It is Independence Day. There is red, white and blue bunting hung from porches and windows. The air has the scent of smoke; it’s there in the background but always present. You almost don’t notice it, the smell of charcoal and cooking meat, of firecracker gunpowder, till the breeze comes and suddenly you are surrounded by it. It surrounds you and wraps you up, it is a good smell. It is the smell of high summer. It is our Nation’s birthday and today we are all patriots. We celebrate the ideas, the ideals, the American myth, with family and food and colorful explosions in the sky.
Growing up in Philadelphia this day always held a special meaning for me. It happened here, I could say, right here in the same place I live, the country I live in was created here, was born here. And I could go to the places where these things happened; I could see the history, touch the past. I could go to the house where Betsy Ross sewed the first flag, walk the cobble stone streets, and I could enter the chambers where the words were written and the documents signed. It meant a lot to me, that history; knowing that we were special, my city, my people. And when the fireworks went off it was because of us and what happened here.
I remember walking down the long, green manicured lawn of Independence Mall searching for a place to lay our blankets. There was me, my mother, my brother, my aunt and uncle. My uncle Joe complaining in muffled curses about having to carry the heavy Styrofoam cooler, just pick a goddamn spot already. The cooler was filled with American cheese sandwiches with mustard on Stroehmann white bread in plastic baggies and there was Schlitz beer in cans for the adults and Frank’s grape soda for my brother and me.
And while we waited for dark, for Showtime, we would go and see the Liberty Bell. We would wait in line for our chance to reach across that red velvet rope to touch it, to run our finger down the crack. The famous crack, because the bell was rung so hard when freedom came the bell cracked. That’s not what really happened of course, it’s just a myth. But it’s a good myth so we keep telling it.
And then at dusk the fireworks came. Fired off in the sky behind and over Independence Hall, every burst and blossom of light illuminating that place where it all started. And we oohhed and ahhhed and clapped when it was done. And it was beautiful, those bursts of color in the sky.
Years later I left Philadelphia and moved as far across the country as was possible to San Francisco. And one particular year my girlfriend Vikki and I went to see the fireworks over the Golden Gate Bridge. Dressed in tie-dyes and torn jeans we walked along the green hills of the Presidio with our blankets and me, mumbling curses all the while, carrying a backpack loaded down with Bartles & James wine coolers and Anchor Steam beer. Vikki was urging me on, just a little further we need to be close to the water. Just pick a goddamn spot already I thought to myself.
We weaved our way through the crowd, me apologizing continuously as I stepped on blankets and bumped shins, till we found the perfect spot, at least according to Vikki. And it was nice, just a stone’s throw from the Bay and a beautiful view of the bridge. I pulled two drinks from the backpack and we drank a toast to each other and to the day. We drank clandestinely, hiding the beers from the MPs that occasionally patrolled the area, this was a military base we were on and we were guests.
And while we waited for the sun to go down we drank and we kissed and we talked, Vikki and I. We talked about the normal things, about college and TV shows, about music and celebrities, and we talked about the future. We talked about our lives together; we would be married, have kids, buy a small house and have two dogs. None of this would happen, of course. In just a few weeks we would not be together anymore, but for a brief moment there was a possible future that seemed as bight and as real as a summer day.
When the sun when down and the fireworks were to begin the fog came in. Not an unusual thing in San Francisco to be sure, but there was an almost simultaneous sound of disappointment from the crowd. I could imagine a thousand people slumping shoulders all at once. But the fireworks went off on time, most could not be seen but they would turn the fog cloud various colors, green and yellow and red and purple. And occasionally and burst would go off just above the fog near the tips of the bridge towers and the crowd would cheer. And the crowd began to cheer every time a loud bang would happen. We began to hear people say to each other, Wow bet that was a good one, or, That was probably awesome. It became a fireworks display of the imagination. And we oohhed and ahhhed and clapped when it was done.
Many years later I gathered with my family in a park in Westminster Colorado. It was a drought year, fireworks were banned almost everywhere throughout the state. So we drove 45 minutes to one of the only places where they were being set off. I and my wife and my daughter met up with my sister and her three kids and her husband. There were no blankets to set down no coolers to carry; the crowd was too large, standing room only. There were little stands that sold Fat Tire beer in plastic cups and hot dogs and brats and bags of Lay’s potato chips. We stood and we ate and we drank and we made a conscious decision to not talk about politics.
My daughter danced and spun circles in the limited space she had. She was wearing her favorite dress, it was multicolored and vibrant. Not tie-dyed exactly, but similar in pattern. And when the sun began to go down and the show was near its start there was that wonderful air of anticipation winding its way through the crowd. I looked down at my daughter, just 4 years old; her hands clenched to her chest almost like prayer, her eyes cast skyward waiting, slightly biting her bottom lip. Anticipation is not quite the right word. It was desire and it was hope.
Then the show began with bursts and blossoms of color and sound. And my daughter looked at the sky and she looked down at herself. Then she turned to me and said, I’m dressed like fireworks. Look at me, she said, I’m like fireworks. And she danced and she spun and twirled. And I oohhed and ahhhed and clapped when it was done.
This post originally appeared July 4th, 2013