Fourth of July 2020 has come and gone, alarmingly silent, with little fanfare. This year, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, celebrations in most cities were either cancelled or minimally attended. Some towns attempted to host scaled-back events with watered-down results while other towns broke the rules of pandemic etiquette and carried on as usual.
There will always be rule breakers who believe it is their right to circumvent the law. The fireworks industry has seen record sales across the country. Business is booming. Literally. Illegal nightly displays across Boston are as common as summer thunderstorms although slightly louder and more terrifying to some.
I travelled to New Hampshire for the July 4th weekend. Although fireworks are legal in NH, the place I stayed at decided to cancel their usual fireworks spectacular. A small group of citizens took it upon themselves to host an impromptu and unsanctioned fireworks display. It was loud, random, and for the most part, disorganized. Kudos to them for trying to keep the tradition alive despite current conditions.
Later that night, I watched part of “Macy’s 4th of July Fireworks Spectacular” broadcast from New York City. Symphonic overtures blared as red, white and blue fireworks burst over empty city streets. Beautiful explosions lit up waters of dark harbors without a boat in sight. Times Square, was a virtual ghost town. It was eerily silent as the sky lit up overhead with not a spectator in sight. It was unsettling watching a fireworks celebration played out to no one, watching second hand through my Smart TV, twice removed. But isn’t that how we are experiencing everything these days?
When I was a small child, the excitement of July 4th was second only to December 25th. The weather was always hot, with a blazing sun and a hint of humidity. The kids in my neighborhood would gather early in the morning. We waited at the schoolyard for the town to distribute free Hoodsie ice cream cups (complete with tiny wooden spoons that always reminded me of tongue depressors, which explains my aversion to them to this day). We wore patriotic t-shirts and short pants revealing scraped knees covered with yesterday’s bright orange-red mercurochrome, our summertime warpaint. The line stretched down the block, as children with outstretched hands and smiling faces thanked the town worker who handed them a free ice cream cup.
I stood in line with my friend Marie who, each year, would ask the same question.
“Could I also have two for my dog, please?” she would implore the man rationing out the samples.
“Two?” the man questioned.
“He’s a big dog,” Marie would say. Who could say no to a kid and her dog?
Later at the park, there was a contest for best decorated bicycle and doll carriage, with prizes for each winner. I’m sure most of the elaborate designs had some input from mom and dad. There were sack races, three-legged races, and foot races (Paula won that event every year. She was faster than most of the boys in town.)
At 11:00 a.m. the gigantic July 4th parade would begin its march up Broadway. The street was full of vendors hawking their wares – helium balloons (I always lost mine to the sky), pop-guns ( I had to promise I wouldn’t shoot my brother), and monkeys-on-a-stick (my personal favorite).
There were multitudes of clowns, politicians, and marching bands with bass drums so loud you could feel the beat in the pit of your stomach.
We stayed in place until the men sweeping the streets walked by with their brooms and trash buckets picking up the left-over debris. To us, they were part of the parade. And we didn’t want it to end.
Over the years, the celebrations dwindled. The world changed. Interest waned. Budget cuts forced two-hour parades to become ten-minute walk-a-thons. This year, celebrating hit an all time low. I read a disturbing social media post that stated, “Imagine people actually wanting to celebrate being an American.” The words stung me. I know we are in the middle of a social upheaval in this country. Add the pandemic to the mix and sometimes it feels like the end of the world.
Poet T.S. Eliot said it best in his apocalyptic poem The Hollow Men:
“This is the way the world ends, Not with a bang but a whimper.”
I don’t know about the end of the world, but this poem sums up the way July 4th, 2020 ended. Once again, the pandemic exposed something else we’ve taken for granted all these years. I hope things improve. Can you imagine a New Year’s Eve with the mechanical ball slowing dropping to a silent countdown in an empty Times Square while everyone is at home watching through the safety glass of a television screen? Six months ago, neither could I.