Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Fourth of July


I wrote the following item in July 1991.  It is even more valid 19 years later.


The Fourth of July

I have always loved the Fourth of July. Some of my earliest memories are about firecrackers, sparklers, and Fourth of July cookouts with family and friends. When I was a kid, the Fourth was kind of like Christmas -- a transformation of my world into something magic and new. I still enjoy it today, but over the years some of this magic has disappeared. At first I thought it was just because I have grown up; the magic of childhood has been replaced with adult rationality. But no -- our national celebration of independence has very definitely changed over the last 30 years.

We went to the fireworks in the city of Corona this year. We spread out a blanket in Lincoln Park and ate a late Carl's Jr. dinner (a really tasty Santa Fe chicken sandwich, for me) while we waited for the 9:00 show. A neighbor couple came with us. The kids were highly charged. At about 8:30, Nathaniel started an every-two-minute "how much longer" recitation, that didn't stop until we finally saw the first shell go up. Caryn, who is two years old, was sitting in my lap holding on to both of my hands. At every large burst her grip would tighten. She would then turn half around and whisper haltingly, "" Nathaniel explained to me that the star burst effect gave him the impression that it was rushing toward us, or that he was rushing toward it. I had never really thought of it that way before. It was exciting for them; a little bit scary, but fun.

I reflected that most of the fireworks we saw were probably made in China. Do the Chinese celebrate anything with fireworks? Well, the New Year, of course. Not their liberty, certainly. No fireworks were used to celebrate the June 3rd Tienanmin Square anniversary. Some Chinese students did remember their aborted attempt at freedom, but in a furtive fashion, always on the lookout for the authorities. Some of them quickly placed small protest signs -- that were soon removed. Other citizens sympathized; they did not report the protestors to the police.

But at least WE remain free.


When I was growing up in Tulsa, all fireworks were legal. On the Fourth, we would wake up to the bang of firecrackers. From sunup until late in the evening, a minute didn't go by when you didn't hear explosions. Flags were everywhere, and the radio stations actually played Independence Day music like "Yankee Doodle Dandy."

My father would take my brother and me to the fireworks stand. We would buy pinwheels and Black Cats, strings of Lady Fingers, handfuls of cherry bombs, smoke bombs, fountains and Roman Candles, bundles of pop-bottle rockets. They all had colorful, magical labels. (Today, some people even collect these labels.) If you un-rolled the firecrackers you would find another wonder: they were made of Chinese newspapers! With real Chinese writing! To me it was astonishing to have a relic, something I could hold in my hand, that was from China. What other place was so far away that the shortest route would be to dig straight down? It was delightful!

When we were small, we were only allowed to place the firecracker. My dad would light it. No injuries ever occurred. We excavated craters in mud, blew up small boxes, and blew the bugs out of the clothesline pipes. We took some of my mother's aluminum drinking glasses (known as "tumblers"), inverted them and placed Black Cats and cherry bombs underneath. They would fly high into the air and, of course, "tumble" back to earth. I don't believe my mom really appreciated this. Afterward, my dad would have to pound the bottoms flat again so they would stand up.

Even as kids, we knew we were celebrating our dual freedoms won in the Revolutionary War -- our country's freedom from foreign domination, and the individual freedom that is a hallmark of self-government. The Fourth was an individual celebration of our way of life.

Perhaps the most memorable Fourth of July occurred when I was about 8 or 9 years old. We had a picnic at Mohawk Park with the Martins, my parents' best friends. Mohawk Park, north of Tulsa, is no ordinary park. It is large -- nearly 4 miles long -- and contains the zoo, two large lakes, and a golf course. Parts of it are heavily forested and overgrown. Oklahoma, at least in the northeast portion, is not entirely the flat grassland that people seem to envision. Rivers and streams have cut hills, bluffs and deep valleys. The vegetation in these areas is more like Missouri or Arkansas. It is possible to get seriously lost in the forests of Mohawk Park, especially if you are a kid. I used to have nightmares about it.

It was a typical Oklahoma Fourth of July -- hot and humid. We had come to the park to have a picnic. We probably ate hamburgers that my dad liked to grill on little trays made of folded-up pieces of aluminum foil. The adults talked and laughed. The kids played and laughed. Evening approached and it was beautiful; comfortably warm and very still. After the stressful heat of the day, the trees let out a misty sighing that could be smelled, but not really seen. Looking for places to set up pinwheels, the two dads and the kids wandered over to an empty baseball diamond, surrounded by trees. Moths and June-bugs clouded around the lone street light.

In the far distance, we could periodically hear the muffled bang and pop of other fireworks. When full darkness arrived, we lit fountains and fired a pinwheel on a telephone pole. We were in no hurry. We still had Black Cats, so we placed one in the chainlink of the backstop and were amazed by the noise. Booomm! The shape of the backstop seemed to focus the sound, sending it out over the dark forest, across the valleys to the horizon. Multiple echoes returned through the thick air. The sound seemed to be resonating back and forth, high against the dome of the sky. We fired another one. Booomm! It was a beacon -- a message for all to hear. Booomm!...I'm here! Booomm!...I'm here! Booomm!...I'm alive! To me, the boom was reaching out thousands of miles, concentrated by our backstop/dish antenna. I was on the edge of the universe sending out a desperate, important message into the infinite darkness. I was traveling with the wave at the speed of sound, down into the creekbeds, over the bluffs, touching the tree tops as I passed.

We stayed late that night and, on the way home, I slept contentedly in the car, dreaming of sulfur-smell.

On the fifth of July, there were always signs to remember the day by: burned-out smoke bombs, pop bottles coated with rocket exhaust deposits, black marks on the concrete from the snakes, aluminum glasses that kept tipping over....


Last Thursday, when we got back from viewing the Corona fireworks show, I decided to set off a few spinning flowers in the cul-de-sac before we put the kids in bed. I was a little worried though, because a sheriff's car had driven through earlier in the day -- the first time in almost a year and a half of living at Horsethief Canyon that we had seen a law officer in the neighborhood. Fireworks suppression must be high on their list.

It was a quiet night. The flowers spun and whizzed. One zipped high into the air and landed smokily in the neighbor's lawn. People started to take notice. A 12-year-old and his younger brother came out to watch. People peered out of their curtains at this fool defying the authorities. Then more of our neighbors came out. One guy brought out some firecrackers, hoarded from years past. I brought out some real Black Cats that my brother had imported from some free state. Boom! Boom! Another man walked out of his house with 10 or 12 boxes of illegal sparklers. The kids delighted in them, waving them around in circles and marveling at the halos of sparks surrounding their hands. Most of them had never seen such a thing before. We spent a half hour just keeping sparklers going. We talked of past Fourth of July's, fireworks, and friends.

We were wary, though. We remembered the Fourth in a furtive fashion, always on the lookout for the authorities. Some people were bold enough to celebrate with us; others sympathized enough not to call the police. A man had been arrested the week before in Los Angeles for having fireworks in his garage. He had been charged with child endangerment. His children were being kept in foster homes.

Yes, some of the magic of the Fourth of July has been lost in the last 30 years. We used to joyously celebrate our freedom. Now we passively, meekly, watch our government celebrate its independence. We submit to warrantless searches of our cars and belongings as we enter the parks and stadiums. If we celebrate individually, we fear being caught and having our houses searched.

Is watching a celebration the same as celebrating? When was the last time you lit a real firecracker and made a deafening boom heard all over your neighborhood? Why are you afraid to? Why has "control" become the main purpose of our fellow citizens serving us in the government?

Some of the Fourth of July magic IS gone.

And maybe something else has been lost, too.

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