The sky was instantly filled with fire and smoke. Down below, shouts and screams joined the din of the bombs bursting above. A distant dog barked and somewhere a child was crying. The breeze carried the smells of various burnt substances–probably fireworks, charcoal, and hamburgers.
“Our first fourth,” I whispered, fourth punctuated by another ear-thrumming pop.
“That’s not true. We’ve seen fireworks together before.”
“Sure, but not as a couple.”
“I still remember our first ever.”
“I remember either our first or our second,” I said. “Red shirt with a glittery flag, braided hair, red-white-and-blue bow?”
She shrugged. “I don’t remember what you were wearing.”
“Did you know,” I said, “that fireworks were originally conceived as an Independence Day celebration for their resemblance to flowers laid on fallen patriots’ graves?”
“No, I’ve never heard that. I thought they were just meant to be like, you know, ‘bombs bursting in air.'”
Zing. Pop. Crackle.
“Eh, you’re probably right. I only made that up.”
“Wow! Did you see that one?”
In the background, a stereo playing The Star-Spangled Banner shook the ground.
“Did you know the anthem was originally written by a soldier during the Battle of Saratoga? In the middle of battle he wrote down half the lyrics but died before he could finish them. His friends finished it in his honor, and General Washington got wind of it. The rest is history.”
“Is that true?”
“Yeah, not at all. I think the anthem was written past 1800.”
She trilled. “Well, aren’t you an encyclopedia of imaginary information?”
“For example,” I said, “Betsy Ross got the inspiration for the American flag as we know it today when she was watching a fireworks display during the War of 1812. There was a shortage of explosives due to the war, so they only had three, which happened to be red, whi–”
She groaned. “Okay. First, Betsy Ross didn’t design the flag we know today, a high-schooler did in the 1950s. Second, as the legend goes, it was in 1776 that Ross designed the first flag. But third, it really wasn’t Betsy Ross who designed the first flag. I think the basics were given by congress, and there were actually a lot of different designs all over for a while.”
“Is that true?”
“Fact by fact. At least, I‘m pretty sure.”
“You have my admiration.”
“That I did know.”
I sighed. “My knowledge of American-themed trivia facts is pretty sad.”
“You have the right spirit. Flowers in commemoration of fallen soldiers, and a songwriter who died for his country . . . I don‘t think the facts count so much when you‘ve got the right spirit.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well . . .”
Bang, bang. Boom.
“So you don‘t remember who came up with celebrating with fireworks, or who designed which flag. You were still thinking about the things that matter–the people who fought and sacrificed themselves so we could sit here today and watch fireworks. We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them. You and I might never have met. They fought for that. They didn’t fight for facts or dates. That’s not what patriotism is about.”
“It‘s about love?”
“Yeah. Love for your country. Exactly.”
Our conversation was interrupted as the finale lit the sky. I watched in hushed awe, marveling at the display, and out of the corner of my eye, at the woman beside me.
When it was over, and we had clapped our hands and cheered ourselves hoarse, she shifted on the picnic blanket beside me. She rolled onto her side to look me in the face.
“Ah,” I breathed, “now that’s a spectacle.”
She giggled. “Charmer.”
“So,” she said, “you were surprisingly quiet about philosophy tonight.”
“You did that pretty well for me.”
She beamed. “But I was sure you‘d be bound to go on and on about symbolism in all the shapes of the fireworks, or what it meant to be sitting here watching them, or how there was something meaningful about lying on a picnic blanket instead of sitting in a chair.”
“I was just thinking.”
“Well, I was thinking about the anthem. We sing it so often that we don’t think about it much, and it begins to evoke nothing but fireworks and football. But as I thought about it, I realized there wasn‘t much I could say that would be more beautiful or meaningful than, well–O say, can you see . . .” I looked at her. “Sing with me?”
She nodded, and closing her eyes, sang in a seraphic soprano: “By the dawn‘s early light . . .“
We rose our voices together in harmony. Here and there around us, other voices chimed in as we serenaded our love to our nation:
“What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,
“Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
“O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
“And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
“Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
“O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
“O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”
To all my fellow Americans,
I think that far too often we’re too busy complaining about what’s wrong with our country. I know, I do that a lot, too. Sometimes political problems get in the way and we forget to appreciate what’s right with our country. Days like this, we celebrate those things. There are a lot of them.
I hope you had a happy, fun, safe Independence Day!