Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Independence Day

A FAST train ride to New Haven... my GPS speedometer said that we nearly hit 150mph on the straight-away near Kingston.  Salt marshes, and the famous rivers of Connecticut where I often sailed as a boy all flew by.

Past New London and across the water, General Dynamics reveals only the bow of a nuclear submarine from the covered dry-dock.  On one outing, Father took me on a tour of one, and a young submariner gave us a very exacting tour, including descriptions of propulsion that were beyond my capacity.  

Every year we would visit elder relatives in Guilford Connecticut.  We would sneak up and down the various hidden stairways, and dare each other to eat the nasty black licorice or walnuts from little silver jars in the hallway.  The large house was ill-prepared for energetic children and included entire rooms and a piano which we were not allowed to even go near.  The highlight was always a visit to the beach or to the Little Folks Fair.  There were pony rides in a tight pen, fire engines, beanbag throws, and any manner of activity for children.  I think there was a stool that was ostensibly the property of Ms. Muffet, and if one were to sit upon it, a large home-made spider was lowered onto you.  One famous year, I stood in line to have my face painted by one of the volunteers... I specifically requested to be the Incredible Hulk. I think I was six or seven, and was likely under the influence of ice cream or taffy.  While the exact error will never be known, there was some problem with the formulation, and the paint lasted for almost five days, fading SLOWLY during that time.  When the green finally disappeared from my face, my blonde eyebrows still looked like Groucho's for nearly two weeks.

Later that summer, we watched fireworks from the deck of a relative's very large sailboat, having "struck the colors" at sundown, and because it was coastal Connecticut, the wind direction determined whether or not we need heavy wool sweaters.  A few shirtless drunks in a motorboat tried to light off some Roman candles, and ignited the two-stroke mixture from their outboard's fuel supply.  The boat burned but never sank and the boater was subjected to simultaneous ridicule and rescue while I watched from the beam.


Maybe coming from a seaborne family has tilted me towards some areas of tradition more than others.  Our houses have always had cared-for flags but have never wrapped them around our conduct in any weird or eye-rolling sort of country music way.  Flags are flown off of the transom of boats, and are still used to signal house goings-on like tea, drinks, dinner, or parties.  Neighbors and children keep an eye out for each signal, rushing home for the appropriate one.  Depending on the relative and the house, bells can also signal meals (the breakfast bell can be especially disturbing for first-time guests).

When the idiot Abbie Hoffman made a shirt from an American flag, he intended it as sacrilege, an offense towards the World War 2 generation.  Several decades later, people think nothing of literally wrapping themselves in a flag in the form of shirts, hats, pants, and any manner of clothing during rallies and while rousing the spirits of concert goers.  Flag sensibility is odd, because some people get towards near-superstitious idolatry, and many get towards well-meaning but horribly distasteful displays.

In America, we don't know how to mourn as a society, and we barely know how to celebrate, turning all memorializing days into cook-outs.  Independence from England came at extensive expense, and we remember it by sitting in traffic, grilling ground beef, and chatting idly while standing around in athletic shorts drinking cheap beer (personally, I like cheap beer in the summer).  What should we be doing?  I'm not sure that I know, but what we are doing currently might need some introspective examination.  Cookouts can be fun, but why must all of our non-winter holidays center around coolers and ketchup?  Fireworks are (and will always be) appropriate for the Fourth, but how can we improve all of our holidays?  I just feel like we can do better than we currently are.



  1. At some point the economy of scale gave rise to the cooler and the grill as a means to an end: feeding a large gathering of people celebrating an event or holiday. But now we have transitioned from a gathering where the grill is an ancillary component that only serves to provide sustenance to a point where the purpose of the gathering is essentially to all stand around the grill, drinking beers, waiting for the food to be done. I'm not sure what the transition is indicative of, but I suspect it has less to do with the physical maturation of a generation raised on the couches in front of a television and more to do with the proliferation of means to communicate effortlessly and instantaneously, rendering largely unnecessary the need to catch up on months or years of news.

  2. An even greater affront is Memorial Day. How can you justify a party of any nature on what should be a national day of mourning for the great price paid. I imagine The Founding Fathers would be somewhat taken aback by.....wait now that I think of it most of what we do as a country today would have them shaking their heads.
    By the way, great tie and square look!

  3. I have lots of family in the areas of which you speak, and have gone to many a Little Folks Fair on the Guilford Green. Holidays can be frustrating and I found your contemplations intriguing. (I so agree with James about Memorial Day.) And that's a pretty fast train!

  4. Very much dislike the flag as clothing, black licorice and cheap beer. Am highly in favor of large sailboats, respect for tradition and improving our holidays.


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