It’s Their Nation, Too

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.

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38 thoughts on “It’s Their Nation, Too

  1. Who doesn’t love fireworks? Well, my old dog Penny who just freaked at the explosions, but other than that I can’t think of anyone/thing.

    So as not to take up too much of your cyber space I’ll be writing about the unusual Fourth of July fireworks situation in the small town on Cape Cod where I grew up, in my blog.

    When I was living in New Orleans there was a fireworks display every evening at the closing of the 1984 World’s Fair and all I had to do to watch the show was to go out in my back yard.

    The absolutely BEST fireworks display I ever saw in my life was July 14, 1989 for the French Bicentennial in Cannes on the Riviera. The rockets were fired from three different locations; a barge out in the bay and two spots on shore. The triangulation put you in the center of the display and often gave you a sense of vertigo that I’ve never experienced before or since.

    Also in France, every August Juan les Pins, on the other side of Cap d’Antibes from the marina where my boat was located held the “Concours International de feux d’artifices pyromélodiques”, a month-long competition in which pyrotechnic artists from around the world put on displays synchronized to music. None of them rivaled the bicentennial display but they draw thousands to the shoreline every year.

    I couldn’t find a decent vid from Juan les Pins on YouTube but here’s one from Monaco.

    1. oldsalt,

      You know you’ve conditioned me like one of Pavlov’s dogs. Every time I know there’s another wonderful story from the Cape coming my way, I get a hankering for onion rings. ;-)

      I’ve never heard of a display like the one for the French bicentennial. I suppose there might have been something similar here in one of the big cities, but still – what an experience!

      I am curious about the folks who put on shows that are synchonized with music. How do they “practice”? They can’t be shooting off fireworks day in and day out – do they do it virtually, now?

      Like you in New Orleans, I’m lucky to have a decent view of the fireworks over Galveston Bay from my building. Up on the fourth floor breezeway we’re well above the trees and it’s just great. It’s a little far from the water, but that’s more than made up for by the ability to walk home afterward. The fireworks have become such an occasion that it can easily take an hour – or more – just to get away from the water.

      I imagine there will be a celebration or two in Panama tomorrow – probably in the enclaves, yes? I always enjoyed experiencing the 4th out of country. I’m not quite able to put my finger on the appeal, but it was there – and no, it wasn’t just that I’d escaped the US! ;-)


      1. Regarding my family’s onion rings I give you this comment from my blog post regarding fireworks on the Fourth back in Orleans on the Cape:

        Best onion rings (and fried clams) on the planet were found at PhilbricksI Spending summers on Nauset Heights (1960-1964 with grand parents and worked as a dishwasher at the Casserole Kitchen) gave me and all my town friends plenty of opportunity to indulge in those crispy crunchy yummies. I was born on CC and lived there for a while a number of time (1946 – 1952) (1970 – 1973) (1978 – 1983) which meant more rings (and often fried clams as well). When I visit even now I go and I still call it Philbrick’s Snack Shack. All things change.-John Richardson

        1. John-Your going to the wrong location for your onion rings! I’m Jeff Philbrick the former owner of Philbrick’s Snack Shack on Nauset Beach. Jim & Jean Philbrick, my Dad and Mom, started Philbrick’s back in 1954 serving the best clams and onion rings on the planet. They also had 5 sons (I’m the next to the youngest) who all grew up working in the restaurant. I worked there 13 seasons before taking over the family business in 1979 when my father retired I ran the Snack Shack for 10 season before leaving Nauset Beach in 1989. But you can still find the real Philbrick’s onion rings today if you go to Philbrick’s at the Olde Barnstable Fairgrounds Golf Club. See, even though I got out of the business my Dad taught my nephew Ian (son of my brother Gary) first hand how to make the onion rings! Now that you know what are you waiting for?

          J. Jeffrey Philbrick
          former owner/manager
          Philbrick’s Snack Shack
          Nauset Beach, East Orleans, MA

          1. I swear – I’m ready to head to the Cape right now! I thought we had the best onion rings in the world at a little restaurant here, but I’m increasingly less convinced of that!

  2. Are you happy now? You’ve gone and done it. The lump is properly lodged in the throat. This was beautiful, Linda.

    I loved sparklers when I was a kid. They were always my favorite. One year I was scolded for swirling mine around while still on the porch. Dad’s new seine nets were piled up at one end of the porch. Oops. What a blaze that could have ignited.

    Happy Independence Day!

    1. Bella,

      I am happy! If I’m going to get a lump in the throat remembering it, you deserve a matching lump reading it! No, truly – I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      I loved sparklers, too – and I just remembered that “other” kind – the tin toys that had the lever you pushed. Lo and behold, you can find one on the interwebs, provided you’re willing to shell out $18 for that particular memory!

      I hope your July 4 still has enough dappled sunlight to keep those toes happy!


  3. Last night, my daughter and I went to our small town’s annual fireworks display. It’s always a modest but beautiful show.

    We were nowhere near where the fireworks were being launched, but, at the end, there was hooting and applause.

    I’ve been in movie theaters a few times when that type of thing happened. I think once was when Al Pacino stood up to the court system in “And Justice for All”, and another time at the end of “An Inconvenient Truth”. The creators aren’t there, but the audience applauds because the movie is an event about something much bigger. You feel at one with other audiences in other theaters reacting to the same message.

    Whether you attend a big gala Fourth event or a small, community one, you’re part of the whole country’s celebration. We appreciate a chance to feel part of something bigger than ourselves. We don’t get enough of that.

    1. Claudia,

      And in a society where we’re constantly told nothing, but nothing, is more important than our single, solitary selves, it becomes increasingly difficult to lose ourselves in an experience of something bigger than ourselves.

      It just occurred to me – perhaps that’s what I dislike about so much use of Twitter and Facebook. There’s a good bit of big people acting like children, demanding, “Look at me! Look at me!”

      But that’s unnecessarily gloomy for a day set aside to celebrate so much that is good – family, community, history. Oh, and barbeque and hot dogs. ;-) I think your analogy with the film experience is perfect, and I think it’s part of the reason I always tear up at the combination of fireworks and patriotic music. It’s the hopeful sense that we made it this far – maybe we can make it a little farther!

      Happy 4th!


    1. Andrew,

      As my Manhattan-dwelling aunt said to me once, “The reason people can’t conceive living in New York is that they don’t understand its true nature – it’s really just a hundred small towns connected by a subway system.”

      My own experience suggests living in a small town is charming until the claustrophobia sets in, and life in a city’s great until the first time you get mugged. But the truth is they both have their good qualities and delights. The 4th is a time for everyone to come together in celebration, city and village alike.

      Thanks for your greetings – since it looks like lightning and thunder aren’t on the schedule, we’ll make do with our fireworks!


  4. Oh this was lovely Linda.
    We have caught the show a few times but because the dogs freak out from the noise of the fireworks, Mr F and I try to stay home with our dogs that night.

    I hope we can all stay safe ;-)

    1. dearrosie,

      Most of the pets in our area are safe tonight, I suspect. The drought and fire danger have resulted in absolute bans for private fireworks, so there should be no risk of boomlets close by. My kitty doesn’t seem to mind them these days, although we did have one year when it took me two hours to find her once the neighborhood noise was over. She was under the sofa, and I still don’t know how she flattened herself enough to get under there. We had to lift it up to get her out.

      A happy Independence Day to you and yours. It’s good to have a formal celebration of our history to re-focus the attention!


        1. Maybe we will, Rosie. The “barometer bush”, aka Texas sage, suddenly is blooming. Many old-timers – me included – see that as a sign of coming rain. My experience is that it comes in a week, give or take. We’ll see!

  5. For some reason I often have been involved in the placing and firing of party fireworks. Maybe the others think I’m expendable? One of the best was sort of a Gattling gun: about eight small rockets wrapped together in a squat package which seemed to me to be quite stable when set down. Who ever actually reads the instructions?

    When the first rocket shoots away it tips the package and the next rocket starts the thing spinning and subsequent launches shoot randomly though the group foolish enough to stand anywhere near. One or two ricochet off the house that we had enough sense to ask the kids to watch from.
    The instructions read after the event demand that this item be buried solidly.

    But the best display I have seen was in San Patricio/Melaque: There was a 40 foot pole prepared with about 50 fuses to a variety of elaborate fireworks. From the bottom each display gets more complex and brilliant, children run under the showers of sparks and ash with scraps of cardboard for protection. Near the finale pinwheels spin on both horizontal and vertical axis and depict dolphins in blue fire. Now and then small rockets leave the tower and fly anywhere they wish – often they come through the crowd or rattle around in the nearby church bell tower where some viewers duck and cover. The last rocket is the biggest and probably has lots of explosive in it but the one I saw tipped over as it ignited and flew away bouncing off roofs.

    I really just wanted to wish you a pleasant Fourth of July.

    1. Ken,

      Really rather appealing, these stories of yours – but then I just had a friend from the Nanny States bring me up to date on their proposed new rules and regs. No swimming without life preservers. Oh, me. I have a vision of the bureaucrats confronting that display in Melaque.

      I have a vague memory of those “stationary” displays from childhood. There would be flags, cowboys, and so on, with rockets shooting off in this direction or that. I’d forgotten about them – they may still do that, but since I generally watch from some distance away, I don’t know what goes on where they’re actually shooting them off.

      We saw a half-dozen displays last night, two of which were close enough to be impressive. Apparently there are fashions in fireworks, too, as there were a couple of varieties no one could remember seeing.

      With the addition of potato salad and barbeque, it was a pleasant day. Thanks for the greeting!


      1. I think that was my first impression:
        “Don’t try this at home.”
        Some of the people there showed off burns they had gotten from earlier displays.
        The best tasting raw oysters I have had came from an uninspected stand on the street there. I got pretty ill soon after.
        “That which does not kill me outright makes me stronger.”

        1. Oh, the oyster stories. We’ve all got one, I suspect – at least those of us who enjoy the delicacies. Ill? I wished I was dead. Now, I just eat them if I know which neighborhood they’ve come from, and whose hand plucked them from those briny waters.

  6. Happy July 4th to you Linda! I still remember your post last year about folks on car tops (hoods) watching fireworks. In a way, media nowadays such as YouTubes and Twitters as you mentioned, have given exposure to anyone with access to the Internet. A much wider canvas if you will to paint the ordinary, and otherwise unnoticed Everyman… or Everyperson. Everyone now has an easy access to publicize oneself.

    July 1st went by without fanfare for us in Cowtown. But in our Capital Ottawa, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge William and Kate were the guests of honor, celebrating our National Day with us. They will be coming to Cowtown for the annual Calgary Stampede this week. Maybe I just might get a glimpse of them on the street.

    1. Arti,

      Oh, those car hoods. There’s not a midwestern-bred kid of a certain age who didn’t do a whole lot of hood sitting. It wasn’t just for fireworks. Drive-in movies, spontaneous races, a trip to the rootbeer stand all provided opportunity to just sit around. Best of all was the “weekend sit” on the town square. Kids with cars would go there, back their car into a parking place and then perch on the hood to watch the world go by!

      I saw a few reports of the Duke and Duchess’ trip – including a dragon boat race! Wouldn’t it be fun to spot them perched on the hood of a car, watching some event? Keep your camera with you!

      And thanks for the 4th greetings. With the holidays over, there’s nothing left but to watch for the fireworks called thunderstorms!


  7. Ahhhh fireworks. I love ’em. Disneyland does a darn nice fireworks show…really nice. But for the 4th of July we generally stay close to home. Last night, instead of walking down to our pier where we can view the Queen Mary in Long Beach, turn around and see them from Huntington Beach further south, or inland and have our pick, none of them close, we just walked to the jetty.

    We were sitting on the rocks, along with quite a few other people, and enjoyed the show all around us – with Queen Mary’s fireworks being the biggest. Someone shot off some really nice ones not that far from where we were sitting. That was a treat! We kept hearing boom, boom, boom as we walked home and well into the evening. We leave our dogs at home with the radio on….but of course, our old Missy gal can’t hear them anymore.

    Hope you had a delightful 4th…we all did here!

    Oh, and Huntington Beach’s 4th of July celebration is HUGE. That’s exactly why we stay away! LOL

    1. Karen,

      Your shows sound splendid. And of course “water-works” were the only thing available to us (except for the civic show in Houston) because of the fire risk. It’s nice to be able to shoot them out over the water and have not so much to worry about. In Houston, they apparently watered the heck out of the park where the show was held, to help reduce risk.

      I’ll say this – I had wondered what kind of compliance with the fireworks ban there would be, and it seemed to be total – at least in our neighborhood. It was a little strange to have a perfectly quiet night except for the commercial shows, but there was no popping and sizzling at all! Even the kids obeyed the ban – I think everyone’s aware of how dangerous things are right now.

      I see it’s almost time for your trip – have a wonderful time. We’ll be looking forward to those photos!


  8. Hi

    Although I’ve never been a huge fan of fireworks, I discovered a few years ago that it was the noise that really turned me off. We watched a fireworks display from a mountain, and the colors and beautiful designs were delightful.

    Just goes to show you that when you look at things from a different perspective you can find joy in much of life. Thanks for the reminder!

    1. Wild_Bill,

      Speaking of seeing things from a different perspective, I was amazed some weeks ago by a few of the photos I found on Montucky’s site. They were native grasses, but they looked for all the world like fireworks.

      This morning, another photographer friend posted some of his fireworks photos, and darned if one of them didn’t look just like Montucky’s grasses!

      I think John Muir was right: “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”


  9. Ah, the bliss of a “found” fireworks celebration such as what you witnessed out there in the countryside on that silent night of light. Wonderful.

    I have to say, too, that (once again) you made me laugh out loud with your “Be quiet! Can’t you see I’m watching?” It is SO true. When focused on watching/looking/observing something, talk that buzzes around you can be so…annoying. I love the line. And the reason for it.

    You’re right. We canNOT resist celebrating the nation. No matter what we might say otherwise. Look at us sitting on cars and hills and folding chairs we would NEVER otherwise dare to sit upon – all to enjoy the night sky of the 4th…and in truth, the night sky of any evening…to sit and be peacful in the thick of national community.

    1. oh,

      It is the finding that’s half the fun, isn’t it? But maybe we should even go farther and call it a “stumbled upon” celebration – finding something we weren’t even looking for.

      And isn’t it true that there’s active watching and passive watching? Passive watching? Bring on the conversation, the chit-chat, the dogs and kids running amok, the neighbor with too much celebratory beverage in his bloodstream – doesn’t bother me a bit. But wanting to really see, wanting not to miss a minute of the show? You’ll not bother me a bit, unless you start telling me about your last summer’s trip to Wherever. ;-)

      In a way, the 4th is a yearly word of permission to love our nation and our fellow Americans – regardless. In the dark, with the beauty exploding around us, I’ve never once been asked for my party affiliation!


    1. belle,

      The creation of our nation is worth celebrating. Sometimes, when I’m feeling just a titch cynical I wonder – is the difference between the Founders and us simply that they cared more for the nation than for themselves? I don’t know.

      What I do know is that this country., imperfect as it is, demands celebration and preservation. I rarely roll out Lincoln, but I couldn’t help thinking of these words:

      “But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.”



  10. “…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.”

    I love the entire post, but that sentence most of all, because I had never thought of fireworks that way. No matter what’s going on during the other 364 days of the year, fireworks remind us to keep looking up. Thank you, Linda.

    1. bronxboy,

      As I remember my own childhood, it seems I always was looking up when I went out at night – the stars were brilliant, familiar friends. With the passing years, I looked up less often and needed those reminders. Fireworks seem to do especially well!

      After all, clouds may obscure the stars, but they’ll not fade as quickly as fireworks!


  11. Hello Linda,
    I just loved this story and it sends a real message. I do believe a majority of Americans love this country, in their own way.

    I agree with Karen, Disney knows how to put on a firework show about the best I have ever seen! But I rememeber those fireworks done in those little southern towns across the country. Like the one I grew up in NE Arkansas. The big 4th of July Fireworks show in the old town stadium that I could see from my picture window miles away out in the country. Brings a smile to my face.

    Thank you for another lovely story!

  12. Best (almost) ever fireworks display is the Montreal International Fireworks Competition. The musical accompaniment of the choreographed display is broadcast on a local radio station for all to hear, so the display can be appreciated from many vantage points. (But it lacks the heritage for celebration.)

    In my memory this was surpassed by a seemingly endless display of shooting stars observed one summer night from my cottage on Newboro Lake. Sound accompaniment was provided by the beating of my heart and that of surrounding nature: crickets, occasional loon calls, wind in the trees and bull frogs.
    A close second was the celestial display of the Aurora Borealis observed one cool night from (then) home on the Ottawa River.

    Nature can provide a more dramatic display than Chinese boom crackers.


    1. Rick,

      Interesting that Richard at One More Good Adventure also wrote about human fireworks vs. nature’s fireworks in his current post. The great disadvantage to huge fireworks displays – in my opinion, of course – is the traffic getting to and fro. Despite their beauty, I’m simply less and less willing to put up with that. Getting to that dark spot in the world where the “other lights” become apparent may be a little trickier, but at least you can find a parking place when you get there.

      The addition of music is a plus, of course. The picolo obbligato to “Stars and Stripes Forever” is a favorite. Have you seen the animated scores? They’re really fun – and a tiny substitute for fireworks in midwinter.


      1. Linda,

        I’ve been fortunate with never having had to drive and park to view fireworks; if the spectacle is not within walking distance, I miss it. The same has applied to natures displays.

        The animated ‘lite-brite’ put to music is enjoyable (preferred Bethoven’s 5th). Thanks.


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