Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Fourth of July Memories

1. Atop Stone Mountain, Georgia, late 1980s

Some friends and I have gone to Stone Mountain Park outside Atlanta for the Fourth of July festivities. Before sunset, we climb the "mountain"—actually a humongous granite dome jutting out from the red clay countryside like a speed bump in the parking lot of the gods. Tired from the good fatigue that comes from pleasant exertion on a fine day in good company, we find a place atop the rock and settle in for the fireworks show. We are only a few hundred feet from the roped-off area where the fireworks crew readies their equipment. Shortly after nightfall, the show begins. The fireworks are shot up above the mountain, for the benefit of the people camped out on the grass alongside the mountain. They have a great view; we, however, have a magnificent view. The fireworks are going off a few hundred feet over our heads. The entire night sky above us is filled with explosions. Chunks of flaming debris rain down around us; occasionally, we have to roll quickly aside in order to dodge them. It is at once terrifying and exhilarating—and, to the best of my knowledge, it is the last time the authorities let anyone get that close to the fireworks crew at Stone Mountain on the Fourth of July.

As we prepare for the hike back down the mountain, we can see Atlanta and its suburbs stretched across the horizon to the west. It is a crisp, clear Southern night, and we can see other fireworks displays twinkling away just above the city lights, from north to south, as far as our eyes can see. It is good to be alive.

2. A Chattanooga lakeside, some other time in the late 1980s

Some friends and I have driven up to Chattanooga, to the house of a rich uncle of a friend's future fiancé, if I remember correctly. It is a big lakeside house owned by a generous rich uncle—generous enough that, on every Fourth of July, he hosts a massive party for family, neighbors, friends, and friends of friends. There are dozens upon dozens of people, from elderly to infant. There are massive amounts of food and drink. The host quietly superintends a set of huge barbecue grills—metal barrels chopped in half lengthwise, fitted with hinges, racks, and vents, and now packed with sizzling flesh of every variety. We eat; we drink; we talk; we laugh; we mingle. The party goes on all afternoon.

As night approaches, there is an air of anticipation among the people who have attended this annual bash before. The real party is yet to come, they imply. I notice that people in boats have gathered, floating in a rough semicircle around the house. I wonder what is going on. Finally, as night falls, our host produces a key, unlocks a side door, and begins handing out bags full of fireworks. Dozens upon dozens of bags of fireworks. There are firecrackers, Roman candles, rockets of every size—and a small arsenal of cigarette lighters to go with them. The guests, especially the younger ones, eagerly grab the bags, take a position along the lake wall, and begin firing. There are parties stretched out along three hundred feet or so of lake wall, shooting stuff up into the sky over the lake. Soon the sky over the lake is full of smoke and fire, and the lake itself sports a growing slick of spent and unexploded munitions, chucked and kicked into the water for safety by people eager to move on to stuff that will explode. I privately wonder whether the Soviets are picking all this fiery activity up on satellites and wondering whether the Americans have embarked upon World War III. The firing goes on for hours.

After the festivities are finally done, we help clean up, offer heartfelt thanks to our host, and drive back to Atlanta. When I wake up for work the next morning, groggy from lack of sleep, I am still combing ashes out of my hair.

3. An MD-80 over the Southeast, early 2000s

I am flying from my summer teaching job to Florida for the Fourth of July break. The second leg of the journey takes me from Hartsfield Airport in Atlanta, southeast across Georgia, out over the Atlantic around Jacksonville, down the east coast of Florida, and then inland north of Cape Canaveral for the descent into Melbourne. In a fortuitous bit of timing, the plane takes off around dusk. It is a clear Southern night, and all the way of the hour-long jaunt to Melbourne, I can see fireworks displays. From the cities and towns of south Georgia, from the condo communities lining the Atlantic beaches of Florida, from Orlando and its environs visible in the west as we descend into Melbourne, the ground sprouts shimmering flowers of polychromatic fire. I love to fly, period—I cannot imagine growing tired of seeing clouds from the other side—but this flight is one that I will never forget. It is sheer delight to be up in the American sky on that clear, festive evening. This is my advice: If you must fly, fly at dusk on the Fourth of July.

Happy birthday, America.

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