When I was a child, I kept coming across passages in books about olden times that described how Independence Day was celebrated. It was nothing like my own experience in the 1970s’ and 1980’s Pittsburgh suburb of West Mifflin. Here’s an excerpt from a particularly vivid memory – Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder
From the top of the flagpole, up against the blue sky, the Stars and Stripes were fluttering. Everybody looked at the American flag, and Almanzo sang with all his might.
Then everyone sat down, and a Congressman stood up on the platform. Slowly and solemnly he read the Declaration of Independence.
“When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people…to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station… We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”
Almanzo felt solemn and very proud.
Then two men made long political speeches. One believed in high tariffs, and one believed in free trade. All the grown-ups listened hard, but Almanzo did not understand the speeches very well and he began to be hungry. He was glad when the band played again.
The music was so gay; the bandsmen in their blue and red and their brass buttons tootled merrily, and the fat drummer beat rat-a-tat-tat on the drum. All the flags were fluttering and everybody was happy, because they were free and independent and this was Independence Day. And it was time to eat dinner.
That’s quite a legacy and one only reinforced by other YA books about the past. Even our much beloved “Little Women” was filled with patriotic references albeit tempered by their religious sensibilities. It sounded both incredibly dull and meaningful at the same time. Nothing like my experience. So I present this list:
Five Things That Never Happened In Our Community on the Fourth of July
1. The Declaration of Independence. I never heard this read aloud until – well, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard it read aloud. I only read it myself when I was in college studying political science. My mother used to recite The Gettysburg Address which she had memorized as a school-girl, but she was actually just showing off not trying to instill any social studies messages.
2. Political speeches. Nope. Not a single utterance. There was no parade, no gathering, no nothing. Just the occasional rant from an uncle who had too many beers or our neighbor, Mr. Mooney, warning us to get off his property or he would call his lawyer and so forth. I had no idea the Fourth of July was political, really.
3. Tariffs and Free Trade. What, huh? I’m pretty sure the adults complained about the cost of gasoline, but I never encountered the term “free trade” until again I was in college. And tariffs? Old timey things right? We studied the gross domestic products of every obscure European nation, but never a word about tariffs.
4. Free and Independent. The working class families in a steeltown suburb in this period of time did not typically feel very free or independent. I definitely thought this terms were associated with the Civil War not the American Revolution. Not that we had extensive knowledge of the Civil War. But my youth was moving away from gratitude and appreciation for freedom and independence to a quasi-patriotism that stemmed from symbols, not their meaning. Fireworks and patriotic music are good examples. It was an era when flags were valued for what they represented, not for there own sake.
5. Dinner. The notion of packing a picnic lunch and celebrating in a big common area was very romantic to me. It wasn’t quite the same thing as looking down the backyards of all of our neighbors eating at their respective picnic tables. I had all sorts of mixed notions about people picnicking in cemeteries and on holidays and for family reunions. In truth, we put food in a cooler and went to Kennywood. Otherwise, we ate in the backyard.
The only thing that happened every Fourth of July was the fireworks display at Hill’s Department Store which was just around the block from our home. We could sit on my Dad’s car in the front street and see the whole thing lighting up the slag heap like a true reflection of the American Dream. Or something. Someone would bring out a boombox to play the music. A few times, we walked over to Hill’s to see the display but it wasn’t really worth the effort. Our view was fine.
Thus, I grew up with this sense that in olden times people actually celebrated something in a communal way and in modern times, we celebrated with fireworks. What I didn’t realize until recently is how the fireworks were the communal celebration – even Mr. Mooney came out to watch them! It was one of the few times each year when everyone was together. (It was only much later that I realized that none of neighbors who were veterans of war ever came out for this.) Inevitably, some would stay out to either light their own illegal fireworks (ahem, Dad) or just visit a bit longer, perhaps finish off a beer together or poke at the embers in the barbecue to make a few more smores for the kids.
I don’t really feel nostalgia for those times so much as more robust appreciation for what did happen when the dysfunction was set aside for occasional group moments. I doubt I’ll ever write a book about it, but I”m glad enough to let the memories make me smile. And sigh.
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