July Fourth 2017 – Pride and Tears
Independence Day was hands down our favorite family holiday. On our post-war block in Upper Arlington, a suburb in Columbus Ohio, even the most reclusive neighbors spilled out onto the streets for weeks surrounding the holiday. As the big day approached, people kept busy building floats on flatbeds parked along the street. Kids didn’t sleep the night before, windows open, listening to late night hammering along with occasional cuss words their father’s never said when the kids were around. My sister and I could hear our parents laughing while they finished sticking tissue paper into barbed wire forms, decorated our bicycles, and anchored our American flag to the house just to the left of the front door. We heard neighbors practicing their parts on the Tuba, Trombone, or French horn for the next day’s marching band.
In the late fifties, we kids weren’t motivated by overwhelming patriotism. The great wars were over, and prosperity promised a future not previously imagined. We believed in America as we believed in God—it was culturally brewed. Our parent’s souls and our nation’s souls were inseparable. This was a time before America lost its way and political discourse and civility disintegrated. We said the pledge of allegiance every day till school let out in June and then we waved our little wooden-handled flags along the parade route on Independence Day.
This is how I describe our parade day in my memoir, My Father’s Closet: (It’s on sale now at 20% off with free shipping – just type CLOSET into the code.)
“My beanstalk father hoisted me up on his shoulders, and we strained our necks looking down the street. For three miles down Tremont Avenue, the sidewalks bustled with kids and their parents wearing red, white, and blue and waving little American flags. Little kids spilled out of their folding chairs into the street. Older kids rode the route to show off their crepe paper and glittered bicycles. We were all looking for the clown truck, a huge semi with open double doors in the back. All along the route a dozen clowns would soon emerge with fistfuls of helium balloons to distribute—one to every kid on the route. I started bouncing eagerly when we saw the distant truck, and dad grabbed my ankle more tightly,
“Whoa there par-dner,” he said, Texas style, “Settle down or you’ll buck off this horse.”
My sister Marsha laughed and began hopping up and down. I grabbed his forehead and leaned over his head until I saw them.
“The clowns are coming!” I shouted. Balloons galore.
After the clowns passed by, everyone on the whole street settled down because in the distance we could see three guys coming toward us. They were young, barely in their teens, wearing soiled and torn Revolutionary War uniforms. The guy on the left had a bandage around his head, caked brown with dirt and blood. He played a steady solemn beat on a leather drum. The middle soldier waved a flag with thirteen stars in a circle frayed and pockmarked by bullet holes. The one on the right played, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again” on his tarnished Piccolo. My father wiped his eyes with one sleeve, and beginning to cry in earnest. He hoisted me over his head and handed me to mother so he could pull out his handkerchief. Every year the parade started in this way, and every year he cried.”*
My father had a complicated relationship with America and the war. He was a proud veteran but felt guilty that he didn’t serve overseas in combat due to a vision problem. He found his sexual identity becoming clear while working and serving with fellow soldiers in New York City, and his difference weighed him down. He served in a military that would have given him a dishonorable discharge, or sent him to a psychiatric treatment center, if they had even suspected that he was gay.
Just a few months after Pearl Harbor he wrote in his journal, “God, can’t you come up with something better than this?” referring to war and its devastation. By the early seventies, he went to the hometown parade wearing a pair of leather Birkenstock sandals with large peace symbols on them. As a child I never understood dad’s tears on the happiest day in our family holiday traditions. Today, writing this down, I feel empathy for his mixed-up feelings about the nation. I feel proud that our nation has so often stood for freedom, safe harbor, and justice for the oppressed in the world. And I feel ashamed that we so quickly shun and oppress those whom we fear. This week we closed our borders, engaged in military actions that killed civilians and sent even more refugees fleeing for their lives without bearing responsibility for these actions. Like batterers, national leaders place all blame on their victims while asserting their right to privilege and power.
As I sit by the route of my home town parade here in Ashland Oregon this year, I will experience my father at my side. I too will be overcome by gratitude for this nation’s vision and ideals and feel sadly powerless to turn us back toward them. Susan Johnson writes, “I never met an emotion that didn’t make sense.” This year that emotion is expressed by tears.
Portions of this blog are copy write protected excerpts from My Father’s Closet