Thursday, July 3, 2008

Declaration of Independence

Is there a better day in all of America than the Fourth of July? It’s a day for joyful celebration of freedom, independence and happiness. Even the food is fun, and meant to be eaten by hand: cakes decorated with strawberries and blueberries to look like flags, watermelon, corn on the cob, and barbecued anything on a bun. It may be the one day of the year when political affiliations don’t even matter: Democratic or Republican, Green or who-knows-what, we are all patriotic Americans, and the flag belongs to all of us, on this one wonderful day.

In my own family, Independence Day holds additional importance. My dear Sicilian immigrant grandparents were married in Boston on that date in 1926. Even though they resided in the geographic heart of the American Revolution, their wedding date had nothing to do with patriotism. Back then, they had only a vague idea about the reason for the holiday in their adopted country, before they became naturalized citizens. They actually picked the date because it was America’s Sesquicentennial celebration; their guests had extra time off from their factory jobs for dancing and merry-making; the fireworks and patriotic activities were just an added bonus.
On their 40th anniversary in 1966, my brother was born. The significance of his birthdate immediately conveyed a super-patriot status on him; his bassinet was festooned with tiny American flags, and he was often dressed in red, white and blue—on birthdays and other celebrations. My usually law-abiding father decided the rules didn’t apply when it came to his Yankee Doodle Dandy; for years, he managed to get his hands on a cache of firecrackers, cherry bombs and other ear-splitting illegal items that he delighted in setting off all day and into the night. It wasn’t until about the time of America’s Bicentennial—and our grandparents’ 50th anniversary—that my brother finally realized that the holiday fireworks and festivities, sparklers and speeches weren’t all about him.
We celebrate the Fourth of July a little differently now. Mama and Papa passed on after 67 years of marriage. My brother typically parties at a lake with his friends, and the closest he gets to a patriotic get-up is a Jeff Gordon NASCAR hat and an Old Navy T-shirt with a flag on the front. Dad’s enthusiasm for scofflaw behavior has waned considerably since he moved to Utah, where his form of patriotic expression is not well-tolerated by local officials or even the neighbor next door.
As long-time local residents, my own family and I have established our own traditions to commemorate the day. Here in Santa Barbara, there are so many choices it’s not possible to take them all in, but with advance planning, split-second timing and a fun-loving approach, we manage to pack a lot of celebration in to one long day. We usually walk to the parade on State Street, where we clap and cheer for everyone—including the soldiers driving Army vehicles and the Veterans for Peace marching by; the kids in costume and the politicos shaking hands. Whatever their positions or politics, everyone gets appreciated just for showing up—those who toss candy, and drivers of shiny Corvettes, admittedly, get a few more props.
After the parade, we usually bike over to Pershing Park to take in a couple of innings of the Foresters, and then pedal home in time for the concert at the Courthouse. We race home to prepare a barbecue for friends and neighbors before it’s time to head up the hill to St. Francis to watch the fireworks.
This year, we’re faced with lots of changes in our traditional celebration: My son, along with a dozen other local boys, is playing for the Santa Barbara PONY Baseball Bronco All-Stars, representing our city at a tournament in Newbury Park, so we’ll miss the parade and the Foresters, too. But we’ll be rooting for them—and their terrific coaches—as long and loud as we can.
By the time we get back in town, it will be about time to honor America’s veterans at the patriotic Courthouse celebration—and maybe sing Happy Birthday to former Mayor Harriet Miller, if she’s in attendance. We’ll hustle home to fire up the barbecue for our guests. But friends and neighbors are scattered this year; one just left town to study in Spain, another to ride horses on the steppes of Mongolia; one is recuperating from surgery, another just entered a nursing home.
And even our time-honored tradition of hanging out in what always felt like the community’s parking lot at St. Francis, the highest point in the neighborhood, to watch the beachfront fireworks may be in jeopardy this year. There are private property signs posted all around, a reminder that even an institution as solid and revered as that one is subject to change—even obliteration.
As good Americans, we citizens of Santa Barbaran, wherever we come from, wherever we’re going, we’ll adapt; we’ll remember, and importantly, we’ll forget. We will embrace our civic rights and responsibilities, moving forward with respect for the past, anticipation of the future, and a good grip on our present moment—independent and free. Have a sparkling Fourth of July.

With this issue, this column marks its one-year anniversary. As always, I welcome your comments, suggestions and ideas. Send them to me at:

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