Saturday, July 5, 2014

A Fifth of the Fourth of July

I have a lot of great memories about July the 4th.  I have a fifth of them, which you will understand if you are any kind of a drinker. 

I remember as a kid we used to go to visit my grandparents in a small town in Indiana on the fourth and my older sister, Melissa, and I would get a ladder out of the garage. We would place it over the back stoop of the bungalow and climb on to one of the gable roofs that faced the community park.  Lying on an old blanket we had a perfect view of the fireworks. We would hands. This was not just out love. It was so that if one us happened to fall the other could save them or we would go down together.  While we watched them we would “ooh” and “aah.”   We were silly and sometimes we would just recite vowels. “AAA…EEE…III…OOO…UUU…and sometimes  YYYY!” 

One time Melissa asked me what I thought the word Hoosier meant. I said, “I don’t know but I think it is the equivalent of ‘Hoosier your friend? Hoosier your daddy?  Is he rich like rich like me?’” She rolled her eyes. “I don’t think that’s it at all.”  Those were fun nights.  There were many nights like that in the future that no matter where we were or who we brought with us, friends, young loves, spouses, Melissa and I sat next to each  other and even for a minute hold hands.  We have a relationship like that. We’re never going let one or the other fall off the roof.

The gang we hung out with in college used to always go to the Taste of Chicago and the fireworks over Lake Michigan. To buy a drink at the Taste was very expensive and they didn’t let you bring in your own. So what we did is hollow out French bread loaves and stuff bottles of wine in them. Then we would place beer in an insulated cooler at the bottom of a large tote bag.  We covered it all of it with a blanket and on the top we would place a box of tampons. When we got to Grant Park we would send Melissa in alone with the bag. The police inspected everyone’s bag but when they looked at Melissa’s they always just balked and waved her in.  We brought the other blankets, camp chairs, cheese and crackers thereafter. We had a lot great times those nights.

It was always hard to get out of the city after the festivities so when I moved to the city, we took to going to my office nearby and sit on the floor continuing the same type of party until we could catch an elevated train back to my apartment in Lakeview where we would have a big sleepover. The night watchman/janitor usually joined us.

My father very rarely took days off but he made sure we had two vacations each year. One at Christmas to visit family and go back to Florida to see old friends from when we lived there, and one in the summer that was much longer and usually involved going east to Virginia, Maine, Pennsylvania or New York.  
One year we went to Boston. My father had an affinity for Boston because he completed his executive MBA at Harvard. While we were there he showed us all of the places he used to hang out at, the dorm he stayed in and even introduced to some of his professors. One day he had to get on a plane and fly away for a meeting so my mother had my siblings and I link hands, and like little ducklings led us through the Freedom Trail. While the younger two liked it, I think Melissa and I got the most out of it. I think both of us realized we were walking in the cradle of our country. When my father came back it was the 4th of July. We went down to the banks of the harbor and watched the fireworks over where it all began. 

I didn’t realize it when I was a kid but when I was older, and my father and I learned to talk to each other, I found out that the reason we took the vacations we did was because he had a desire and goal to see all of the places that were important to the founding of our country.  As an adult, working and traveling, I made a conscious attempt to revisit all those places again and try to see them through his eyes.  When I worked in Washington DC I got see the fireworks over the Capitol and that was really pretty cool.

I have a lot of small memories of the holiday. There were so many parades, parties, and fireworks. I remember going to my parents’ friends, the Williams’ for a party and Dick, who was the District Attorney of our town, said, “We don’t need to find a seat out there on the curb. I turned all of the security cameras to the street. We can open the widows and just watch it on the big screen.”  My oldest son when he was very young hated the sound of fireworks but liked the way they looked.  For a couple of years, when we would join friends on a large hill in our current town because it had the best view for the works, Ben would come equipped with fuzzy winter earmuffs. It’s funny but nice that no one ever really ever said a word about it.  Matthew, my middle son, used to love to blow things up, maybe even as an adult he still does; Meredith hates fireworks and probably always will.  My wife loves sparklers. I am ambivalent.

 My favorite 4th of July memories are these.  I had come home for the summer. Karen and I had been dating for four months. I was trying to make money for college. During the day I worked as a playground supervisor with the Park District and at night I was a bartender at the big music theater, Poplar Creek. I spent most of my time at a kiosk serving mixed drinks to people and, fortunately, got to spend a fair amount of time in the green room serving drinks to the performers. I got to meet some of my favorite musicians and that was very cool. Every 4th the venue would have a local orchestra concert in and do fireworks. Both my brother and I had to work.  Our parents were out of town visiting friends. My siblings and I decided to have a party after the fireworks which everyone we knew was attending.  My brother, who managed one of the concession stands and got me my job, and I had to stay and clean up. I was very anxious to see Karen. When we left the park traffic was very tied up. But my family is nothing if they are not problem solvers. My brother went off road in my father’s Buick through a rutted field and hit the highway in 30 seconds. The rest was smooth sailing, assuming we hadn’t busted the exhaust.

When I got home I talked with some people and then Karen came to me and said, “You look tired.”  I said “I am.” She grabbed a couple of glasses, took my hand and led me down to my room. My boss had given me a bottle of champagne. We popped it and sat on the day bed I slept in among my books. A fierce thunderstorm had started and we sat watching out the window as we sipped. I said “You know next year is going to be tough with me down in Champaign and you up here working.” She leaned against me, kissed me and said, “Don’t worry about it. It will happen as it happens.”  

A year later on the 4th, my parents held a quasi-holiday/graduation party for me, my older sister, and my brother who had finished high school.  Karen and I sat on the lower patio in lawn chairs outside my bedroom window. She held my arm in hers. She said, “I know you have a lot of decisions to make, but I want you to know that whether you go to Cornell, Virginia, Harvard, Johns Hopkins or Berkeley or just stay here in Chicago; I believe in you and wherever you go, I’m going with you.” It was at that moment I knew that when I was able to I was going to ask that girl to marry me.

Yesterday was the 4th of July 2014 and it creates another memory. It is the first time I have celebrated this holiday completely alone. Karen and Meredith went to North Carolina to visit family.  Matthew worked and went to a party. The older boys all had commitments in the city or other places.  I don’t feel bad about this. People stopped by for a beer or just visit for  bit, I got to watch the World Cup and no one complained, I grilled myself some meat the way I like it, and I played really loud for the neighbors’ benefit Jimi Hendricks’ version of “The Star Spangled Banner,” which got me laughs and applause. I got time to sit by the butterfly garden and just think.

Here’s what I thought about. I thought about what my mother and father used to tell me and embodied. “It is less important to talk about your politics and ethics than it is to demonstrate them through your actions.” Both my mother and father were very active in helping others and it came back to them in the days when my father was trying to start a company and my mother was dying. I try to mirror that.

That being said, here is what I thought about tonight. I am a bit disappointed in our country right now. I do not like the polarization and obstruction that is going on. I don’t like that people are putting a lot of effort into advancing or defending positions rather than finding compromise and creating solutions. The preamble of our constitutions begins with a statement about creating a perfect union. I imagine our founding fathers envisioned that at this point we would have achieved that, but while we have made strides, we are still far from it.  The Declaration begins with an echo of John Locke. It talks about the inalienable rights of all people and equality for all. I’d like to see a little more of that. There is a part of me that is afraid we are sliding down an Orwellian slope where at the end, “Some pigs are more equal than others.” A lot of people focus on the Bill of Rights and various amendments but I always focus on the Preamble because it is really the core of our Constitution.

On the other, more positive, side of things, there is a lot I appreciate about this country.  The fact that I can express my opinions, my art,  without worrying about persecution; that I can act according to my own personal faith and conscience without resistance; that aside from random violence or natural disaster, I do not live in fear. We have had attacks but we have not had a war here since the end of the Civil War in 1865. That’s says something.  Unlike some countries we learned to no longer attack our own. When, metaphorically, we are sitting on the roof, we hold hands. 

Independence Day is ostensibly to celebrate our separation from England but I think most of us also take it as an opportunity to celebrate the pride in our unified republic and freedom in general. I m a very proud American and one of the reasons is because of the freedom I have been gifted with.  It is a precious treasure that we all should use wisely.  

I need to take care of my four-legged girlfriend, who is very stressed by the fireworks, so I will just leave you with this quote from my favorite author, William Faulkner.

“We must be free not because we claim freedom, but because we practice it”

That’s all for tonight.  Hope you all had a great 4th of July.