What is it about the 4th of July?
I think of Thanksgiving and smell the aroma of roasting turkey as the jets under my tongue fire off tiny squirts of saliva. I think of New Year’s Eve, and hear a paper horn blast and see a sparkle of foil confetti. Who doesn’t think of St. Patrick’s Day and imagine green, while tasting the vaguely minty flavor of a Shamrock Shake or feeling the bubbly tickle of tinted beer?
And so it goes, that when July 4th rolls around, I tap into a unique set of associative sights, sounds, scents, flavors and emotions stored in the 1970s backyard shed of my mind.
Hot sunshine is the first recollection to surface, shedding light on other nostalgic summertime sensations — the steamy aroma of freshly cut grass, the cacophony of kids’ laughter at the community pool, the slippery coolness of a red-white-and-blue Astro Pop. As the full scope of Independence Day memories are revived, I recall flags flying from porches and posts. The tang of barbecue sauce. The sweetness of hot buttered corn on the cob. The thwap of watermelon seeds blown through pursed lips.
As the smoldering charcoal of festive family barbecues dissipate, excitement grows. We grab flashlights, blankets, and ozone depleting aerosol cans of bug repellant (toxic by today’s standards) and jump into the family station wagon.
Since everyone in town is headed to the fairgrounds for the fireworks show, we have to park several blocks away and take a shortcut through the old cemetery. I know it’s just my brother jumping out from behind gravestones to scare me, but I’m petrified nonetheless.
At the fairgrounds, we claim our spot on the grass sloping toward the grandstands where the Annual Demolition Derby was held earlier that day. The banged up cars are gone from the dirt arena, but in the dim dusk we can see the platform from which fireworks will soon be launched.
Lying on the blanket, I hear the crackerjack rat-a-tat of a brass band belting out patriotic tunes, and wait for the first thunk of the fireworks launcher. I smell the faint scent of chlorine in my hair and feel corn-on-the-cob remnants stuck between my teeth.
The sky erupts in a massive starburst of radiating white-hot combustion. Oooh! I look around to see the crowd of faces turned upward, eyes communally reflecting the fresh flash of light. Dying embers fizzle, sparkle, then fall toward the earth.
Pow! My brother doesn’t sit on the blanket, but stands in silhouette before us as vivid color ignites the night sky. With every backfire blast, he jerks theatrically as if hit by a bullet. In the shoulder, then the leg. The gut. The chest. Each shot temporarily weakens him, and he is knocked off balance. Just as it looks as if he may fight back, another invisible bullet Pow! takes its toll. His gruesome display continues until, during the rapid-fire finale, he convulses dramatically, collapsing to the ground. He looks like a goner, but his shaking hand reaches upward with the sheer human will to survive…
Pow, pow! Pow! …POW! And with that, my brother fakes his final heroic demise … until Mom tells him he’d better c’mon if he wants to get home in time to eat ice cream and light sparklers before bedtime.
This week, on the anniversary of our nation’s independence, let’s put aside negative rhetoric that threatens patriotism. Let’s celebrate the revolutionaries who risked life and limb for freedom. Let’s remember the founders who created a new concept of government by the people. And let’s tap into the nostalgia of July 4th to remind us that our American way of life is truly exceptional.