There were not many Fourth of Julys when I was a child. Half of my first sixteen years were spent in different countries in Europe, where America’s Independence Day was a matter of low priority, if it was acknowledged at all. But the ones we did celebrate in America stand out as bright and vivid as the fireworks themselves.
We lived primarily in Washington, DC, a city whose site had been chosen with many advantages and potential goals in mind, but—like Rome—with no consideration for the natural marshiness of the land, with the result that during the summer in those pre-air-conditioned days, in spite of the beautiful architecture and general air of being a sleepy overgrown southern town, the whole place turned into a miserable and sweltering miasma of breathless misery and very busy mosquitoes.
My parents tried to get us out of the city as much as possible during those sultry sticky days, and I have only one recollection of an Independence Day being celebrated in the city:
Sparklers; firecrackers of various kinds and sizes doled out with appropriate admonitions to be careful; cherry bombs dispensed with far more strident warnings to be very careful, and not, under any circumstances, to light them and then put them into anything such as tin cans. It was a concept that almost certainly would never have occurred to us, but since it was suggested, my best friend, Rowland Kirks, and I scoured the trashcans (the old-fashioned galvanized metal variety that made such a racket and that did double duty during the winter months as receptacles for the hot ashes my father would rake out of our coal burning furnace morning and evening) in the alley for tin cans which we dutifully stuffed with cherry bombs to see what would happen. Why either of us have our fingers and eyes is a God-given miracle. And then that night, my father having no greater love of large crowds than I do, we went up onto the roof of our old, brick, three-story house, where we could see the fireworks display being put on by the government down at the National Mall.
One summer, one set of my godparents (he was the British Reuters correspondent, she an artist) had gone back to England and they turned their house over to us. It was out in the Virginia countryside, redolent with the scent of Paul’s omnipresent and always lit pipe, as well as the oils and thinners from Vivi’s studio, and it had—oh joy of joys!—a swimming pool where my patient father taught me how to swim. Again that Independence Day there were sparklers and firecrackers and that night my father amazed and thrilled us all with our own, personal, private display of fireworks, a host of Roman candles and similar rocketing devices, the whole affair made even more thrilling by the unspoken but tacit and universal fear that my father might manage to blow himself or possibly the whole area to smithereens. He was many wonderful things, my father, but practical mechanical skills of any variety were beyond his ken. If a lightbulb needed to be changed, he called an electrician.
But the most magical memories come from Vermont. (Oh, that long drive in a un-air-conditioned 1948 Ford packed to the gills with suitcases, my sister and I and our one-eyed Boxer hanging out the back windows, gasping for air, and then the arrival, in the dark mysterious cool of the northern mountains and a whole new world waiting to be discovered and explored.) Several summers in a row (Three? Four? I don’t remember now.) my father rented a primitive little farmhouse on a hillside overlooking the White River Valley and, hidden in the trees, the little town of Randolph. The house was morbidly named Wecumwego (I kid you not; the word was painted in fading black letters on a peeling white board over the entrance to the little attached barn) and was in need, even then, of extensive renovation, but it had a lawn out front where we could all sit in the long northern summer evenings and relish the fact of being slightly cold.
Mother would read out loud to us and while I know she read many things, in my mind she was always reading The Master of Ballantrae, Robert Louis Stevenson’s dark and macabre novel about two brothers at odds with each other during the divisive dangers of the Jacobite uprising. It is a sprawling novel that takes place in many different parts of the world: Scotland, the high seas, the Carolinas, India, France, and—most importantly, in my memory—in the “wilderness” of New York. Wilderness could be interpreted to mean many things in that big state, but my mother was convinced that a certain amount of healthy terror was good for small children, and she told me emphatically that in this case, the wilderness was the Adirondack region of upstate New York, and on a trip to Lake Champlain she carefully pointed out the Adirondack mountains to me, even—as I recall it—pointing out the precise mountain where the climax of the story takes place.
And what a climax! That’s where the good and deserving brother digs up the body of his wicked brother, the Master, and finds that the equally wicked East Indian servant has taught the Master how to swallow his tongue and live without oxygen. Yes, yes, I know it’s an improbable fantasy adventure, and not Stevenson’s best work, but to a small boy sitting on a lawn in mountains right next door—I mean just over the hill, that one there!—from the Adirondacks, the Master’s undead body became a very real danger lurking in the dark of the barn overhang, behind the door in my bedroom, waiting with drawn sword in the hall to the bathroom.
But it was on that lawn where the most magical Independence Day celebrations took place. The little town of Randolph put on a parade every year (one year, my father entered us, our family, our dog, our car, in the parade to mock a recently passed tourist tax that Vermonters feared might keep tourists away; we tied suitcases and “antiques” to the roof of the car and sported a sign saying we would tolerate any tax to be in Vermont; we won third prize) and after dinner, after too many ears of corn and too much freshly-made strawberry shortcake, all of us over-tired and over-fed and happy, we would sit in the lengthening shadows until the fireworks display began in the valley below as if specifically ordered for our personal pleasure, and we knew, even if our father hadn’t told us as he always did, how lucky we were to live in the greatest nation on earth.
Have a safe and happy Independence Day.