The 4th of July is far from my favorite Holiday. Christmas and Thanksgiving are the ones that insight so much feeling and good cheer. I get especially thoughtful and sentimental about those Holidays. And Easter is always profoundly impactful in its ability to remind me about sacrificial love and the hope of salvation, etc. Of course, I know our country’s history. I know that we celebrate our independence from the British, our ability to govern ourselves, and pay taxes with representation. But for the most part, July 4th is the day that my family piles into a van and drives somewhere. I don’t know if we’ve ever gone to the same place twice. Last year it was so hot, the only thing we could think to do was visit some caves where we learned about stalagmites and stalactites. One year, we went to the Spam Museum (yes it does exist). There is always a great deal of singing, a frenzied attempt to get out the door with all of our picnic fixings, and some dirt-road experience or another (my mom has always said that it’s not an adventure until you’ve been on a dirt road). Most of the time, we forget a knife and can’t cut the apples or the cheese.
Naturally, this year my usual expectation for adventure was aroused by the sound of fireworks in the distance and the unusually sunny weather we have been experiencing in Seattle. Unfortunately, I am too many miles away from my family to plan on piling into my parents’ minivan, and as it turned out, Seattleites don’t share my enthusiasm for dirt roads. When I was invited to a party hosted by an anarchist and a communist, I was intrigued but a little incredulous. The plan was simple: celebrate America in the most cliché ways possible. Someone bought a big flag and mounted it on the wall. We had McDonald’s, and everyone drank Coke and Budweiser. There were larger-than-life cardboard cutouts of Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx on one wall as well. Our hosts took their jobs very seriously, posting signs forbidding communists in the bathroom and wearing red, white, and blue armbands. The guests had varying degrees of investment in the theme. There was, however, an underlying sense that no one was very proud of America and that this whole thing was a charade, which it was. Perhaps Sartre would have been proud of us, but I have never really wanted to impress him.
Suddenly, the decision was made to walk over to Gasworks Park to watch the fireworks. If you don’t know, that is where everyone goes to watch the fireworks in Seattle. I didn’t want to walk or deal with the inevitable swarm of people, but it was that or miss the party. So, I put my shoes on anyway. Someone had the idea to bring our large flag, and off we went, banner waiving conspicuously. There were crowds of people over a mile away from the park. They were gathered at the edge of the lake or walking in the same direction as our group—there were about fourteen of us.
Then someone started singing “God Bless America.” We all joined in. As we got into larger crowds of people, we continued to sing. There were several repetitions of “The Star Spangled Banner” and at least two rousing renditions of “America the Beautiful.”
Just outside of Gasworks, we got into a huddle. Again, the plan was simple: we would enter the park waving the flag and singing, “Oh say can you see by the dawn’s early light what so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?” We all sang loudly with our fearless leader waving the flag heroically. People cheered and gave us high fives. Many joined the singing. Others stood at attention, hands on their hearts with somber expressions. And suddenly it struck me—even though I sensed my childhood romps in large vans had vanished—America isn’t so bad. Entering the crowded park, all of us following a massive flag, I suddenly had a feeling of satisfaction, or even pride.
It was with mounting fervor that I sang, “Oh say does that star spangled banner yet wave o’er that land of the free and the home of the brave?”
When we finished our song, we began chanting, “USA! USA! USA!”
One person in our group yelled into the mass, “Make way for America!” and people moved aside.
Some people took pictures and chanted with us. I couldn’t help but feel a little silly chanting those three letters over and over again, like I was part of the US Olympic Swim Team, but it was fun, and I couldn’t help but notice that it was bringing us together. People who probably wouldn’t talk to each other on any other day of the year were pointing at us, starting conversations, and, most importantly, singing together with smiles on their faces.
Once we found a spot to sit, again we sang, starting with “America the Beautiful.” I was surprised at how many people on our corner of the hill knew the words. After that we went straight into what must have been our eighth time singing the National Anthem. What was it about this flag and these songs that moved people to raise their voices and cheer? Were we all just that drunk?
When the fireworks started, we danced on the hillside to explosions of color and Bono going on about it being a beautiful day. And, well, he was right. As thousands of people packed up to go home at once, our group formed an inseparable conga line. We held fast to each other, never letting that flag out of our sight. Once we cleared the bulk of the crowd, we walked two by two or three by three, chatting like old chums.
I didn’t have high expectation for a 4th of July away from home. I guess it’s easy to feel glum when you realize that your traditions are fading into memories and you have no van to climb into for a day trip to Taylor’s Falls with your family. And there’s the underwhelming feeling that America might not be so great; after all, there’s nothing impressive about student loans and the ill-conceived notion that Jesus was American, bred out of a disproportionate sense of superiority. Then you sing. So what if the man waving the flag, causing strangers to cheer is an anarchist; there’s something about music, something that connects us to each other, even more than the widely recognized symbol of our nation that is The Flag. There is something about singing that fortifies every good feeling we have and makes us think the person next to us isn’t such a stranger after all. More than anything, it makes me feel like I’m home.