O beautiful for spacious skies,
In Pangburn, Arkansas, where I grew up, they have been blowing out their 4th of July celebration for decades. The event is an all-day affair that starts with a parade in the morning and ends with fireworks at night. There is live music, free BBQ (a full blown pig-in-the-ground when I was there), games and contests, and any politician running for anything in the state of Arkansas is obliged to make a pit stop and a quick stump speech. Folks all over the state, if they know Pangburn (pop. 601) at all, know it for this. And this celebration was my introduction to national and civic celebration of the United States of America’s Independence Day.
For amber waves of grain,
And then I grew to be a teenager, and young adult, and on – and I apparently got too cool for that kind of civic engagement. Newsflash for anybody that doesn’t have a calendar – July is hot! And fireworks are OK, but seem to become less awe-inspiring over time. Not to mention the hell that is fireworks traffic. No traffic is good traffic – and fireworks traffic can be the pits. So, for years I pretty much floated above it all. If seeing fireworks was easy, I did that, but otherwise the 4th of July was just another three day weekend in the summer.
For purple mountain majesties
We moved to Florida last year at the end of April, so by July 4th we hadn’t been around for very long. We moved into a town, Celebration, known for its civic engagement and pride, and they don’t disappoint on the 4th. There was a big party downtown, and fireworks, and a parade in the morning. One of the local moms that my wife became friends with signed up an entry into the parade called “The Red Wagon Brigade” – everybody to decorate their red wagons and pull their kids in the parade. We had a 3-year old and a 4-month old, so that seemed to be very do-able. My wife decorated the wagon, we got all excited … and then both kids came down with fevers the day before. No parade, though my wife did go make an appearance at the evening party thrown by that same mom. I listened to the downtown fireworks booming and kept my fingers crossed that they wouldn’t wake my sleeping kids. July 4th, 2015, was a dud.
Above the fruited plain!
Not July 4th, 2016, though. This time the 4-year old could ride a decorated bicycle, and both kids were in great shape going into the morning. We met up with the rest of The Red Wagon Brigade and prepped for our part in the parade. It was hot – holy crap, it was hot. And we staged in a parking lot, so no shade. But once things got moving, everybody started having a blast. Because I wasn’t needed to wrangle kids once things got started, I ran ahead on the parade route with my camera and acted as the official photographer for The Red Wagon Brigade. When they’d pass my position, I would sprint ahead and take more pictures. The kids had a blast, and then we all went home and took two-hour naps.
America! America! God shed His grace on thee,
As I was out and about with my camera, it dawned on me that the 4th of July, Independence Day, is and ought to be a special holiday in America. This is a day for us to celebrate those things that make us uniquely us, and a day to remember that it wasn’t all that long ago that our forefathers had to fight, and sacrifice a great deal, to make sure we today have the unfettered ability to participate in, or ignore at will, great displays of civic pride. Though the parade was fun, I was most struck by the quieter moments. A slowly filling downtown decorated with American flags and kids on bicycles. A woman straightening the flag she’d hung from her second story balcony. The milling about in red, white, and blue before the parade started. These are the moments that hit me – we are a community, both our community in Celebration, Florida, and the broader community of the United States of America. Black, white, red with yellow polka-dots, we love our country and we all want the best for it, even if we disagree on what the best is. And, crucially, if we wall ourselves off and decline to be a part of this community and engage in these displays of civic pride, we allow ourselves to be typecast and stereotyped and defined as “other”, when what we need to be doing is engaging and shaking hands and showing each other that, though we all came in on different ships, we’re all in the same boat.
And crown thy good with brotherhood
My son is scared of loud noises, so when it came time to walk from the after-party over to the fireworks he decided he’d pass. We were disappointed – this was to be his first fireworks – but also supportive – it would just be cruel to make him suffer through the booms. We got home at about 9:15 with two exhausted kids when the booms started, and my wife happened to look out the window. To our surprise, the house that we bought in January has what turns out to be an almost completely unimpeded view of the fireworks! We stood out in the backyard and watched them all go, and got to experience fireworks again for the first time, through our 4-year old. Not to get all cheesy, but it was a little bit of magic to end a really long day.
From sea to shining sea!
The 4th of July is going to become a legitimate holiday in our house. I want to teach my kids about that kind of civic engagement, and I want them to feel pride in their community and their country. If they don’t have that pride, and don’t know how to engage, then they won’t care enough to fight for it when the time comes – figuratively and literally. Good, active citizenship requires more than just voting and bitching about where the country is going – it involves participation, in the good times and parties as well as the bad times and disagreements. It involves knowing and understanding what is going on, and that isn’t possible without being engaged with your community. That engagement is something to be taught and modeled, and is my responsibility to teach and model – so teach and model it I shall.
Happy birthday, America – see you at next year’s party!