Not Choices

Why I love the Fourth of July.

The Fourth of July always feels like a birthday to me. Summer’s my favorite season, probably always will be — the feeling of freedom, of being able to do absolutely everything I’d ever wanted to do, will remain no matter how long I spend in my cubicle.

It doesn’t matter how many hours I spend under the self-imposed fascism of air conditioning. (Who was it that decided that 70 degrees is the perfect room temperature? How long has that bastard controlled our lives from beyond his unmarked grave?) I’ll always remember the Fourth as the hottest day of the summer, of going early to the parade so we could stake out the shady side of the street. Not that it mattered, anyway — we would just sit there placidly as the shadow slowly retreated until the sun reached our toes, and then so quickly the rest of the shade went until everything felt nasty and oppressive and almost always humid. Drink all the fluids and slather on all the sunscreen you want; it doesn’t matter. It’s a scorcher, plain and simple. The one day weathermen can say it and really mean it; the one day it feels like you’re walking through a dream without understanding why.

I used to watch the other people on the sunny part of the street and wonder how it felt to baste in the sun. I have a fucked-up relationship with the sun — I love the idea of it, mentally note the source of Superman’s powers every time I walk from an office building into a day too bright to be real, but the cold hard fact is that I am the white boy cliché. I don’t tan, I burn. I wear SPF 30, but who cares? The SPF scale gets useless right around there, so it wouldn’t matter if I went into the future and stole myself a bottle of SPF 2,000 lotion. There’s no escaping a cliché.

I love the Fourth for what comes at its close: Fireworks. I ran the numbers after this year’s celebration, and it works out that if I play my cards right, I have maybe 200 fireworks displays left in my life. They’re beautiful and just finite enough to be precious, like baby teeth, and what’s best of all is that you have to wait for them to happen. You can make an entire evening out of waiting for them to happen.

You see — and this is a secret — I’ve always had this Fourth of July dream date idea. It starts with fried chicken (and here I am probably losing every single member of the female sex right off the bat, but this is how my dream starts) because there’s been exactly one Fourth of July when I’ve eaten fried chicken. My parents decided to take me and my sister (the ages of the two of us put together probably not totaling above 10) to Fort Meade, an army base known mostly for its NSA installation, for listening to everything drifting in the air and tunneling through the ground.

I remember exactly three things about the night. I remember picking at my chicken. I have never been fully in love with fried chicken; sometimes I like it, sometimes it strikes me as sort of nasty and not-really-worth-it (contrast: blue crabs). But at that point I had not even come to a decision about how I felt about the stuff, so I just ate it slowly, thinking about whatever people think about when they do things they haven’t really considered much.

I remember watching two men — well, maybe college students — throw a Frisbee back and forth beside some kind of playground. There were people everywhere.

I remember that there was a stream, and that there were people on the other side of it. I couldn’t understand how they could have gotten there — was there a different way to go? A path I didn’t see? The people on the other side lit sparklers at the water’s edge, and what’s more was that the sparklers were odd colors, maybe red and green, that I had never seen before. My father bought us plain gold ones because they lasted longer than the other colors, I think. We lit them in our backyard (tiny, fenced) and waved them in circles and deposited the burnt-out ones carefully in a pot full of water — sort of cool at first, but once you realize the chances of severely injuring yourself are low, the thrill disappears.

What I don’t remember are the actual fireworks at Fort Meade.

But never mind — you and I have stopped by some godforsaken KFC and picked something totally at random from the menu (this story is about dreams, not choices), and now this is the point where I admit to you that we’re going to the Carroll County Farm Museum. Please don’t wrinkle your nose.

Maybe it’s quasi-metropolitan reverse bigotry, but I think Carroll County’s display is the best I’ve seen in Maryland. Only the citizens and public servants of my county’s western neighbor have the engineering expertise and moral fiber to pull off a truly excellent display.

What makes the fireworks display at the Farm Museum my favorite is that they’re in between good and great. They’ve got the bucks to buy the latest and greatest — I still don’t get how they do the star-shaped ones — but they don’t have quite enough to put on a five-star display.

There are brief pauses in which, I’ve always guessed, new fireworks are loaded into the launcher. It gives the proceedings a sense of rhythm — questions, statements, laments — and even better, it lulls you into a false sense of limitation. Because when they roll out the grand finale, with bursts coming so fast you stop hearing the low thump of the launcher, it feels like falling in love, like it can’t happen but does anyway.

So grab the blanket from my trunk; we’re going to find ourselves a spot and wait for the sun to go down.

The other great thing about the Farm Museum is that I know exactly where the best spot is, so close that you fear ash and dying embers will fall on you (though they never do; we live in country where law is king, after all), so close that you can feel the noisy ones in your teeth.

When it’s over, maybe you ask: So what happens now?

Truth is I’ve never really considered it, never really thought it through. But every dream date needs a denouement, don’t you think? Coffee in a darkening room, a walk through an empty street — there has to be something. My dream date never gets that far, just like how you never imagine what happens after you die in your dreams.

I guess — I’ll leave it up to you. Because you almost certainly probably have a dream too, right? You must. We all dream about our birthday.

Article © 2004 by Chris Klimas