Timothy Donahue Celebrates the Fourth of July in Elmira, NY

One year, my wife and I spent the Fourth of July in Ireland. For some reason, I got it in my head that someone was going to ask one of the Americans in the pub (because don't you know we would be in a pub that evening) to tell a story about the Fourth of July in "Amer-i-kay." They didn't, of course, as they know the sad state of storytelling in America, but if they had, I would have told this story about my great-grandfather and the fourth of July.

Kathleen Donahue, my great grandmother, was fond of telling people that she was a saint. 'It comes from living with the likes of himself,' she would say, referring to my great grandfather Timothy. 'He's driving me right into the arms of Jesus himself.' When told of this, Timothy would reply, although never within earshot of Kathleen, 'Ah, she's not only saintly, she'll be the making of a number of saints, too.'

They were both right. Those in the Rosary Guild at St. Patrick's Church knew Kathleen as having a tongue sharp as an infidel's sword when it came to Timothy. Some said Timothy offended Kathleen just by breathing deeply of God's sweet morning air, but others knew the things Timothy did to set Kathleen off.

Timothy was quite fond of Monsignor John Augustine O'Neill, the pastor of St. Patrick's, whom Kathleen disliked due to his insatiable need for baked goods to be raffled off for the Church building fund. But there was a more personal reason. There was a fine tradition in the Irish American community to name a son for the pastor. Kathleen wanted to name her sons after relatives and other sensible people, not a charlatan in a cassock. Timothy had every intention of honoring the tradition and his friend the pastor.

When their first son was born, Kathleen, spent in childbirth, was powerless to protest. Timothy put on his hat, went to the registrar's office and put the name "John Augustine Donahue" on the birth certificate. Kathleen perhaps could have lived with this, but Tim did the same for his second son, the third, the fourth, and fifth. To avoid confusion, Tim changed the spelling of Donahue on the birth certificates-first DONAHUE, followed by DONAGHUE, DONAHOE, DONOHOE, and finally DONAHEW.

Kathleen reconciled herself to her sons' names by calling them by the names she would have put on the birth certificates, and never by their Christian name. In time, Tim began to use the names too, and peace reigned in the Donahue household.

Until the Fourth of July. Timothy was as proud of his adopted country as if he had been born here and fought in the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791. He celebrated the Fourth as if it had been John Augustine's (the pastor's) birthday he was celebrating, and made elaborate preparations for the event. Mostly, these involved putting a keg of whiskey in the cellar around June 20. All the sons left the whiskey alone, because they knew they would come to grievous harm if they so much as raised the lid and sniffed it. Not from Timothy, although he was not adverse to making sure his sons John walked the straight and narrow, but from the whiskey itself. It was an elixir of dubious origin.

On the glorious Fourth, Tim would rise, get dressed in a white suit, white shirt, and a black bow tie, affix a small American flag pin to his lapel, and go downtown to meet his friends for the parade. They were all dressed in white suits, white shirts, and black ties, with American flags in their lapels.

Now, watching a parade under a hard July sun is hard, thirsty work, so the group traditionally retired to Keegan's for a little fortification before–and sometimes during–the big event. When the parade approached, the men stood in front of Keegan's and cheered the bands, the flag, the politicians, even the town's new fire wagon driven by Mike Casey, the biggest leprechaun in Elmira, NY, as he said of himself. Mike was always torn between being with his friends and professional duty. Duty won, as the year Mike was a spectator, the team of six Belgians bolted on James White, the substitute driver, and nearly obliterated the Masonic Temple float. So Mike was back on the fire wagon.

When the parade was over, Casey changed into suitable attire and joined the group after , back to Timothy's cellar the men went. They marched across the porch in single file, as quiet as the guest of honor at a funeral, through the living room, the kitchen, and down the stairs to the cellar. Tim closed the door, and there was not a sound to be heard from the basement, as quiet as a Scotsman offering to stand a round.

Around three o'clock, the door from the basement would open, and two men would carry the first casualty of the day through the kitchen, the living room, across the porch, and lay him gently on the front lawn. Then, in a fairly rapid progression, another and another and another would be brought upstairs to serve as a white-suited lawn ornament. Some years, passerby would comment that it seemed an awfully odd time for snow, there was so much white in front of the Donahue household.

Later in the afternoon, the children of the family men would come and load their old man into a wheelbarrow and trundle him home. The veteran bachelors often hired a neighbor kid to take them away in wheelbarrows, too, while the less prudent were left to deal with the lampposts, trees, and broken sidewalks they encountered trying to get back home. Some negotiated with enterprising kids who showed up with wheelbarrows. Invariably they struck a bad deal, but they weren't working with their best stuff.

The celebration continued until only two men were left standing. Up the stairs they would come. Tim would ceremoniously lock the door of the cellar, escort Casey to the front door (it was invariably Casey who was the other last man standing. According to local lore, a story started and perpetuated by Clancy himself, he once outdrank the entire crew of a German man o' war. Nobody had been in Hamburg to witness it, but the man could hold his drink.), where they solemnly shook hands, never exchanging a word between them. Off Casey would go, and Tim would turn and go back into the house.

The Fourth of July was over for another year.

Many neighbors remarked on the silence of the men in the cellar, but more remarked on the miraculous silence of Kathleen Donahue about the whole affair. 'Ah, she's a sainted woman, she is,' they would say. 'After all these years, and she not prying at all. A saint, she is, not to pry into a man's business that way.'

Uncle Burt


Uncle Burt was at any family gathering he was invited to. We kids used to avoid Uncle Burt ‘cuz Mom looked down on him. He was the black sheep of the family ‘cuz he ran a bar on the east side of town, although he called it a lounge or sometimes a tavern. Mom said it didn’t matter what he called it, it was evil. We never understood that, ‘cuz Dad drank, a Manhattan every night before dinner and beer on summer weekends in the backyard, when Bud and Bernie used to come over to play pinochle. Mom didn’t complain about that at all, in fact she made California Dip and other snacks for them.

We’d go over to Uncle Burt’s once in a very great while. He lived in an apartment, the only relative who did, which we kids thought was exotic. He lived on the second floor and we’d go up the stairs quietly and past the doors of other apartments to get to Uncle Burt’s. He lived in number 206. When the door opened, Uncle Burt’s little black cocker spaniel would bark at us and wouldn’t stop until the door was closed. The dog would ignore us for the rest of our visit. If we went over to pet him, he would scurry under a large piece of furniture. That was OK. I didn’t want to pet him anyway.

Uncle Burt loved to tell jokes and stories, but they were always a little bit off. He’d say, I just heard a new knock-knock joke. You start. So someone would say Knock, knock. Uncle Burt would say, Who’s there? and in the momentary silence he would laugh and laugh. Another joke of his was Why did the polka-dot chicken cross the road? Because he spotted another polka-dot chicken on the other side! When nobody laughed, Uncle Burt would say, Get it? Because he spotted a polka-dot chicken on the other side. When Uncle Burt still didn’t get a laugh, he’d say, Ah, you kids just don’t know how to hear a joke.

Uncle Burt tried a longer joke only once. He started, A dog walked into a bar… Little Mike interrupted him: Was it your bar, Uncle Burt? Cousin Kevan wanted to know if the dog was running loose or came in with someone. Sister Sheila told Uncle Burt that it was unsanitary to have a dog in a bar, unless it was a service animal. I’m pretty sure Uncle Burt knew that already. Besides, if his place was as bad as Mom said, no self-respecting dog would go near it. That was the first time I heard Uncle Burt say, is ‘a hundred bottles of beer on the wall’ the only drinking song you know? He said that a lot.

Mom explained once that Uncle Burt had been In the war, and the family thought he had been hurt. Mom didn’t say which war. I guess any war you’re in is the war.

That’s not why we kids thought Uncle Burt was strange and we sort of avoided him if we could. It was all the sayings. Burt had a saying for everything. Actually he had half-a-saying. A penny saved… Don’t count your chickens… Red sky at night… Don’t put all your eggs… He never finished them.

I asked him about that once. He said, You can figure out the ending yourself. I asked him what would happen if I made up an ending, like a penny saved is as good as lost. He was alright with that. If it meets your needs at the time, say it.

I started saying a penny saved is as good as lost whenever it fit the occasion. People looked at me weird, and backed away, like we kids used to do with Uncle Burt. I was going to tell him about it, but he died soon after I got out of college.

I hope his dog found a new home, or died before Burt did. I’d hate to think the dog ended up in the pound.

I also felt bad I never went to the bar. I wanted to see how evil it really was.

Kid's Day

Mike sat in the break room, staring into his coffee cup. Many people claimed they didn't like Monday. Mike hated Friday. Work had been building up since Monday, and the wife already had the list of things for him to do this weekend, which he could never finish.

On top of that, today was Show Your Kids What You Do at Work day. The noise level rose, elevator wait times doubled, he had to dodge kids charging around corners, and the rest of his team was down in the lobby at the ice-cream social.

Mike didn't have kids, but also didn't mind the concept. When he was a kid, he had enjoyed going to work with his father, calling on small grocery stores and taking orders for butter and eggs. Jack was good at what he did–he had taken a fading territory and made it #2 in per capita sales for the co-op. His dad had always introduced him, and the owners and managers used to shake Mike?s hand and say, So you?re Jack?s kid. We've heard all about you.

Mike was proud of his dad and the way that he fit easily into this world. He told jokes, asked about wives and children, checked inventory, removed outdated product, and occasionally recommended delaying a purchase because the price would be coming down a few cents at the end of the week. Being Jack's kid, he was by extension a part of that world. That was the best part of all.

That world was gone. First, the little groceries had started to disappear, unable to match the ever larger supermarket chains Even before he died, more and more of Jack's time was spent taking phone orders for truckloads of butter, instead of selling it face-to-face a case at a time. Mike wondered if there were any people selling now. He pictured an automatic inventory and reordering system in the warehouse. Our computer will talk to your computer.

Mike finished his coffee and had gotten up to go when the door opened and a boy of maybe 11 came in and flopped across the flowered loveseat that had been moved into the break room. It had been in the ladies room, but a self-described staunch feminist demanded that it be put someplace where it could be used and enjoyed by people of all genders. Mike was surprised it hadn't just disappeared, but figured the nightcrawlers--movers, cleaners, IT & Comm– the people who made the important day-to-day life decisions, made the call. The break room was closest, and there the couch landed.

The kid, judging from his clothing, had just hit a growth spurt. His light gray Towncraft suit had given up trying to cover ankles and wrists a while ago.

Do you hate these events? I do, the kid said affably.

Not my favorite, Mike agreed. Aren't you supposed to be someplace? Else?

The kid thought. Nope.

Do your parents know where you are?

Probably not, but I know where my mom is, so we're OK.

Mike figured that the team was probably at the balloon animals seminar. Might be good for them, he thought. He got up and poured himself another coffee.

What does your Mom do?

The kid flopped around on the couch until he was pointing in another direction. She stares at a computer screen. Sometimes she talks on the phone.

What?s she talk about?

The kid looked at Mike slyly. Sometimes what we're having for dinner. What's happening this weekend. Regression. Her new boyfriend.

Regression? I bet she does financial analysis. And I'm also guessing your folks are divorced.

Probably. Mom has a boyfriend. But keep in touch–that changes real fast.

Mike grinned. I will, but rule 1 is never date co-workers. Trust me.

Don't I know. I don't date anybody from my school, either.

I think there's a cola in the fridge, Mike said.

No thanks. They got us all tanked up on root beer floats.

Hm. They do that sometimes. See anything here you want to do when you get older?

Nah. I think the root beer float truck guy has the best job.

Yeah, pretty much. Anything else?

Nah. All you do is watch a computer and talk on the phone. I can do that at home.

Yeah, it can get pretty old, Mike said. Anything at school interest you?

Nope. It's pretty bad.

Really. I had you pegged for a someone who might be interested in science or computers.

Why? Just because I've outgrown this lame suit?

Mike stayed quiet. That was what he had been thinking.

There's no future in computers, the kid said. All the coding's done overseas, and the computer itself will be gone. It'll just be a lot of single-purpose devices that run themselves. Replace instead of repair.

You seem to know a lot about something you're not interested in, Mike said with a smile.

You gotta do something. I read.

Which Harry Potter book is your favorite?

Don?t read those, the kid said firmly, reflopping on the couch. I hate them.

Mike glanced at his watch. Geez, I've got to get back to work, he said, standing up. And I bet you're supposed to be someplace. He rinsed out his coffee cup. Else.

I think this is where we get professional career advice from Human Resources people, like they know anything, the kid said, following Mike to the door.

Get a lot of that? Mike held the door for the kid. Advice?

It?s what adults do, the kid said. He paused. You haven't given me any.

Mike laughed. I stare at a computer all day. What advice can I give?

The good kind, probably. They had reached Mike's desk. Mike thought for a moment. Personally, I'd check out the root beer float operation.

The kid looked at him oddly for a moment, and then turned and walked away. Mike shrugged, turned, typed in his password, and began sorting through some e-mail.

Later that afternoon, the kid reappeared. Starting pay is minimum wage plus $1.30 an hour, and you can begin building an equity position after six months, he announced.


The root beer float truck. You told me to check it out.

Oh. When do you start?

I can't until I'm sixteen and have a driver's license, and can't get an equity position until I graduate high school. The guy is very big on graduating and school.

Too bad. But minimum wage should be higher by then.

I was thinking about you.

Mike was a little confused, but pleased. Thanks. I'll consider it. You know, I missed your name.

It's John. Yours?

Mike. Not Jack?

My father is Jack, my grandfather was Jack, and I have an Uncle Jack. So I'm John.

Nice to meet you, John.

I've gotta go. Maybe I'll see you next year.

Maybe. I'll be sure to give you extra ice cream in your root beer float.

John turned and walked away. Mike turned back to his computer and examined a spreadsheet. He wondered what the wholesale price of a case of eggs was, if the price would come down by the end of the week, and if it did would anybody notice. Or care.

TomatoPlanet!! is a random collection of writing, cartoons, and things that strike my fancy. © 2003-2020, John McCarthy

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