e-mail us


Independence only part of Fourth of July event


With another Fourth of July celebration under our belts, I’m reminded of how I used to feel about this annual burst of patriotism. For a time in my wet-behind-the-ears younger adulthood, I adopted a snarly attitude. I refused to be moved by the rockets’ red glare and the opening strains of the national anthem.

“Government equals capitalist interest equals oppression of those who do not hold power” was my rationale, and I was siding with all those who had never benefited from the American dream, or whose own dream had been stolen from them by European settlers.

Heck, I wouldn’t even buy postage stamps if they featured the stars and stripes, much less attend fireworks or watch a parade.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the majority of my past nine summers has been nearly a blur of being miserably pregnant in the humidity, tired and crabby from having a nursing baby, or grateful for a toddler who would be too afraid of the screams and booms of the festivities -- all excuses for not wanting to be part of the throngs ooh-ing and aah-ing over a few minutes of overrated pyrotechnics. Move over, Scrooge.

In recent years, my children’s excitement about Fourth of July picnics and fireworks triggered my memories of summer patriotic holidays circa 1970. Older baby boomers may have been marching righteously for justice or burning flags in protest of Kent State, but I was riding my banana-seat bike decorated with red, white and blue crepe paper streamers -- or marching with my Brownie troop in my neighborhood Memorial Day parade.

On the Fourth some time after dinner and before dusk, we would drive to what seemed to me to be the hugest lot in the world, where we’d park and wait. We absorbed the heat from summer-hot engines, lounging on blankets or lawn chairs until the sun disappeared, the air cooled and the excitement built.

Once the fireworks began they seemed to go on forever, and we all leaned back and just enjoyed the spectacle until all that was left was the smoke and burning powder smell. Not only was this one thing the five of us in my family could agree that we liked, but I suspect I enjoyed the giddy intimacy in the sea of anonymous families under cover of darkness: Chaos in safety.

So last year my urge to see if it was as much fun as I remembered overcame my humbug posturing. At dusk we piled in the minivan (we have air conditioning, a significant improvement over my parents’ ’68 Chevy Impala) and drove to Veterans Memorial Park. The bumper-to-bumper traffic was familiar enough, as were the streams of pedestrians clutching coolers, lawn chairs, blankets. Children got rides on dads’ shoulders or in red wagons.

We circled the block and found a spot, unloaded kids, blankets and lawn chairs, and joined the trek to the big field where people were gathering and settling in as darkness began to fall.

I noticed a variety of families: parents and teens with their friends; a mom and her young son; a multi-generational Spanish-speaking clan. The waiting was the same as I remembered. My oldest rested his head in my lap as he tried to get comfy in the cool evening. The baby cuddled up, oblivious to it all, on Dad’s chest while the middle daughter found a safe spot on Grandpa’s lap. A stone’s throw from the airport, we saw dozens of planes take off, their red and white lights flashing. The teaser fireworks went off -- just enough flash and acrid after-scent to prime you for the real show.

To remind us that summer was really the backdrop, and that nature was not to be completely obliterated by the flash and dazzle of artificial lights, a lone firefly made its blinking way over the heads of the assembly, on toward a destination of only its knowing.

I’ve looked at many things from both sides now. I don’t want my children to grow up naive to injustice, neither do I wish them to be cynical about their place of birth. A few months ago, we visited the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, where the stories of immigrants fleeing hatred, seeking freedom and a better life for their children are detailed with photos, personal belongings and recorded testimonials. I know my mother’s family stories of the journey across the Atlantic.

I also discovered a few years ago that my father’s family traces ancestors back to a Revolutionary War soldier. So, for better or for worse, my personal history mirrors my country’s history. What I now know is that the stories of all the people who have lived on this land are my stories, too.

Maybe poet Wendell Berry is right when he suggests in his Manifesto that we “love the flag/hate the government.” There is a beauty to this kind of old-time religion of patriotism, an acknowledgment that despite the atrocities, injustices, blunders and lies perpetrated in our names by those with political power -- nothing new under the sun -- the American people are smart enough to know that what we celebrate has little to do with government and everything to do with community and gratitude for our tremendous potential.

Looking at it in this way, maybe our cross-cultural, cross-class, cross-religion gathering before the fire and lights of summer marks our interdependence as much as it does our independence.

Kris Berggren lives in Minneapolis.

National Catholic Reporter, July 30, 1999