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Flags and Fireworks

My father used to get a real kick out of blasting Stars and Stripes Forever on the stereo.

He would turn the volume up so high that the living room would tremble and you could swear the Thunderbirds were flying directly overhead. I’m sure the neighbors weren’t thrilled but no one ever complained and I doubt Dad would have cared anyway. When you’re a war veteran, you’ve already sacrificed enough for your country without having to turn down the volume, too.

To this day, I’m a big John Philip Sousa fan and I particularly enjoy 4th of July concerts, where Sousa’s patriotic marching music is as standard as White Christmas in December.

Faded watercolor memories

I spent many years in Boston and, like most people I knew, looked forward to the all-day excursion to the Esplanade where we would eat, drink, and listen to the Boston Pops, then conducted by the great Arthur Fiedler.

There’s nothing like a steamy hot Independence Day celebration along the Charles River, hanging out with a sea of sweaty strangers throwing Frisbees. But the heat and mosquitoes were well worth it, for after the long day we were rewarded with that wonderful orchestra. And then the big finale would come — Stars and Stripes Forever — and soon everyone was dancing and clapping and waving their small flags. By nightfall, we would become part of the dark indigo sky, a dramatic backdrop for the booming, electrifying performance of gold, red, green, blue, white, and purple.

I’ve seen some truly spectacular fireworks in my lifetime, whether viewed from a 72' schooner in the middle of Newport Harbor or while sprawled on a lawn near The White House or St. Louis arch. The colors are always fantastic (“Ooooooh!”) and always, always magical (“Ahhhhhh!”)

And even if your celebration takes place at a friend’s backyard barbecue where the light show is nothing more than a few Roman candles and a sparkler on a cupcake, there’s still something to “ooooooh” and “ahhhhhh” about.

It is the last week of June and flag fever is rampant. Replicas of the Stars and Stripes are hanging from buildings, lamp posts, trees, cars, baby strollers, and atop sandcastles on the beach.

I find it interesting that the Continental Congress never did give an explanation as to how we got the flag colors of red, white, and blue, but President George Washington gave his own interpretation: “We take the stars from Heaven, the red from our mother country, separating it by white stripes, thus showing that we have separated from her, and the white stripes shall go down to posterity representing Liberty.”

A childhood pledge

I was attending Dwight Avenue Junior High School in San Antonio, Texas when I first heard the comedian Red Skelton’s stirring monologue about The Pledge of Allegiance. Our principal played the recording over the loudspeaker, afterward announcing that there would be a schoolwide essay contest about patriotism and what The Pledge of Allegiance meant to us.

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

I had grown up reciting that pledge. And whenever I placed my hand over my heart, looking up at the red, white, and blue, I didn’t see just a pretty piece of cloth. I saw my history. I saw my legacy.

I don’t recall the exact words I wrote but Red Skelton’s words inspired me so much that I actually won that writing contest.

Soonafter, I received a letter of congratulations from Red Skelton himself, which was exciting because I enjoyed his weekly television show, especially when he was performing as Clem Kadiddlehopper or the two seagulls, Gertrude and Heathcliff. That used to crack me up.

God bless the U.S.A.

This Independence Day, I plan to be in Bristol, Rhode Island, the home of the oldest Fourth of July parade in the country. Bristol is a town that really shows its patriotic colors with a full schedule of events, including a clamboil, orange crate derby, musical concerts, Fourth of July ball, and fireworks over Bristol Harbor. And when the sky is dark and filled with thousands of fireflies and bursting color, I will think about liberty and the many freedoms we still have in this country.

Dad was a Vietnam War vet who received a military funeral with a three-gun salute, a flag-draped coffin, and the playing of “Taps,” one of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard.

When I look at “Old Glory” waving from the many houses around us, I will see red for courage, white for hope, and blue for the freedom of speech that I am so grateful to have as a writer. And I always think of Dad, of course.

Granted, not everyone feels pride when they see the colors. In fact, some people are so angry these days that they are “seeing red.”

With all the violence, deceit, and challenges in this country, it does feel like a different Independence Day this year. But no matter how you feel about the state of our nation, there is surely one thing we can agree upon: the good ol’ U.S. of A. knows how to throw one hell of a birthday party!


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