Pioneer Day

If you ask any member of the Bell family what their favorite holiday as child was, they would hem and haw and ultimately be unable to choose between Memorial Day and the 24th of July. Christmas wouldn’t even be in the running. The 24th may have had a slight edge because both my Mom’s family and my Dad’s family were involved, as opposed to Memorial Day, which was just my Dad’s family. Pioneer Day was celebrated by the Bells and the Barkers showing up en masse to Romer Park in Ogden to eat fried chicken, play volleyball, drink my Grandpa Bell’s homemade root beer, and watch my Dad light off fireworks. There was something about the way my Grandpa Bell made that root beer that was evocative of the old Southern moonshiner – steaming dry ice and pinches of this and that and stirring it with a wooden pole that I have every confidence was appropriately sanitized. If you knew you what you were doing you would stick around after everyone had gone to play volleyball and you’d get a sticky paper cup full of the best root beer slush you can imagine.

If you were too young to miss the cut off for volleyball – age 12, I believe – you’d compete in the three-legged races and other games devised by my Grandma Barker and aunt Sharon. Or you’d spin around on the little merry-go-round until you felt your fried chicken coming up your throat. Or you’d run around the wooded hill across from the park, having a war with the hard little fruit that covered the winding paths. The one thing you didn’t do was interfere with the volleyball games. A few of my cousins and I did that once, throwing a water balloon at an uncle who was about to serve; he turned around, pointed a finger, and said in all sincerity, “If you do that again, I’ll kill you. I’ll kill you.” Lesson learned. The Barkers and the Bells took their volleyball seriously. The uncles and the more adventurous aunts would duke it out on the grass until an uncle inevitably mowed down a 12 or 13 year-old niece who had been allowed to play but who the uncle didn’t trust to return a serve. Tears would be shed, the uncle would be shot a dirty look by his spouse, and the play would resume until the next niece or nephew was mowed down. Having been mowed down in this fashion many times, it was with considerable satisfaction that I began to mow my uncles down when I didn’t trust them to return a serve. My grandmas and aunts who lacked the heart for combat would sit under the tree in lawn chairs, chatting and holding babies while the kids ran and ran and ran.

My nostalgia for these days is heightened by the fact that all of my grandparents are now gone. When I think of Pioneer Day I can see them so clearly in my mind’s eye – my Grandpa Bell making root beer or building some hair-brained water balloon launcher, my Grandma Bell smiling serenely as she bounces a baby on her lap, my Grandpa Barker playing volleyball with grit and even a little ferocity, and my Grandma Barker handing out prizes to kids for games and races. The families still meets on the 24th, although they don’t go to Romer Park anymore. I haven’t been to one of these gatherings for many years, and like the rest of the world I’ll spend the day working. Although I’ve been away from Utah for 8 years now and am used to missing out on family events, the 24th always makes it a little harder to be away. But I realize the pang I feel on this day isn’t just because of the distance between me and my family in Utah, but also because of the distance between me and those magical days with my grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins and parents and siblings, days when literally my greatest worry was whether we’d be allowed to stay up to watch the fireworks at Lagoon.

Today’s post is short and sweet and picture-free because many people who read this blog are out enjoying a holiday.  We’ll be back on Monday with a great guest post.

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7 Responses to Pioneer Day

  1. Ben Pratt says:

    My old/new ward here in AZ is having a Pioneer Day party, and my mom is making these cool horse costumes out of cardboard boxes for my girls. She made one for me once, and I loved it. She got the idea from a Pioneer Day celebration 30 years ago in Alabama. The point is that your ward needs to step it up.

    The funny thing is that in spite of remembering wearing this thing at a Pioneer Day activity as a child, I don’t recall having heard of Pioneer Day until I was a teenager. I’m glad you have such vivid remembrances.

  2. Troy says:

    This homemade root beer is for you, D (raising my sticky paper cup).

    For my family, you just described a hybrid of Memorial Day and the 4th of July. Good times.

  3. Rob says:

    Indeed, Davis.

    it’s funny. Growing up in Colorado, my memories of the 24th involve me and my little brother decorating our bikes with streamers to ride to the church building on the Saturday following the 24th for a Primary ride around the parking lot. I think we were lucky if 10 kids showed up. I mistakenly thought we were re-enacting the trek (this would have been decades — well a single decade at least — before trek re-enactments became oh-so-vogue for church youth to do).

    Anyway, I never understood why we gussied up our bikes and rode circles around the parking lot. For Pioneer Day. I remember distinctly thinking, as a kid, that streamers on my bike have nothing to do with pioneers. I wondered if we shouldn’t be making covered wagons or something to take around the parking lot to better celebrate the event.

    And then I moved to Utah. And saw the many Pioneer Day parades. And understood. We weren’t re-enacting the trek as children. We were re-enacting the parades. Also, I realized that our Primary President was probably from Utah.

  4. Braden says:

    You caught my own melancholy and nostalgia today perfectly, Dave. I told Dad that being way from UT today makes me feel a bit like a British colonial living in Burma or India back in the Victorian era. It’s December and I know that back in civilization, they are celebrating Christmas with roast goose and plum pudding. Here’s to those happy day!

  5. Gina says:

    Homemade root beer indeed. That is such a Mormon thing… every campout of my life included homemade root beer.

  6. Kevin Bell says:

    This basically made me cry Davis. I have just as great of feelings about these days.

  7. Serene says:

    Having never grown up with extended family at all, I am quite envious!

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