|Fireworks, Orr's Island, Maine|
That's right. In my child's hierarchy of Divine Entreaty, the American celebration of Independence ranked right up there with my parents, siblings, best girlfriend, dog and parrot. That's because in my small town, the Fourth of July was a magical day.
For months in advance, men in straw hats went door to door asking for contributions. These were The Holiday Observers, basically a group of town fathers, whose job it was to make sure the holidays were properly observed.
These guys didn't just collect money. They organized the Fourth of July sack races and potato-on-a-spoon races and hoop races and sweated in the melting heat of the all-day-grill at the ball field, selling burgers and dogs for improbably low prices (I remember 25-cent burgers, could that be right?) and purchased the trophies for all the end-of-year baseball and softball All-Star games which were held that day (along with all the races) and made sure the cotton candy truck showed up, as well as the guy who sold Pixie Sticks (three-foot long tubes filled with tart sugar) and the other vendor who sold those glow-in-the-dark necklaces which you later put in your freezer (who said they lasted longer that way? what a lie) until they slowly, sadly glowed out, and most importantly, above all: purchased, and ignited, the annual fireworks display at the town fields.
For some reason this was always the best day and the best night of my young life. I'm trying to figure out why. I never won any races (Joanne Stiles, the fastest girl in town, always won them all. All. Even the potato-on-a-spoon.) and my softball team usually came in second and got the consolation trophy and frankly, the 25-cent burgers were gross and greasy. But I remember my excitement on Fourth of July morning when I'd get on my bike early and peddle downtown and spend the entire long lazy day into late afternoon with ... everyone. The whole community. You'd bump into pretty much everybody you knew and graze the bad food and play the games and watch Joanne win all the races and I've never felt so free, yet so connected, at any other time in my life. As the sun set the entire town would gather at the ball field and set up blankets and lawn chairs, staking out little family islands which actually had no boundaries, everyone eventually fading into shadows illuminated by those glow-in-the-dark necklaces, until the first of the Holiday Observers pyrotechnics sputtered to life and ... the moment we had all been waiting for! The fireworks.
They were predictable as well as spectacular, which is why we loved them. There were the cannon booms and individual sparklies which burst over our heads in varying colors and circumferences. There was the "waterfall," in which a string of white lights erupted into a Niagara-like cascade of sparks. There was the Portrait of George Washington, a "tableau" if you will, of red,white and blue flame. And of course, the penultimate Grand Finale. So loud, so bright, so many fireworks shot into the sky at once. When it was over, to the smell of sulphur and the haze of drifting smoke and ash, we gathered our coolers and blankets and lawn chairs and herdlike, shuffled en masse to our cars or neighborhoods if we were walking distance ... or even if we weren't walking distance, it made more sense to walk a mile than deal with the clog of cars. In the dark, amidst the strange smells of afterburn, we resembled a retreat of sorts. A shadowy, hasty evacuation. Keeping track of the small children was important.
I loved it all, every bit of it, and prayed the weather would comply each year. Sometimes it didn't, and this was a bitter disappointment. I don't think my own children, despite growing up in a smallish town and coming from a community where fireworks and cookouts are a big part of life, had quite the experience I had. That heady combination of freedom and community. This massive party to which we were all invited and everyone belonged.
I still pray. I'm a big believer in prayer, actually, although the list has changed. And grown. Exponentially. And I've changed. And I'm worried my country has changed, too. And while I still love fireworks and clapped and laughed the other night watching the lovely display over the water near Orr's Island and I'm making potato salad and burgers on the grill for friends this afternoon, I have a nagging sense that's not enough. It's not enough to simply be happy and have fun today. Not when I read what passes for political "discourse" these days. Not when I see our country locked in a state of perpetual war. And young men who graduated from high school with my son don uniforms and talk about their future deployments.
Roy Scranton, a writer I never heard about until I read his essay in The New York Times, is a veteran who urges us to examine what we celebrate today. I think he speaks with the hard-earned authority of someone who has seen combat and put his life on the line. Take a look at his essay. These lines particularly resonated with me:
There is another version of America beyond the noise our fireworks make: not military strength, but the deliberate commitment to collective self-determination. Perhaps this Fourth of July we could commemorate that. Instead of celebrating American violence, we might celebrate our Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and the ideals those documents invoke of an educated citizenry deciding its fate not through war but through civil disagreement.
John Lewis, who crossed that bridge at Selma and sat on the floor of the House of Representatives last week comes to mind. Who, or what, can you name?