I was a small child on Independence Day, lying down with my sister on the back of my Dad’s blue Dodge pick-up truck, peering up in excitement at the rapidly darkening sky. We were in the parking lot of the elementary school I was going to attend one day, and a good portion of the town was in the parking lot with us, waiting for the fireworks to begin. Mom and Dad had vacated the back of the truck so my sister and I could stretch out and watch the exploding ‘stars’ rain down on us like so much bright, glittering confetti.
When all trace of the sun had disappeared from the sky and the shadows grew deep, all of us held our breath as the fireworks began to fill the air with loud bangs, sharp cracks, and rumbling booms. Our eyes widened and our faces split into amazed laughter as we watched the sparkling flowers bloom, disintegrate, and fall. As the display continued, the sticky summer air turned smokey with the spent gunpowder. When the fireworks paused for just a brief moment while the members of the town fire department reloaded, I learned something about my dad I’d never learned before.
“There was a time when you couldn’t watch the fireworks.” Mom commented as the fireworks started again and a wash of green sparks filled the sky above us. “The big ones, the ‘big boomers’, were the ones that got to you the most.”
My dad nodded. “Yep. Coming back from Vietnam, I couldn’t hear ‘em without thinkin’ of mortar fire. The others, the loud ones and the firecrackers…sounded like small arms fire. I’d get this panicky feeling and would have to leave, go back home right then. Spend half the night awake, unable to sleep.”
I remember looking at my dad, surprised and puzzled, then looking up at the fireworks above me – the excitement of it all, the pretty colors, the bright lights and cheering people parked beside my dad’s truck – and couldn’t imagine thinking anything bad at all.
“But not anymore, right Daddy?” I asked. He shook his head but didn’t look at me. The fireworks lit up his face – flashing red, green, gold in the dark. “No, not anymore.” He said. “That was a long time ago, before you kids were born.”
# # #
When I was seven years old, my family and I moved into a different house, not far from the one we lived in when I learned that my father suffered from PTSD after his tours of duty in Vietnam. One of the best things about that house then (and now, as my parents still live there), is that when Casar holds their fireworks on July 4th, you can see them from the neighbors’ backyard. I have countless other memories of gathering with my family and the neighbors next door in the yard watching those fireworks every year, but I’d never really thought much about what Independence Day meant. Least of all to me.
Don’t get me wrong…I know the story of our country’s founding, about the Revolutionary War, and our fight for independence from the sovereignty of England. I’d heard the famous stories of the Boston Tea Party, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River, and of Paul Revere’s ride. We heard those stories every year in school. But up until the last few years, I never really had any personal feelings about the holiday. Any thoughts of my own. It was the time of year for barbeques and fireworks, hanging a flag outside your house, and celebrating freedom.
But what does freedom really mean? To any of us?
What does freedom mean to me?
When my husband and I bought our house by the skin of our teeth in the fall of 2019, right before the pandemic struck, I was excited to see the fireworks on July 4th. Situated a couple of miles behind our town’s memorial park, I was certain we’d have a phenomenal view come July; but when the 4th came around after months of relative isolation and lockdown and I gathered on the back deck with my husband and four-year-old son, I was sadly disappointed.
The small but thick section of woods behind our house made it impossible to see a single firework. My son was no worse for wear, he enjoyed simply being on the deck in the darkness as lightning bugs flew and flashed in the yard. My husband quickly lost interest and went inside.
As for me, I remained on the deck, staring at the dark tree line, listening to the fireworks as they soared and broke open in the night sky. I strained and repositioned myself in vain. But I could see the way they illuminated the trees with red, white, green. In my disappointment, I became very aware of each and every bang, boom, crack that split the night. And from the depths of my memory, I heard again my mom and dad speaking about the way the sound of the ‘big boomers’ reminded my dad of mortar shells, and the bang and crackle of the rest like small arms fire.
That night I sat and listened to them, imagining all the while, the soldiers of the Revolutionary War, the soldiers of WWII, the Vietnam veterans like my father, and the soldiers still fighting in the Middle East. I wondered how many of them were reminded of their time in war. How many of them felt more keenly the sacrifices that freedom asks of us?
I began to sing softly my country’s national anthem, really listened to the words as they left my mouth, and finally – at long last – felt something.
# # #
Freedom isn’t something we’re given. It’s something we have to fight for – not once or twice, not just when it’s convenient or when it affects us personally – but all the time. Freedom is something that, if you grow complacent, can slip away from you before you know it. Like the proverbial frog in hot water, not realizing the danger its in until it’s too late, we must always be vigilant and mindful of our freedoms and how easily, how subtly they can be taken from us.
This year, while I sat on the deck listening to the fireworks, as I imagined again they were the sound of mortar fire and the rat-tat-tat of small arms in the distance, I thought of the people in Ukraine fighting for their freedom for the second time. I thought of people in counties we don’t hear about in the news across the world who, while we argue and bicker about things we so often take for granted, were even now fighting for their own freedoms.
I thought of the fear and uncertainty so many of us feel in our country these days – how tenuous our freedoms seem, no matter what side of the aisle we find ourselves on.
People fear for their freedom of religion, their freedom of self-determination and identity, their bodily autonomy, their freedom to love who they want, the freedom to walk down the street, or run in the park without being the victim of violence. I think about the soldiers who give up their freedoms so they can fight for the freedoms of their fellow citizens.
And as uncertain as things seem, I can see the silver lining in the storm clouds overtaking our nation. As Dylan Thomas said: “…good men, the last wave by, crying how bright / their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay / rage, rage against the dying of the light…wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight / and learn, too late, they grieved it on its way / do not go gentle into that good night…”
As long as we are angry, as long as we are debating, as long as we question, we are being vigilant against the darkness. We aren’t complacent in the loss of our freedom, whatever freedom might mean to us. It’s only when we sit down on the sidelines and give up or say, “I’ve had enough” or “I don’t care”, when we stop speaking to each other, that our freedom can be truly lost.
“O say, can you see by the dawn’s early light
What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars though the perilous fight
O’er the ramparts we watch’d were so gallantly streaming.
And the rocket’s 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 home of the brave?”
Photo Credit: Jakob Owens, upsplash.com