As a child, my favorite holiday was the Fourth of July, a time when my hometown of Negaunee didn’t feel so small. The activity thrilled me as a kid. I liked watching the lights of the cars coming down the hill to into Negaunee before the fireworks were launched. The buzz of people were fireworks themselves, the way they exploded with laughter and anticipation, firecracker boys and roman candle girls.
The nearby cities staggered the displays so that Marquette’s and Negaunee’s weren’t on the same day. We’d watch near the Coast Guard station in Marquette, which gave us the feeling that the display was even more closely tied as homage to military service.
I grew up on films like Patrick Swayze’s “Red Dawn,” Sylvester Stallone’s “Cobra,” Chuck Norris’s “Invasion U.S.A.,” and saw the latter with my cousin, who had a pyrotechnic hairdo of his own. I was fat on patriotism. I believed every word the government ever told me at that age.
I had the complicated mix of action movie jingoism and teen defiance where I felt like I didn’t fit in. But on the Fourth, in the confusion and chaos of the multitudes that the holiday creates, I felt at home, at ease. I liked how the population seemed to double. It was easier to fit in with so many people, with so much movement and energy. Maybe it was being in the dark watching things explode, viewing these artistic transitory symbols in the sky, like sand mandalas of fire. And the meaning of the symbols shifted for each person. For one person it’s about Vietnam, for another it’s their future, for another it’s just plain and simply cool stuff blowing up.
For me, it was about family. My family, like so many, felt fragmented. Holidays seemed like soldering irons. Everyone on one blanket.
There was none of the stress of Christmas. You don’t have to worry about money. The fireworks were free for everyone. We’d walk to the lake. We’d walk back. The beautiful collective return home, where everybody felt satisfied, where you recounted your favorites, where you waited in traffic and didn’t mind, where there were no painful early morning wake-ups for school, where the night in the U.P. – so rarely in other months – was perfection.
The Fourth of July changed for me after becoming a veteran. The fantasy worlds of Stallone and Norris have been replaced by the realities of sitting in VA hospital waiting rooms and counting how many arms and legs are missing on the people in line. It’s having a persistent cough that might be from the exposure to asbestos in Rota or might be from the untreated prolonged pneumonia in boot camp or might not be from that at all. Who knows?
But if I can take a time machine back, before the cough, before the years of service, before the illusion-breaking adulthood and if I can focus in on a day, I think of Negaunee and the Fourth. I think of the oohs from the crowd and the soft smell of smoke that never seemed to affect my lungs and the way that the whole town seemed so close together, so safe in the night.