“If you’re not in the parade, you watch the parade. That’s life.” —Mike Ditka

On the front end of summer, the solemn observation of Memorial Day provides a chance for reflection at war memorials and cemeteries for those who gave their last full measure of life for our freedom.

On the back end of summer, the extended three-day Labor Day weekend is a barbecue-infused last hurrah for the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer as the waning year slides inexorably toward fall and the grim realities of the long, cold winter ahead.

And in between the two summer bookend holidays lies the quintessentially American party holiday — the Fourth of July. Independence Day.

A larger than life celebration as the “Home Improvement” Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor “more power” turbo-charged holiday,  the Fourth of July checks all the popular American party hearty boxes. 

Fireworks? Check. Parades? Check. Barbecues? Check. Carnivals and fairs? Check and check. Concerts? Check. Picnics??Check. Family reunions? Check.

As long as I can remember, the Fourth of July has always been my favorite summer holiday, still stirring up a host of warm, nostalgic memories — and making new ones year by year.

More than two score years back as a kid, I eagerly awaited the arrival of another sunny and steamy Independence Day holiday.

My folks and I would load up our ’68 Dodge Charger R/T with lawn chairs, picnic blankets, boxes of sparklers and iced coolers chocked full of stubby bottles of day-glo Black Bear Soda, heading north from Milwaukee to historic and scenic Cedarburg for Grandma and Grandpa Johnson’s day-long family celebration at Cedar Creek Park on Portland Road, just east of downtown.

Among the highlights of the day was the Fourth of July parade through the Washington Avenue heart of picturesque downtown Cedarburg. 

The early-awaited main attraction, at least in the Johnson household, was seeing my Uncle Ronnie, a veteran 25-year volunteer firefighter/EMT with the Cedarburg Fire Department, kicking off the parade with his CFD “brothers” as they drove CFD’s impressive fleet of spit-shined, light-flashing, siren-squealing apparatus.

Following the parade, blankets were spread out and web lawn chairs unfolded at picturesque Cedar Creek Park, where a procession of polka bands played in the park bandshell until dusk and my grandparents would serve up a bountiful day-long picnic, replete with flowing rivers of soda and beer, potato chips, snappy natural casing wieners from CFD firefighter Dave Hoffman’s downtown Cedarburg meat market, and Grandma Johnson’s signature secret recipe German potato salad.

While my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles would chat, laugh heartily and play untold rounds of poker, euchre and sheepshead — “schafkopf” when the ancestral German tongue would occasionally slip out – my cousins and I would while away the hours with kids games, juvenile hijinks and intrepidly exploring the thin slice of urban wilderness along Cedar Creek.

The entire Johnson clan, young and old, would take a break in the action to cheer on Uncle Ronnie and his CFD brothers at the water fights against neighboring Ozaukee County fire departments, the hometown CFD crew blasting their hose stream at a silvery beer keg suspended on a line between two poles, battling to slide the keg sufficiently into enemy territory to score the win, bragging rights and the championship trophy.

After dinner as the skies darkened and the last strains of Bavarian oom-pah music began to drift over the park, Uncle Ronnie would bid us farewell and head off to pull fire suppression standby duty at the fireworks launch site behind the bandshell.


Like many families, it was the Depression/World War II generation that served as the glue binding the family ties and preserving the old family traditions. 

Once my grandparents passed away, the Fourth of July family picnic tradition sadly passed with them, as did Grandma Johnson’s German potato salad recipe, which she doggedly took to her grave.

But as much as things may change over the years and generations, some of the old things, as it turns out, still endure. 

As  Bard of Stratford-on-Avon William Shakespeare once sagely penned, “...Thou’st spoken right. ‘Tis true. The wheel is come full circle...”

Following in Uncle Ronnie’s footsteps for the past thirteen years as a second generation Johnson to serve in Wisconsin’s volunteer fire service, my Fourth of July celebrations have pivoted from standing on the parade sidelines to driving fire apparatus in Boulder Junction’s Star-Spangled Jubilee Parade and pulling dusk fire suppression standby at the airport for the town’s dusk fireworks show, making new memories for myself, my family, my community and its many summer visitors.

As for Grandma Johnson’s German potato salad recipe, I finally perfected a copycat recipe after years of trial and error.

The wheel, indeed, has come full circle.