Every year about this time a few lyrics of a song wander through my mind: “Firecrackers poppin’, lighting up the sky; hail to the flag, it’s the Fourth of July.”
It’s from an old record album I bought in the PX of the army base I was stationed at in Illesheim, Germany in 1973. The composer and singer was Roger Miller, the King of the Road himself, and the title of the album was Dear Folks, Sorry I Haven’t Written Lately.
I still have that record, stored away in a trunk with a hundred or so others that I can finally listen to again since my good wife surprised me with a turntable a couple of Christmases ago. I truly missed those big platters of wax for a long time, and took them out on occasion just to look at their covers; I even missed the crackling sound that always came when the needle sank down into the grooves. I’m of a generation that still refers to a place where CDs can be purchased as a “record store.”
That Roger Miller LP must have contained other good tunes, but the one that got caught in my brain and is still there was the short, simple ditty about Independence Day.
I guess that’s because it’s basically a simple holiday. Coming, as it does, in the hottest part of the year, it’s given over pretty much to picnics and fireworks and outdoor concerts. There’s no telling how many hot dogs and hamburgers get gobbled down on that day, washed down with considerable tonnage of soft drinks and beer.
Amid all that hoopla and food and drink a little patriotism works its way in, chiefly of the flag-waving variety. Probably the closest we’ve come to a commemoration worthy of the event was in 1976, the Bicentennial, which – as those of you who remember it will probably agree – was one heck of a party. What with church bells tolling, the Hudson River full of hundreds of tall ships, and the world’s great orchestras blaring out “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”
That year we actually reflected, I think, on the handful of men who put their lives on the line one hot long-ago summer night in Philadelphia and transformed themselves into both traitors and patriots with the stoke of a pen.
Eleven years after that night the crafters of the Constitution emerged exhausted from the same building, having sufficiently corralled their strong wills – though not quite tightly enough, leaving the abolition of slavery out of their factoring – into a single document that would become the new nation’s bedrock and backbone. That night, somebody called out to Benjamin Franklin, asking him “Well, Doctor, what did we get – a Republic or a Monarchy?” The old man – weary, weak, and deciding whether sleep or a drink should come first – responded with seven words which found their way into history: “A Republic, if you can keep it.”
We’ve somehow managed, amid wars and tragedies and political bickering, to keep it.
I’ve never been to Independence Hall. The only time I was ever in Philadelphia was when I was nineteen and flew in there on my way to Fort Dix, New Jersey where I would be shipped out to Germany, where I bought that Roger Miller record that I can finally listen to again.
But I intend to go to that building; it’s on my agenda. I want to stand in the very room that is, by any measure, the birthplace of the United States. Because, like most folks, I tend to take what happened there in 1776 and 1787 for granted, and lose the pure glory and bravery of it in my everyday life.
That little snippet of a song is on my mind, making its annual visit. “Firecrackers poppin’, lighting up the sky; hail to the flag, it’s the Fourth of July.” And it’s fitting, I think, that it’s such a simple little bit of wordsmithing.
Because there’s not really anything so very complicated about loving your country and celebrating its founding.
And there shouldn’t be.
(This was first a newspaper column sometime or another, then part of a collection of some of those musings published by TCU Press )