With no rain to ruin the concerts and no drought to curtail the fireworks, Houston’s annual Freedom Over Texas festival has been expanded into what promoters call an “extraordinary extravaganza” — a day-long series of Independence Day concerts and amusements meant to conclude with a “spectacular” fireworks display.
The festival exemplifies the sort of hyperbolic excess dear to the hearts of civic boosters everywhere. Washington, D.C. is promoting its own traditional fireworks as “spectacular,” and of course New York City will be “displaying its patriotism through massive fireworks.” Boston intends to celebrate “in a big way,” while San Francisco will provide “magnificent” and “breath-taking” sights. Not to be outdone, San Diego, Key West, Little Rock, and Huntington Beach have upped their game, promising to rival even the nationally televised shows. Every year, program planners around the country seem determined to live by the well-known rule: “Go big, or go home.”
I’m a great fan of fireworks myself, and enjoy spectacular shows as much as anyone. Cascading swirls of light; gigantic dandelion-like blooms of red, blue, and green sparkling in the sky; thundering, percussive noises that make dogs run and children cry? I love it all. Throw in John Philip 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, it’s a fact that the best fireworks display I’ve experienced took place in near-silence and general isolation, accompanied only by the murmurings 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 sailing. After a massive July 4th storm sent Coast Guard rescuers out to sea and washed fishermen and sailors back to port, bad weather changed our minds. We decided to drive back to Houston.
At the time, our chosen route, State Highway 35, remained a relatively deserted two-lane road. Winding through coastal prairie and fields planted in 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, which offers shelter to the endangered whooping crane.
From Aransas Pass to Port Lavaca lies a collection of obscure villages and tiny communities unknown even to many Texans: Francitas, Blessing, Olivia, Caranchua, Markham. Reached via farm-to-market roads, these hidden bits of American life remain invisible to travelers on primary highways.
Invisible, that is, unless you happen to be driving across the coastal prairie on the night of July Fourth. As the lambent sunset fades and the road itself disappears into darkness, the first, barely-glimpsed flashes of light might suggest a distant storm. But when another flash catches your eye, and then another, you’ll turn for a better look and exclaim, as we did that night, “Fireworks!”
Suddenly alert, we began scanning the horizon. In the distance, another display appeared, and then another. We slowed in amazement, then stopped on the side of the road to stand in darkness, watching the simple displays of color and light sent up from hidden communities.
There were no showering cascades of light, no pulsing, exotic patterns to rival those of the cities. Single rockets soared into the night, interspersed with colorful pairs and mysterious, streaming waterfalls of light. The endings of the shows were marked not by glorious excess, but by vibrant bursts of light sent so high into the sky that any watchers in the towns would have been forced to look upward, toward the stars.
And then, they were gone.
At the time, entranced by the marvelous light show playing out in every direction, I gave it little thought. Today, I find myself moved not by the memory of the shows themselves, but 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.
Certainly, event planners know us. They understand we’ve become a nation dedicated to the proposition that bigger is better, and spectacle more admirable than expertise.
I suspect 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 beneath the onslaught of corporate agriculture, even as media conglomerates blur the line between factual reporting and entertainment, and ever-growing bureaucracies seem intent on regulating everything in sight.
Given these realities, it makes sense that July 4th publicists should choose to highlight the big parties, the extravagant events, and the sheer spectacle of it all. But 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 celebrating in a different way.
Many are struggling. Some may have names recognizable beyond the boundaries of their county, but few have great wealth or power. What they do share 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 intend to pass those values on to generations yet to come. Some might ridicule them for “going small,” but they know the value of having a home to come back to.
Several years ago, circumstances demanded I spend the evening of July 4 tending to chores rather than celebrating with friends. As I pulled into a nearby grocery store parking lot, I discovered it had become a prime spot for viewing fireworks being set off at a municipal park.
Early arrivals with coolers and chairs were joined by surprised shoppers who perched on the hoods of their cars. Others stood, captivated, chatting with nearby strangers.
The fireworks display was beautiful, and nearly twenty minutes in length. When it ended with a cascading spill of patriotic color , there were “oohhhs” and “aahhhs” to spare. Then, in a ritual as old as celebration itself, folks picked up chairs, strapped sleepy children into car seats, shoved coolers into trucks, and began the slow trip home.
But for those who lingered, the celebration wasn’t quite over. As I pushed my grocery cart over to a rack, I found myself caught by the sound of a light, trilling whistle: a memory-stirring whistle that made me turn.
A man wearing blue jeans and work boots, a man who looked like he’d spent the day working, and working hard, was leaning against his truck. He was the one trilling away, whistling the piccolo obbligato to John Philip Sousa’s The Stars and Stripes Forever with a hint of a grin and real skill.
Celebrating Independence Day in his own small way, he made me smile: just as he made all of us smile, all the way home.
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