Despite the drought, despite an area-wide ban on the sale or use of fireworks and despite even the children being denied their sparklers and snakes, the traditional Independence Day show will go on in Houston. Billed as an “extraordinary extravaganza”, the Freedom Over Texas festival is a wonderful event that also exemplifies the sort of hyperbolic excess dear to the hearts of civic boosters everywhere.
Houston’s not alone, of course. Washington D.C. planners are promoting “spectacular” fireworks explosions over the Washington Monument. Huntington Beach promises the “largest parade west of the Mississippi River”. New York City will be “displaying its patriotism through massive fireworks” and Boston intends to celebrate “in a big way”. San Francisco and Chicago will provide “magnificent” and “breath-taking” events, while New Orleans will tow out a barge to make it all happen. Not to be outdone, San Diego will be broadcasting their “Big Bay Boom” live to the web with helicopter views, ensuring that the rest of the country will have opportunity to see the show “rated Number Seven by the travel industry”.
I’m a great fan of fireworks myself, and I enjoy spectacular shows as much as the next person. Ribbons and cascading swirls of light, gigantic dandelion-like blooms of red, blue and green sparkling in the sky, terrible thundering, percussive noises that make dogs run and children cry – I love it all. Throw in a little John Phillips Sousa and I’ll be waving the flag with the best of them, telling anyone who tries to talk to me, “Be quiet! Can’t you see I’m watching?”
That said, I must admit the best fireworks display I’ve ever experienced took place in isolation and nearly-total silence, accompanied only by the murmurings of a couple of friends, the sound of a car engine and the hum of tires on a deserted road.
We’d been in Port Aransas, intending to spend several days on the water. When a massive 4th of July storm sent Coast Guard rescuers out to sea and washed fishermen and sailors back to port, the bad weather changed our minds. We decided to drive back to Houston.
At the time, State Highway 35 still was a relatively deserted two-lane road. Winding through lovely coastal prairie and fields planted with maize, cotton and rice, it passes bays filled with trout, redfish and history – Copano, Aransas, Tres Palacios, San Antonio. There are marshes and sloughs and, just to the south, the Aransas Wildlife Refuge, winter home to the endangered whooping crane.
From Aransas Pass to Port Lavaca the land is relatively unpopulated. Still, the villages and tiny communities are there, obscure and unknown even to many Texans – Francitas, Blessing, Olivia, Caranchua, LaWard, Collegeport, Markham. Most are invisible from primary highways – you find them crouched beside the Farm-to-Market roads, tiny, hidden bits of American life unnoticed by casual passers-by.
Unnoticed, that is, unless you happen to be driving across the coastal prairie on July Fourth. As the lambent sunset fades and the road itself is swallowed up into darkness, you might be forgiven for assuming, as we did, that the first, barely-glimpsed flashes are lightning from a distant storm. But when another flash caught my friend’s eye, and then another, she turned quickly enough to catch a good look and exclaimed, “Fireworks!”
Suddenly alert, we began to scan the horizon and discovered not one display in the distance, but two, three – and then more. We slowed in amazement, finally stopping on the side of the road to stand in darkness, absorbing the simple displays of color and light sent up from the hidden communities surrounding us.
There were no showering cascades of light, no pulsing, exotic displays to rival those of the cities. Single rockets soared into the night, interspersed with colorful pairs and mysterious waterfalls of light streaming through the heavens. Within ten minutes they were gone, the end of the show marked not by glorious excess but by vibrant bursts of light sent so high into the sky that any of the watchers in the towns would have been forced to look upward, toward the stars.
At the time, we were entranced solely by the marvelous light show playing out in every direction. Today, I find myself as deeply moved by the thought of the anonymous Americans behind those fireworks, fellow citizens hidden away in little towns with not much of a civic budget doing what they do so well: celebrating, blessing and rejoicing in their nation and its history.
I take strange comfort in the thought that no television crew recorded the events, no newspaper sent a reporter. If Twitter or Facebook had existed at the time, a teenager or two might have thought to record the show for strangers, but then again, perhaps not. Love of country, a sense of community and the sheer pleasure of celebrating with family and friends has no need of publicity. In utter darkness, against a hidden horizon, even the smallest shower of light can be satisfaction enough.
On the other hand, event planners know us. They understand we’ve become a nation dedicated to the proposition that bigger is better, in every respect. Certainly more people in America know which corporation coined the phrase “Super-size me” than know the authors of the Declaration of Independence. There’s no question that big money affects the political process, or that mega-churches preach a distorted Christian faith. Family farms disappear while questions about the safety of corporate agriculture increase. Media conglomerates increase profits while blurring the line between factual reporting and entertainment, and an ever-growing governmental bureaucracy seems intent on regulating everything in sight.
Given these realities, it makes sense that publicists for America’s birthday celebration should choose to highlight the big parties, the extravagant events and the sheer spectacle of it all. I’ll not quarrel with that. I’ve already admitted taking pleasure in the occasional spectacle. But we need to remember that in the darkness of the prairie, in the wilderness of the inner city, beyond the well-kept fences of the suburbs and the walls of the exclusive enclaves, there are fellow Americans who prefer to celebrate in a different way.
Many are struggling. Most don’t have “names” and few have great wealth or power. What they do have is a deep and abiding love for the country they call home. They share a willingness to serve that country and work for her preservation. Committed to values that include self-sacrifice and responsible stewardship, they also have an ability to rejoice in the gifts they have received and desire to pass those gifts on to future generations. However it may distress the powers that be, this is their nation, too, and they have a right to participate in their own governance.
Three years ago, I enjoyed a similarly subdued July 4th celebration when circumstances demanded I spend the evening tending to chores rather than going down to the Bay with friends. I hadn’t a clue my local grocery store parking lot was prime territory for fireworks-viewing, but when I walked out of the store it had filled with people, coolers and chairs and the fireworks – miles away in a municipal park – had just begun. Some surprised shoppers perched on the hoods of their cars. Others stood, captivated, chatting with the strangers around them.
It was a beautiful display, perhaps twenty minutes in length. When it ended with a cascading spill of patriotic color and more than enough noise to make the toddlers nervous, there were “oohhhs” and “aahhhs” to spare. Then, in a ritual as old as celebration itself, folks sighed and grinned, picked up chairs, strapped sleepy children into car seats, shoved coolers into trucks and began the slow trip home.
As it turned out, my own moment of celebration wasn’t quite over. Pushing my nearly-forgotten grocery cart over to a rack, I was caught by the sound of a light, trilling whistle, a memory-stirring whistle that made me turn. A man in blue jeans, white sleeveless shirt and work boots was leaning against a truck. He looked like he’d spent the day working, and working hard, but there was no question he’d spent some time with John Phillips Sousa. The blue-jeaned man was the one trilling away, whistling the piccolo obbligato to The Stars and Stripes Forever with a grin and real skill. He was celebrating the 4th in his own way, and his way of celebrating made me smile. It was clear he considers this his nation, too.