the beach access road. Dad hauled the beat-up red Coleman ice chest out of the back of the Jeepster. Mom took the picnic basket and we brothers loaded our arms with swimming suits, towels and blankets to carry down to the beach near the water.
Wesley and Dorothy Tollenaar, best friends of the family in those years, pulled in next driving a Jeep Wagon. They, too, unloaded their ice chests, food satchels, fishing gear, and an inflatable raft. After unloading the provisions, they let their two standard poodles out of the vehicle. These giant, playful white animals stood about 4 feet tall and were amazingly fast runners.
Because the Tollenaar’s were childless, they had become our honorary favorite “aunt” and “uncle” over the years. We had become their favorite kids.
Next to pull into the beach access road were Tom and Nancy Thomas’ family and their 3 and 4 year old children. When the Feeney’s pulled in next we were happy to see that their bratty children were staying at home today. Bob Feeney (who later spent three years in the Idaho State prison on an embezzlement charge) began unloading their ice chest stuffed full of beer and sandwiches.
The plans for the picnic were always the same. We would enjoy a day on the beach to picnic, swim, fish, and light hundreds of firecrackers. As twilight fell, the adults would supervise some aerial rockets and then we would all head back to town in time for the annual Jaycee’s fireworks display shot over the river from Beachview Park.
Most of the firecrackers we set off at the beach were standard Black Cat two inchers that come 50 or 100 to a string. It was legal to buy them in those days from the roadside stands that would magically appear a couple of weeks before the 4th, and would just as magically disappear on July 5th. To get the bigger fireworks such as cherry bombs, M-80s, and aerial rockets, my Dad took us to the neighboring Indian reservation roadside stands 18 miles out of town down Highway 95, a tradition we followed religiously a few days before the big picnic every year as well.
Armed with our vast arsenal of fireworks, the day started well. While Wes Tollenaar set up the grill, the ladies laid out the picnic blankets and food. All of us kids hid behind the cars to change into swimsuits while the rest of the men broke out the beer. Lots and lots of beer.
Let the fun begin! And it did.
Everyone hit the water first to cool off from that hot drive from town. The river was not very warm, in fact it was always downright cold. The river started its ocean-bound journey high in Yellowstone Park 800 miles away. Cold? Who cared! There was swimming to do, adults to dunk and men’s shoulders to ride. There was fishing line to throw into the river upstream away from the swimming hole. There were sodas to drink. (Always Pepsi products… Pepsi? In 1958? In backwater Northern Idaho? That’s another story for another time.)
And did I mention there was beer to drink for the adults? Lots and lots of beer.
When lunch was served it was always delicious. How could it not be? Grilled hot dogs, tuna fish and baloney & cheese sandwiches with lots of yellow mustard. A peanut butter sandwich or two always emerged from the cooler to pacify my little brother -- the whiner -- who wouldn’t eat anything but.
And, of course, beer for the adults. Lots and lots of beer.
To put the beer consumption into perspective, you need to remember that these picnics took place in post-war 1950s. The men were all World War II combat veterans, very serious people with dark stories that were never told. Perhaps alcohol helped dull the horrifying experiences that were not buried deeply enough in their memories. DUI and drunk driving were no big deal in those parts. Everyone did it, including the easily bribable county sheriff, and especially on long, hot summer holidays.
It was dry that day, the vegetation a tinder box awaiting a match, a firecracker, or a cigarette. And they all smoked cigarettes, every one of them.
The remote location was also many miles from firefighters who might come to the rescue should an unfortunate spark occur that could burn a few acres, a few thousand acres, or maybe a few hundred thousand acres. It happened every summer in this country. It was no big deal.
While the adults had another beer or two, the kids tackled the firecrackers…thousands of them. We started madly lighting them. Or we tried to. Our fun was made more difficult because somebody forgot to bring the punks (brother Gordon no doubt) and we didn’t have thousands of matches to light our treasure of firecrackers. But taught and trained in Boy Scouts in how to be exceptionally resourceful in the out-of-doors, we decided to use burning cigarettes to light the fuses. A burning cigarette, we found, was good for lighting a hundred or so firecrackers at a time. Burning cigarettes, though, needed to be thrown away when they got too short. Thrown away by kids who were not real tuned-in to tinder-dry vegetation that came right up to the back edge of the beach.
It was grand! We blew the hell out of the place. We set off single firecrackers, we set off whole strings of firecrackers. We sent bottle rockets skyward, they whizzed up 30 or 40 feet into the air before exploding to our riotous laughter.
And then it happened. Brother Gordon, cool and collected and self-proclaimed leader of us all, started putting M-80s in empty cans of beer to blow the sides out. Then he put them under the cans to see how high they would go when the giant crackers exploded. And it was high! Maybe 10 feet or even more. What fun.
Then he tried grounding a bottle rocket into an empty can and setting it off. When he did, that rocket flew over the beach toward the river, and exploded just before it hit the water. Oh man, this was great.
“Well”, said Tom Thomas, not the sharpest knife in the drawer that day with 10 or 12 beers in his gut, “What if you take one of these really really big rockets… this one that is a couple of feet long and is suppose to go 200 feet high before exploding… what if you stick that guy in an empty beer can and light it off over the river? That ought to be a great spectacle.” And indeed, it was a spectacle. Oh yes indeed, it was that.
“That rocket”, Tom swore later, “Was aimed at the river! Really, it was aimed at the river!” But instead, that sucker flew straight across the beach about five feet off the ground, not TOWARD the river, but TOWARD the slope in back of the beach. The slope covered with all the dried vegetation. It went 200 feet alright, but in the wrong direction. It hit, it blew up, and the flash of the exploding burning tinder was instantaneous.
That grass fire covered an acre before you could say, “Oh crap!” Those flames were jumping 20 feet in the air before you could say, “Holy-mother-of-God-what-are-we-going-to-do-now???!!!” That fire covered five acres in the time it took a race car to make one circle at Indy, and what could be faster than that? It felt like it hit 20 acres in about 10 seconds. Man, that was a fire and it was going fast! It headed toward the steep canyon slope. We were sure that if it gained momentum there it wouldn’t stop burning for weeks or maybe months. With my mouth hanging open in astonishment I wondered why are all the women screaming at the men to do something? Do what? Call the fire department? Nope, no phones and this was 30 years before cell phones (probably no cell service there today, either). What are those dogs doing barking at the flames? Is that going to help? What about the cars over there? Oh, oh.
My Dad, the World War II buck-private-promoted-to-Army-major in three war years, took charge.
“There are four galvanized buckets in the back of the Tollenaar Jeep! You, you, you! Fill them with water from the river and head for the flames. Get to the far side if you can, stop the flames there. You, you, and you! Empty the coolers into the sand, fill them with river water, and take them up to the fire line. You, you, and you! Take the beach towels to the river, wet them well and then pound the side of the flames with them. Tom, get out of the way!” Before you could say “What-drunken-fool-caused-this-mess”, the game plan was laid out, the resources organized, the manpower deployed to the lines. The adult manpower was well intentioned but woozy, and maybe a bit ineffective. But we kids were ready to fight the fire! And the battle was engaged! Victory was at hand!
But not because of us.
It was the road that stopped the fire’s race to the hillside. That road, maybe 40-feet wide of gravel and dirt, saved our bacon that day. The fire hit the side of the road and ran out of fuel. There was nothing left to burn. It had nowhere to go but out.
We battled anyway, beating the sides of the flames into submission with the wet beach towels, turning them into a black soggy mess. The men ran back and forth with the buckets filled with river water and ineffectively splashed the diminishing flames.
Oh, we thought we were being valiant and brave fighting that fire, but it was really the road that did the work. We just knocked down the few flames on either side of the fire and there weren’t many there.
Twenty minutes later it was all over. About 20 acres along the East side of the road were blackened and a bit of smoke still hung here and there in the late afternoon sunshine.
We all looked at each others soot darkened faces. The adults were suddenly more sober and all of us were exhausted. Even the dogs were no longer barking madly, but lay collapsed and panting. Nobody admitted how scared they had been.
It was a quiet ride back to town that afternoon, the hot air blowing over the open Jeepster cabin, the adults very quiet now, the kids even more so. The beer no longer flowed, and the stomachs of children growled a bit in hunger.
We made a quick stop at the Jade Lantern for Chinese take-out on the way into town, then home for baths and clean clothes before the evening fireworks.
But the spark, the normal excitement of a grand and glorious 4th of July Jaycee’s fireworks show after dark, was missing.
We thought all the excitement on the 4th of July on the Snake River was over. Little did we know that the next year would be the last 4th of July picnic on the Snake River beaches and that everyone, including us kids, would learn hard lessons about driving after a long, hot day on the sand and water with beer, lots and lots of beer.
Happy 4th of July from the Matlocks!
Mr. Jenny with his 1948 Jeepster identical to that in the story.