“What are you doing for Labor Day?” I asked my friend last week.
“Oh, uh, I don’t know,” she replied, perplexed as to why I was making plans three months in advance. I’d meant Memorial Day, of course. I always get those two days confused, although really they’re polar opposites. Memorial Day is the beginning of summer, the end of the school year, the opening of pools, signifier of hope and expectation and childhood imagination. Memorial Day also falls near my brother’s birthday, and is my only reminder that I really ought to buy him a present (or at least send a card). In comparison, Labor Day signifies the end of summer, the closing of amusement parks, school back in session and childhood quashed for another year. So is it surprising to hear that, growing up, Labor Day was always my preferred holiday? It’s all about tradition.
Every year over Labor Day weekend, Cincinnati rock radio station WEBN hosts Riverfest, a day long celebration of food and music, culminating in a fireworks display over the Ohio River. Last year was the first year since my birth that I did not attend the fireworks. We had various traditions over the years. For the longest time my uncle Mouse, who lived on Mt. Adams overlooking the river, would host a big barbecue with plentiful food and live music. From his apartment we would walk over the bridge (closed off to traffic) so that we could better see the fireworks. It was a big affair and I was constantly greeted by friends of the family who would tell me how big I’d grown in the past year, or ask if I had a boyfriend yet. A few years ago my uncle stopped holding the parties, although he still welcomes family over for food before the fireworks.
In high school I would often choose friends over family as fireworks viewing companions. One year a group of us piled into a friend’s car and planned to watch the fireworks from the Kentucky side of the river; only we were running late, and by the time we got into the city they’d already closed off the streets. We ended up parking on a bridge near an off ramp and walking several miles down to the riverfront, where we settled down on an embankment to watch the show. It was one of few times I ever watched from the Kentucky side. There’s always been a rivalry between Kentucky and Cincinnati that comes out especially during the WEBN fireworks, when, right as the show is set to begin, the hosts would encourage first one then the other side of the river to cheer and scream as loud as they could, pitting each side against the other. Kentucky always seemed to yell a bit louder, but I always figured they were just overcompensating.
Although the fireworks were always the main event to me, on several occasions we made our way down to the riverfront during the day to see the live music and events. To me it wasn’t really worth it. Late summer in Cincinnati is often miserable, hot, humid, and the Riverfest area banned outside food and drinks so that you’d fork over a life savings for something to quench your thirst or cool you down. Once or twice we even decided to watch the fireworks from down on the riverfront, which was an all day affair because people would show early in the morning to stake their spot with blankets; and even then, once the fireworks started everyone would stand up and, short person that I am, I couldn’t see. I much preferred to watch from up on the bridge. We’d set out from my uncle’s apartment fifteen or twenty minutes before nine pm, a somewhat long stroll made easier by excitement and the fact that it was all downhill. ( The walk back afterwards, with excitement swapped for exhaustion and downhill swapped for uphill, always seemed to take twice or even three times as long, especially when we were kids.) This was where the buses would park, idling noisily as they waited to drive everyone back to designated park-and-ride locations. Sometimes I’d stand with my parents, towards the top of the bridge; other times I’d break away from them to stand alone or with my friends against the bridge railing. I preferred someplace to lean, and near someone with a radio, as the music is a vital part of the show; eventually I learned to bring my own radio, which sat in the back of the closet, forgotten but for once a year. We’d spend the entire day listening to WEBN, the excitement mounting as the time ticked closer.
The show began promptly at 9:05. “Are you ready to rock?” The radio prompted, and both sides of the river cheered their replies. “Cincinnati, are you ready to ROCK?” And we’d scream our lungs out. The battle would begin. Cincinnati against Kentucky, Kentucky against Cincinnati, then everyone together, screaming to the world, screaming to the sky which would in turn explode, with noise, with sound, with thunder that you could feel vibrating your body, and the world stood still, and surrounded by hundreds of people I’d stand there still alone, just me and the music and the lights and the thunder.
I missed it last year for the first time in my personal history. I missed it last year, four thousand miles away but still listening over web stream, and yet unable to see, unable to experience the tradition that had meant so much to me. I missed it last year and will miss it this year and who knows how many years after.