Tuesday, July 4, 2006

My Favorite Memories of the Bicentennial: Jack Daniels, a Camping Trip and Getting Arrested

I started to blog today about my insanely neurotic trip to Wal-Mart yesterday...don't even ask about the bag of fish that a boy dropped on my feet while waiting 30 minutes to be waited on in the speedy check-out line. No, this story will top that one for sure.

It was the summer of '76. Bicentennial. America was celebrating it's 200th birthday and my husband and I were far, far away from home in a little town called Rantoul, Illinois. He had just joined the Air Force and was stationed at Chanute AFB for tech school. And I went along for the ride.

Unlike many of the other recruits who stayed in housing on the base, we found a little teeny-tiny 3 room house (oh yeah, 4 counting the bathroom smaller than your smallest closet) within walking distance from the base.

Because we were the very few that lived off-base, our house became THE PARTY HOUSE.

Every single night of life, there were get-togethers. Before long, word spread about our party house and it wasn't unusual to have so many people there that some of them had to stand outside (much to the hatred of our neighbors).

We had been there maybe a month when the fourth started rolling around and we knew we wanted to do something really unique but couldn't think of what to do. After all, this wasn't exactly New York or California or even Timbuctoo. Think corn fields and lots of them.

The fourth arrived and we were all sitting in our party house and one of our new quite-imbibed friends suggested camping. Everyone started getting really psyched into this, until we discovered we had no camping gear whatsoever.

Of course, we didn't let a little thing like having no sleeping bags keep up from having a good time, so we all put our heads together and came up with enough camping supplies to last us through the night. Blankets, Jack Daniels and the clothes on our backs.

Another one of our friends grabbed the phone book and made calls to different places to camp, but none suited us. Too far, too booked up. And, time was running out - about five hours until sundown.

Then, someone suggested Kickapoo Park.

I had never been and neither had any of the others, but it was the best idea all night, so we threw all our stuff into the car and piled in. There was actually a three-car convoy going to Kickapoo Park on the biggest fireworks night in history - the Bicentenial. We were psyched.

We rode past the rows and rows and rows and rows of cornfields until we finally found it. It was beautiful. It was perfect. It was PARTY TIME.

Kickapoo Park was paradise, considering the only trees we'd seen were the two apple trees in front of the Party House. It was the perfect place to make our statement. After all, this was the early seventies and while the rest of the world had made their statements in the sixties, we decided it was better late than never. We were going to celebrate in high style.

We drove through the park and found the perfect spot to pitch our sleeping bags (oops, blankets) and proceeded to build a nice big bonfire in a clearing being ever-so-careful not to turn the beautiful trees into a pile of toothpicks. We were young, but not too stupid. However, we were to find in the ensuing moments just how stupid we really were.

Beer tops were being flipped freely, Jack Daniels was being passed around and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young was blaring on our portable cassette tape player. Long hair freaks were flashing peace signs as the young ladies were lolling about in their midriff tops and bell-bottom jeans. You get the picture: the biggest party of the century and WE WERE THERE.

We were feeling mighty good when we saw in the distance a caravan of park rangers heading our way. We stashed the beer and waited to see what they wanted. One of them got out of his truck and walked over to us.

“Excuse me…” he said in his most authoritative voice, “what in the hell are you all doing?”

As I was the most sober of the bunch, I told him that we were camping. Well, duh.

Somehow, I don’t think I gave the correct answer.

“Don’t you guys ever get it?” he screamed, turning a nice shade of purple, and continued to berate us for a half hour about the rules and regulations of camping in a national park. How were we to know this was against park ranger’s rules?

“Every year, you guys come down and think this is a damn campground,” he continued, yelling at the top of his lungs. “You would think you’d learn by now!”

Little did he know, this was our first time and we didn’t have a clue as to what he was talking about. The tech school that my husband attended had a turnaround of students every six weeks and no way could we be the same bunch.

I started to offer him a can of Coors Light, but figured now would not be the time.

Without uttering another word, he told us to meet him at the ranger’s station where we had to pay a fee to camp in the designated campground around millions of happy campers who looked upon us as if we’d stepped out of the movie, Jesus Christ Superstar. They hated us. We didn’t care. Even though the park rangers tried to put a damper in our spirits, it didn’t work.

At midnight, we sent out a blaring rendition of Happy Birthday to America in honor of the 200th birthday of our nation. We did get three more visits from the park rangers telling us to hold it down and a few people in the distance yelling at us to shut up, but overall, it was a very good way to celebrate the Bicentennial and something to tell the grandkids about. Well, most of it anyway.

Happy Birthday America!


  1. A great story. Great memories. Thanks!

    I was working that day in 1976 at a country music concert, and so busy that the day was over before I could think about celebrating!

  2. I don't remember what we did that day/night but we had kids by then. On one of our pre-kids 4th's we had a bon fire on the beach on Maury Island, cooked hot dogs & some-mores, drank wine and watched three different fireworks displays across the sound from where we were. We were two couples and, with the warmth from the fire and wine, we all ended up going to sleep & didn't wake up until the sun came up & it got hot the next morning. No problems and a lot of good memories.

  3. I don't remember much of the Bicentennial, I was only 9. I seriously doubt it involved anything harder than root beer.

  4. Hmmm, '76. I'm trying to remember where I was in '76! I'm sure it was a party ... wherever it was!

    Actually, I seem to remember a few times very similar to yours ... maybe, I was in ... nah.

  5. Good year for memories--on Memorial Day, May 31 through June 2 (yes, 48 hours) 1976, I was having my daughter at home in Northern California. So right about Big Birthday time, said daughter was nearly having her first month birthday. We probably set off a few fireworks, but it was a drought year in N.Cal., good for babies and wine!

    Claudia, aka kokopelliwoman


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