“You have to love a nation that celebrates its independence every July 4, not with a parade of guns, tanks, and soldiers who file by the White House in a show of strength and muscle, but with family picnics where kids throw Frisbees, the potato salad gets iffy, and the flies die from happiness.” –Erma Bombeck
The Fourth of July has always been a small, quite holiday with a big end. We never did much growing up. Perhaps there would be a barbeque, some time spent by a pool, but generally it was a day spent trying to hide from the cruel heat. In high school, I spent the day working at the local celebration at the park and since I left home I have had to work as well. However, no matter how big the fireworks I watch are, nothing compares to a small town Fourth.
After we ate dinner, my parents would load us into the car and head down to the fairgrounds to watch the fireworks. We would leave early, well before sunset, in order to find a good spot to set up our blanket and chairs for the night. We collected our walkmen and gameboys and books and made last-minute requests for sodas and snacks to go in the cooler, and then headed out. We had different friends that joined us over the years, sitting on the grassy hill, but the night was always the same. We swatted bugs and fought boredom and saw dozens of people we knew pass by. We’d chase down friends and heave overly dramatic sighs when people would stand in front of us. When the sun set and the cool drifted in, our attention would wander as we whined and wondered when the show would start. Rogue fire crackers would sound in the neighborhoods behind us and tease eager kids. Then, finally, the first real one would rise. We’d lay back and watch the sky above us, ooohing and awing at the raining sparkles. Babies cried at the loud screams and booms and for a moment the whole town stood still. The grand finale would always come too soon and life would start again. As soon as the last light disappeared, under the drifting smoke, we would pack up and try to beat the traffic out of the middle of town.
I’ve seen some really impressive displays since moving to a big city. I’ve listened to radio stations sync patriotic music to fireworks. I’ve spent the night drinking and eating with friends. I’ve sat home, exhausted, and done absolutely nothing. None of those nights has yet to compare to Independence Day at home, in the summer breeze, with my family.
Yesterday I spent time with friends, and friends of friends, doing nothing particularly patriotic. We ate and drank and played games. We watched the boys play baseball and walked through the streets barefoot. Unexpected and thick clouds led us to choose to forgo a fireworks trip and opt for the hot tub. Beer in hand, we headed to the pool to talk and soak. As we walked we listened to the crack and whizz of fireworks just beyond our view. A sparkle or two made their way above the trees, but we saw very little. A dozen twenty-somethings sitting around watched colored clouds reflect the celebrations as the displays went on. A barrage of booms signaled the end, the best of the night. With no prompting, with no explanation or expectation, one of the guys began to sing. By the second “America,” we were all singing along. Perhaps it was the alcohol, the day, the way we were raised, or just an authentic feeling of love for our home, but no one hesitated to sing along. We finished our verse just as the last fireworks echoed across the neighborhood, and just as quickly went back to our conversations.
Perhaps these simple holidays are a little more patriotic than I give them credit for. Sitting on a street with family. Walking and talking freely with friends. An abundance of food and drink and laughter. Fearlessly going out into the night. This is the Fourth of July, what our nation is. We don’t fear war or occupation in our back yards. We don’t cower under dictators or hide from the military. We live free and joyful, boldly and hopefully. This country is not perfect, and I am not always as grateful as I should be for its gifts. While I was not at home, last night was an unforgettable birthday celebration for my home. Being alive and young and free is worth celebrating. Having a home that allows us to be who we are, fights for us to be safe, protects our right to be happy–these are things worthy of our gratitude. Voices raising in the darkness, singing through the night about a country that, for better or worse, we love? That’s what the Fourth of July is all about.
“America! America!/ God shed His grace on thee/ And crown thy good with brotherhood/ From sea to shining sea!” –Katharine Lee Bates, “America the Beautiful”