A Triptych of Fourth of Julys Past

Washington, D.C. 

Fourteen years before M1A1 Abrams tanks arrived by train from Fort Stewart, Georgia, I sat on the lawn of the National Mall with friends, excited to celebrate Independence Day at the nation’s capital. A summer spent interning for $7 an hour at National Public Radio on break from graduate school in Tucson. I was broke, but I was happy, swearing off my truck for the summer, walking D.C. neighborhoods and taking the Metro wherever I wanted or needed to go. 

That particular July night was like many near the Potomac: hot and humid with abundant mosquitoes. The fireworks display was unlike any other I had ever seen–big and bright and seemingly never-ending. While the light show was spectacular, I remember the best part of the evening was returning to my friends’ apartment in Columbia Heights and feeling the sweet relief of air conditioning when we walked through the door. 

Plattsburg, Missouri 

Everyone knows everyone in Plattsburg. That is one of the Cardinal Rules of small towns. The Fourth of July celebrations at Perkins Park are no different — the late “Crazy Jimmy the Rocketman” Jim Hartzell, a construction company owner and U.S. Marine Corps veteran, used to put on an impressive annual show, something he did for his hometown for over 35 years. He passed away at the age of 66, which sounds much too young to me now. After Jim died, there was a two-hour fireworks display in his honor on October 28, 2016. 

What started out as a modest fireworks display of $600 has since morphed to a big-shell explosives extravaganza of $15,000 for a town of about 2,300 people. My dad is one of those people who continues to enjoy Hartzell’s legacy. 

Most everyone in and out of town brings their lawn chairs to Perkins Park and enjoys barbecue and whatever is cold in their respective coolers. There is a little hill right before entering the park where you can pull off and watch the night sky from your car or the tailgate of your pickup truck as the orbs of colored light dissolve into smoke. 

Madrid, Spain

We return to St. Louis the day before the Fourth of July. Before our departure, in late June, I watch Madrileños mourn the passing of Michael Jackson in El Retiro Park. Fans of all ages wear t-shirts memorializing the King of Pop and hold white candles aflame. People are openly weeping while others are fast asleep on the park’s spongy grass. Later in the day, we drink cañas, little half pint glasses of ice-cold beer, and eat jamón ibérico hanging from hooks tethered to almost every bars’ rafters. We walk down the cobblestone streets and watch the day’s light turn to dusk. There are no fireworks here. 

Near the Royal Palace, I snap a photograph of a young girl bounding from branch to branch of a blooming magnolia. I stand rapt in front of Fra Angelico’s technicolor painting, The Annunciation, all of those early Italian Renaissance paintings and marble sculptures and intricate door carvings I memorized in that cavernous lecture hall I spent one summer in a decade ago come to life like that shaft of light hitting Mary as the Archangel Gabriel speaks his truth. 

My time here is almost finished, and I feel a bit like Adam and Eve in this painting as they weep in their expulsion from Paradise.