I’ve always hated July 4th since I was a working–class kid growing up in North Babylon, Long Island. That was a lifetime ago, decades before 4Chan existed, “Mass Murder Websites” had followers, and Assault Weapons were as easy to buy as fireworks.
My father, a tough guy from Brooklyn and a newcomer to the suburbs at 40 years old, despised the Fourth of July, hated driving a car—a suburban necessity– BBQing, mowing the lawn, or hosing down the driveway each night, the way every single one of our mostly Italian neighbors did. To him, it was all a stupid, empty waste of time.
We never hung the American Flag up in front of our house, even though my father fought the Fascists in WWII, and bore tattoos from the War burned into his arms. Patriotism, like religion, was something we just didn’t flaunt.
“I ain’t no holy roller,” my father would proclaim. He hated “mosses”, an Italian-phrase he butchered, meaning that he despised making a big deal about anything.
Our “fireworks” celebrations were always understated, consisting mostly of lighting sparklers in our small back yard with my cousins from the City, who came out to the “country” to visit us each year on the Fourth. The rest of the “holiday”— a bombastic celebration of militarism– was simply a paid day off from work for working stiffs like my father.
Although I couldn’t yet fully comprehend peoples’ obsession with fireworks, I illegally sold them one year. To me, it was absurd that people would pay virtually anything to literally set their money on fire.
My older brother, Vinnie—shrewd and savvy in the ways of the world– brought home “mats” of firecrackers, loose cherry bombs, bottle rockets, and exploding “ashcans” that could blow off your hand. I was his underage “dealer”, selling the stuff to any of my friends who would buy them. In our working class neighborhood on the North Babylon/Deer Park border, setting off fireworks was a defiant pleasure which made some feel far more powerful than they ever imagined they could. Back then, in the 1950’s and 60’s, assault weapons were only used in war zones around the world. Otherwise, only the police, and criminals & mobsters had guns.
For a poor kid who sold my toys and comic books to have spending money in the summertime, my brother opened my eyes to the serious money I could make by selling fireworks. As July 4th approached in the Year I Lived Dangerously, sales were so outrageously brisk that my schoolmates were running up the block, waving $20 bills in their fists for any scrap of fireworks I had left.
The cherry-bomb clamoring crowd grew so noisy on our front steps, that our next door neighbor threatened to call the cops and report us. I went to sleep with several gross of firecrackers under my bed, worried that either the police were going to raid us, or our house would catch fire, and light up like a rocket in the night.
“Controlled” fireworks displays—or controlled anything for that matter– were not part of our consciousness. Our lives were completely out of control. Chaos reigned. Money, or lack of it, ruled. We wanted to exercise some power—to show we existed— and fireworks were an easy way to do it, and a quick way to make a buck. Also, we rationalized, they weren’t drugs or guns.
This week’s mass murder at the July 4th celebration in Highland Park, Illinois—a wealthy, mostly Jewish-suburb 25 miles north of Chicago—has brought all of those mangled memories rushing back to me. If only I had protested louder and sooner about how stupid I thought July 4th celebrations and fireworks displays were, maybe some lives could have been saved. If only I hadn’t sold fireworks; if only, if only, there were national traditions far different from military parades and simulated bombs in the sky. If only there were no weapons of mass destruction in civilian hands, that ripped the bodies of babies to shreds. If only it poured heavy rain that day, or people stayed home and read books to their kids, or went swimming or binge watched something on Netflix or Disney or HBO… if only, if only, if only…
It took me more than 50 years to speak out against such July 4th foolishness. We were living a long, long way from North Babylon, in the northern Napa County town of St. Helena, California, a wealthy town experiencing a devastating drought. Fire warning levels were “extremely” high; water rationing was mandatory. Only the rich, enamored as they are with controlling everything, still wanted controlled fireworks displays. The rest of us thought any fireworks were far too high a fire risk, unnecessary, and a grotesque waste of money.
But, some wine country benefactor was willing to bankroll the entire $50,000 cost of a “controlled” fireworks display to make sure that July 4th was a “patriotic” celebration—despite the rampant risk of fire, and reams of research that demonstrated fireworks displays triggered PTSD episodes in Veterans who have fought in wartime. Right down the road from us in Yountville, was the largest Veterans Facility in the State of California. None of that mattered. The fireworks show must go on. How else could they boast that this year’s fireworks display was better than last? How else could patriotism be powerfully demonstrated?
At virtually the very same moment that wealthy fireworks fans forked over private funds to pay for their patriotism, St. Helena City officials cut nearly $250,000 of public funds from the budget of its’ terrific local public library. The full-time Library Director was fired, and the City Council reduced the hours the Library was open to the public, including a complete shutdown on Sundays. Some things just didn’t matter as much to the rich as flashy fireworks displays.
Money spent on fireworks isn’t spent on books. I know. I saw it in the eyes of my North Babylon friends throwing money at me for fireworks 60 years ago. If books could have given them the same sense of power, and the same kind of buzz, they’d have burned them too.
I thought of this peculiar American absurdity of lighting money up into smoke, and feeling powerful from fireworks and mock-military parades on “Independence Day” this year, when American democratic freedoms and individual rights are in grave peril–especially the right to vote; a woman’s right to make health care decisions about her own body; and the right of every child already born to live a healthy, full life, free from the threat of gun violence.
The latest American Killing Field coming during a July 4th celebration in Highland Park—a friendly, Mid-Western city which welcomed Jews cast out by the rest of the world after World War II– should inscribe a message in blood upon all of our doorposts: humanity matters far more than guns or power or politics or parades. Forget fireworks; protecting real, existing, human life is the ultimate act of patriotism.