When I was five my family lived on the street called Ocean Avenue in Bay Shore New York. It was a great little Victorian house close to the water on the south shore of Long Island.
Once a year when green leaves thrived and the stench of barbecuing was in the air, summer was officially ushered in with a celebratory July 4th parade of people walking down our block with their lounge chairs, coolers filled with whatever fix they needed and beef. They would have their family in tow just to get their slice/plot of space at the marina at the end of the street to watch the fireworks over the body of water separating Long Island from Fire Island, the Great South Bay.
For some reason I was petrified by this day, this zeitgeist, this celebration. The people walking toward these loud sounds didn’t make sense to my childish ears. I was frightened by the noises. I was so scared that I would hide under my bed holding my ears with my eyes shut tightly until the bangs and booms had finished.
My father knew this and walked up to me and said a few choice words, “How about we walk down there early, before everyone gets there. We’ll get our own spot and I’ll give you a hotdog. Once the sun goes down you can sit in my lap holding your ears and closing your eyes until it’s over". I disagreed, over and over again, until he said he’d let me eat chips too.
I was a chubby kid – still am, and chips were everything, still are.
I agreed. I took his hand and walked to the end of the block. He had his cooler and chair, and I had my father.
As people accumulated around us at the marina my father made it seem like it was just him and I. He talked to the strangers around us like he was the mayor of the pavement we were sitting on. He’ll disagree, but he was the mayor that night and he still is.
Finally it was time for the hot dogs and hamburgers and I ate them with both ketchup and mustard like a good American should. I also had three handfuls of ridged potato chips and a coke. I remember this because we’re almost required to. That’s what marketing is, and what America does.
The sun went down and I heard a crackle of a bang and closed my eyes. I held my ear tightly while I sat in the middle of my father’s legs. I held so tightly I should have scars from it. I was so scared I thought I was gonna die…until I heard my dad yelling in the breaks of the display, “JUST LOOK UP MATTY, IT’L BE OK…JUST LOOK UP!”
It took a minute or two of him saying this over and over again. Then I slowly took one hand off my ear and unclenched one of my eye and glimpsed up. I looked up at the sky and what I saw was wonderful. It was joyous. It was perfect.
These impermanent lights in the sky excited me in a way I’d never understood, still don’t. I fell in love with fire works, and up until that moment they had crippled me.
I’m 33 now. I’m in Los Angeles, the other edge of our country, those same fires are burring our sky annually reminding us of our…selves. But I’m a father now as my son is sleeping upstairs as I'm typing this. I rushed home from a BBQ just to make sure he wasn’t frightened.
I’ve used that moment at the marina on Long Island with my father as a representation and example in almost every fearful moment in my life. I just look up, or towards, or through, or around: because inevitably the bright scary lights welcome you if you just look up.
And that’s why I’m a father, that’s why I keep fighting, that’s why we’re a country, and that’s why I love the fourth of July.