“Life without Liberty is Like a body without spirit”
Independence Day has long been my favorite holiday. My earliest memories center around the picnic-like atmosphere of these annual celebrations, from the deviled eggs and grilled meat to the fireworks displays in the warm Summer darkness. Each year was a nationwide birthday party for the Republic and a means of reminding us of the events that led to our happy lives wherever we lived. I have no doubt that there were those who resented or cared nothing for it, but to me it was the ultimate form of both unity and individualism, even when I barely understood the concepts. My children have always asked about my childhood as they track the progress of their own and I would regale them with the assorted stories that revolved around this particular day; when Yanna Nikitas threw a cherry Slurpee on my prized yellow Chicago T-shirt and I responded by punching her in her 10 year old face only to be dragged away from the party by my father where I was made to sit in our Buick Skylark until the fireworks were over, soaked in perspiration and miserable. Afterwards as we drove home in silence we passed a lumber yard that had taken a direct hit from an errant firework and watched as the firemen poured streams of water into the conflagration, my parents faces glowing orange in the darkness and my father reached his hand back to stroke my head, all forgiven. There was the annual rite of my father clipping the reprint of the Declaration of Independence from the New York Times and pinning it to the apple tree in the back yard with a leather handled Estwing hatchet where it fluttered all day in the gentle breeze. In the Summer of 1976 we watched the tall ships sail up the Hudson kRiver and the fantastic, seemingly endless display of fireworks that signaled the Bicentennial and three years later, only days before I was to report for my enlistment in the US Army my closest friends and I hiked up to the top of High Point where we watched fifty local displays of fireworks a thousand feet below us spanning a 360 view of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania as if we were gods on Olympus. I can’t recall a single 4th of July that wasn’t filled with food, friendship, family and an abiding feeling of what it meant to be free. On the last year we lived in New Jersey, where fireworks were strictly prohibited by the Nanny State, my oldest son and I drove across the Delaware and picked up several hundred dollars worth of rockets and mortars, flares and roman candles and then under the cover of darkness we packed them into my old rucksack and walked a circuitous route along the hedgerows firing them from a dozen hidden locations to the applause and whistles of the people in town.
This year was the first one I can remember when I had no feeling about the day at all. The events of the past several months on the national stage, from the Supreme Court decisions to the kabuki theater of the Fast Track and Trans Pacific Partnership had led me to accept the fact that the country I live in today had changed so fundamentally, so completely from the one I had grown up in that the meaning of the day was no longer valid. Liberty of the type written in that document was no longer present, no longer admired or respected, replaced with the kind of dependence and servitude to a ruling class that is in no way different than the one of King George. This was the new America and I was an old American and it was time to, as the bible said, put away childish things. I purchased no fireworks, didn’t place the flags along the split rail fence like we usually do, didn’t plan a barbecue, didn’t mention the day at all. There is an annual parade in the village that makes three loops past the 30 or so houses and this year we didn’t decorate the tractor and load up the piglets in the trailer, didn’t even go to the bottom of the hill to watch. We did chores, worked on some unfinished projects and enjoyed the overcast day with occasional sprinkles the same way we did any other. My wife had made plans for the evening with a couple we are friends with and made sure to not to make a big deal of it. There was a party on the top of a local mountain and we had been asked to stop up if we could make it. I would have preferred to stay at home and maybe get a little rest, but the children clearly wanted to see their friends and my wife had picked up a bottle of wine, so I relented and after a quick shower I dressed and loaded the family into the car. My wife had made some roasted peppers with herbs and garlic and the car smelled like an Italian restaurant.
We made the drive up the logging road to the top of Rowe Mountain with the kids laughing in the backseat and as we parked under the stunted oaks near the summit I put on my game face and took my wife’s hand. The kids ran ahead to find their friends and the breeze picked up slightly in the late afternoon sun. All the clouds from earlier in the day had moved on and the view at the top was impressive; Kezar Lake at the base of the mountain, Concord to the east, Mount Kearsarge to the north, and the various villages of Sutton, Wilmot, Bradford and Warner spread out between them. There was a huge American flag hung from a locust tree and a small fire built in a granite fire pit, people gathered around it against the evening air holding drinks and talking animatedly. The owner of the mountain, a man whose family had lived on their eponymous hilltop for three centuries, manned a huge kettle of steaming lobsters and clams. The hunting cabin that served as the hub was one the family had built years ago and it was a draw for the kids; a loft, stuffed animal heads mounted on the walls, trays of cupcakes and bowls filled with salads and corn on the cob. My wife found her friend who had brought her camera and was busy snapping shots of the teenagers playing horseshoes, the ever shifting surface of the blue lake below, the flags fluttering in the breeze. I stood on a ledge with my friend and identified as many points as we could and as the light slowly failed and the temperature began to drop you could see spots of lights appear from a dozen homesteads in the blue forested flanks of the countryside. After a bottle of cold beer and dozen steamers my mood began to change and the old feeling of inspiration and something close to awe began to take over. I looked around the assembly of men and women chatting and resting, throwing Frisbees and eating bright red lobsters with their hands. There were washtubs filled with ice and bottled drinks, the laughter of children weaving between picnic tables with smiles on their faces. Several young couples clustered together around a hand-built off road vehicle discussing the finer points of it’s design. There were people I recognized, like the fire chief from the company that saved our house when the barn burned down and I approached them one by one to shake hands and exchanged pleasantries. My wife was engaged in a conversation with a woman whose husband owns the largest manufacturing operation in the area and the rest of the crowd was filled with the kinds of people who make the world go ‘round; a radiologist and a veterinarian, a trucking company owner and a retired inventor, contractors and butchers, school teachers and farmers. The mood was so light, the atmosphere so easy and the hospitality so sincere it would have been impossible to feel anything but comfortable and at home. As the valley darkened in the gloaming a few of the men gathered up boxes of fireworks and moved down the slope a safe distance from the party to set up. My friend offered me a sip from a silver flask and the last of my inhibitions and cynical thoughts departed. I was in the moment and aware of the liberty that allowed for us to gather like this on a piece of family land that predated the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In the distance the first blossoms of glowing red fireworks appeared above Concord. You could see the headlights of cars pulled up along the strip of beach at the lake as the first of the fireworks were lit and for the next thirty minutes the rockets streaked skyward and burst into glowing showers of color, one explosive report after another to the delight of everyone. A pall of sulfurous smoke clung to the treetops and rock ledges and after the finale there were cheers and applause and everyone began the process of saying goodbye and thank- you, packing it in and heading back to the clearing where the cars and trucks were parked under the sugar maples. On the drive home the children fell asleep in the back seat and when we pulled up to the farm the dogs were waiting for us in the darkness, tails wagging.
Our oldest son moved into his first apartment a few weeks ago and began his life as an independent man. He chose to work rather than go to college and he is confident with his decision, proudly showing me a recent bank statement that demonstrated his ability to provide for himself. He stops by the farm regularly and has never been happier and I understand why. He has a girlfriend that we haven’t met yet, shaves when he wants to rather than when his mother asks and as much as we miss his presence we delight in his journey into adulthood. The other day I came in from haying under the full moon, beat from a sixteen hour day, but glad to have the opportunity to provide for my family. Our son had stopped by to pick up something he had left behind and he had his little brother up on his shoulders and the two of them were enjoying the moment under the canopy of trees. They didn’t see me at first and I paused long enough to commit the image to memory. Looking back this morning it was a week filled with unforgettable images; a bald eagle that circled the farm for half an hour soaring on thermals, a heavy downpour that tipped over the biggest sunflowers and departed to the north leaving a double rainbow right above the house, the air ten degrees cooler and the younger children splashing in the puddles left behind, my wife dressed in her striped shirt and heels walking beside me and holding my hand as we left the Independence Day party on Rowe Mountain, her lovely face glowing in the moonlight. Whenever I think that things are sliding towards a future that has left me behind I try to remember that I will always have the past, that as many people who embrace their servitude live out there in the darkness, there are still plenty who love their liberty and celebrate it every hour of their lives. The 4th of July celebrates a promise, but it is how we choose to live each day that follows that determines whether or not we honor it.
Happy 5th of July.