In the shade of our country


I am 7 years old.

The evening is hot on the concrete levee in Greenville. It’s so steamy that the the fine strands of hair that have escaped my ponytail cling in a paste of sweat against the hollow at the nape of my neck.

I am greasy, from crown to feet, with OFF insect repellent and the odor of DEET can be tasted in the air.

I am sitting on the shoulders of my father waiting for the sound of a firework to be rocketed from a far away cannon.

I am grasping the top of his head way too tightly but I can’t help it, there is too much anticipated time in a kids brain between when adults say something will happen and when it actually does.

“When will they start?” I whined just before my daddy lifted me up, “How will I know?”

“Just listen,” my father replied in his always patient tone, “You will hear the first one zing across the sky before you see it.”

I “listened” and I heard the “zing,” and then a millisecond of complete quiet as my breath is drawn from my stomach.

The firework explodes with a sonic-sized BOOM doubly seen, once against the backdrop of the night sky, then mutely on the surface of Lake Ferguson, a giant flower of glittery color blooming into a whole bouquet.

“The Star Spangled Banner” pipes her voice through speakers and into my pores and I feel as if I am being wound from the inside out in Red, White, and Blue.

This was my first experience with patriotism, and so it is tattooed on my timeline, the Fourth of July 1976, the bicentennial of our country.

It is fitting that the date landed on a Sunday because it can be equated to a religious experience.

On the way home I laid on the backseat floor of my parents’ car. It had been a long day spent at a sandbar on the lake and then staying for the festivities that evening which included singer/song writer/actor Jerry Reed.

“The hump” on the floorboard vibrated against my stomach and the warmth of it stung my sunburned skin, which would require a vinegar bath and Noxema.

The scent of cigarette smoke drifted to the backseat and the familiarness of it was like a lullaby.

My brother, who was five years older than me, sprawled, freckled-faced and shirtless upon the cushioned bench above me, he always got to ride in the good spot.

I thought about sleep, or at least faking sleep, so that I could be carried inside by my father.

Then I heard my mother say, “Well, we saw it, we where there for our country’s two hundredth birthday. 100 years from now, when we have our next centennial we will all be gone, every one of us dead and buried.”

I guess it was a morbid thing to bring up, but she didn’t mean for it to be morbid. It was more of an astonishing fact.

I did the math in my head. I’ve never been good with numbers but I could add 100 to anything under 100 and get the general gist of the situation. I tapped my brother on his bare shoulder and asked, “Do you think our kids will be alive to see the next bicentennial?”

He looked down at me and replied in a voice used only to address a sibling, “No stupid because there won’t be another bicentennial, the next one is a tricentennial, and you don’t have to worry about kids because no one is gonna be dumb enough to marry you anyway.” Then he thumped me on top of the head like one would a melon at the grocery store.

The joke was of course on him because fifteen years later someone would be dumb enough to marry me and have kids.

My family, the one my “dumb”

husband and I have made, celebrate every Fourth of July with fireworks. It’s a holy tradition, although they give me more of a headache now than a religious experience.

DEET can still be tasted in the air.

I usually keep my distance from the firecrackers and bottle rockets whose only purpose is to blow stuff up, and I wait for the lighting of “the big one” at the end, the one that will “zing” up and then burst into a glittery flower.

For this one, I will venture out into the yard to watch.

My favorite part is still that millisecond of silence before the boom.

I still get that same feeling I had sitting on my father’s shoulders when I was seven.

For the most part though, I just sit on the porch and watch, and absorb.

For some reason I’ve been thinking about that Ancient Greek Proverb that says, “A Society grows when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” Then I think of the all those faces tilted upwards on the levee that night in 1976, the night I was baptized into the the belief that America will be okay as long as she is loved.

Now, I have added to this with the belief that each person should strive to plant unselfish trees.

For the ones who come after us, the ones who will be around for the tricentennial my brother taught me about just before he thumped me on the head.

Never forget to appreciate the shade!

Happy Fourth of July!


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