• Joseph F. Berenato

Fireworks, fast rides and fond memories of Feast Week


Fireworks lit up the night sky on July 16. (THG/Betsey Karl.)

Recently, I had the opportunity to interview several Hammontonians about their favorite memories of the Feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel.


Not only were their answers delightfully varied, but they were also surprising in just how similar some of theirs were to my cherished memories.


If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to share a few with you. Like most lifelong residents, I have decades of memories from which to choose—and, unlike the people I interviewed, I have had just a little more time to think about it than answering a question on the fly for a cold call out of nowhere—but I think these are my favorite.


My earliest memories of the “Feast Week” center around the carnival.


My parents always parked their car at my Grandmom Weber’s apartment in the 400 block of North Packard Street, and from there we walked to the carnival grounds. The sights and sounds and smells were always overwhelming at first—fried food galore, flashing lights from the various rides, loud music, hawkers trying to get us to try our luck on this game or that, and—my personal favorite—the announcer beckoning us to enter the sideshow.


I was always too young to go in, but I vividly remember the painted advertisements of the Snake Woman, the World’s Smallest Human, and a loudspeaker declaring that “Billy Reed is still alive, a victim of drug abuse!”


Ah, the ‘80s. Such a simpler time.


During those years, each 16th of July, my sisters and I spent the night at Grandmom Weber’s to watch the fireworks. In those days, the fireworks were shot off from the field near the carnival grounds, so we had a clear view from her bedroom—if we could stay awake. Back then, the fireworks display happened at midnight so staying up was iffy, but my grandmother always woke us up if we fell asleep so we wouldn’t miss them.


By the time middle school rolled around, I was finally old enough to go to the carnival without parental supervision, and my friends and I had a blast. We became masters of the claw machines there—when the carnival still had a traveling arcade—and, believe it or not, winning a pair of sunglasses in one of those contraptions was what led me to first get contact lenses. (It’s kind of difficult to wear sunglasses over half-inch thick eyeglasses, you know.)


In hindsight, we probably could have benefitted from a little supervision.


Once, in the summer after eighth grade, nine of us piled into one Tilt-a-Whirl car.


Don’t ask me how we all fit.


That car spun so bloody fast that it continued to tilt and whirl for almost two minutes after the ride came to an end.


We all threw up after we disembarked.


Well, I did, at any rate.


As I entered high school and college, the religious aspects of the Feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel became as much of a draw as the midway games and the sausage and peppers. I started to make a point to be near St. Joseph Church on the 16th of July; even if I didn’t walk in the procession, I wanted to be there when the statues left the church or when the saints came marching in at the end.


For a few nights each summer in college, I volunteered at the candle stand, which used to be outside of the rectory. I enjoyed talking not only with parishioners but with the clergy at the time—if you didn’t lose your breath laughing with Brother Tom Portulano and Father Mike Parente, you were doing something wrong.


My most favorite recent memory, though, involves my granddaughter Piper. In 2017, Robyn and I took Piper and her mother—who was very pregnant at the time with Jethro, who was born three weeks later—to the carnival on July 16. It was the first time for both of them (which made sense for Piper, of course, being only 17 months old).


We stayed for the fireworks—which, thankfully, go off at 10 p.m. these days—and we didn’t realize until the display started that it was the first time Piper had ever seen or heard them anywhere.


She was absolutely enthralled.


BOOM!


“Oooooooh,” she said, wide-eyed.


BANG! POP! FIZZ!


“Oooooooooooooh!”


She watched with rapt attention, her eyes aglow and her mouth wide in a happy grin. She loved every minute of it.


There was a certain synchronicity about it. The first time I saw the fireworks on the 16th was with my grandmother, and the first time my grandchild saw them on the 16th—or ever—was with her grandpop.


I don’t know if she’ll remember that when she gets older, but we try to catch them every year, especially since now we can see them clearly from our house. I hope that her memories are as fondly held as are mine, and that, one day, she’ll be watching the fireworks with her grandchildren.



Joseph F. Berenato began as a mild-mannered reporter for The Hammonton Gazette in 1997, and returned to that position in 2019 after an 18-year sabbatical, during which he farmed, taught, became a grandfather, dug graves and wrote, but never so prolifically as he has since his return. You can email him at jberenato@hammontongazette.com or find him on social media at @JFBerenato and at www.jfberenato.com.