Friday, July 4, 2008

Breaking Tradition

It's been more than a decade since my family first broke a long-standing tradition. Every Fourth of July, my aunts, uncles, grandparents and a few neighbors met at our house for a barbecue, swimming and fireworks in the court. But the summer after my eighth-grade year, we decided we had to be in Washington, D.C., for the celebration of independence.

Since it's been so long, the fog of time has stolen some of my memories, but it was my first visit to the capital, and there are some things you just can't forget about being there - on that day in particular.

Independence Day happened to come at the tail end of a trip through the New England states. We visited Lexington and Concord, in Massachusetts, where farmers first stood up in armed conflict against the greatest military power in the world, and fired the first shots in a long war that would end with 13 free states struggling to form a government everyone could agree on.

A few days later, we were at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and saw the "high water mark" of the Confederate advances into the northern states and where President Lincoln gave the famous Gettysburg Address. Rows of cannon, their bronze barrels now green with exposure to the elements, stand as a silent testament to the fury that opposing sides of the country felt for each other.

In Washington, D.C., we saw the National Mall, with the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial and all the other sights I had learned about in history classes. A few people waded in the reflecting pool, the same one Martin Luther King, Jr., looked into when he gave his "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial.

Walking the streets on the Fourth of July, everyone was in a festive mood. Even a homeless man wore an ostentatious top hat of red, white and blue. Another man played patriotic songs on his trumpet. Red, white and blue decorations were everywhere, and it was nearly impossible to find a spot where I couldn't see an American Flag.

If the day had been festive, the night was fantastic. When darkness fell, we were back at the Lincoln Memorial, sitting on the steps facing the Washington Monument. The din of conversation hushed as the first fireworks exploded over the top of the marble obelisk and The Star Spangled Banner was blasted over loudspeakers. When I had been to fireworks shows before, in Old Sacramento and the fairgrounds, I always looked forward to the grand finale. In D.C., the entire show was the grand finale, and it lasted a long time.

I don't really remember what we did after the fireworks show, if anything, and I don't know if that was the last day of our trip or not, but in the years that have come and gone since then, that is the thing I remember most about the trip. We even (randomly) have a Christmas ornament that depicts the scene, complete with lights and fireworks sounds.

Living on the West Coast and not being surrounded by the country's history, it is often easy to forget where we came from. A trip to New England brings the important events in the country's history to the forefront like little else can, and reminds us all that the United States has seen great successes, and great tragedies, but there are always people willing to sacrifice to make the country better, and be they soldiers, politicians, civil rights leaders or just the common voters, they have helped make this country what it is, and will continue to do so in future generations.


Susan said...

Very eloquent and powerful. I love it! I'm forwarding a link to this post to some of my family and friends who might appreciate it.

Happy 4th of July!

Sue Campbell

NorCal Cazadora said...

Yeah, it's amazing going back East and being where all those things happened. Virginia was just infested with history, from Jamestown to the Civil War to the Massive Resistance (that would be resistance to school integration, way back in the '70s).

It's not just the place, but the people, too. You don't know how much your character has been shaped by your particular history until you go somewhere else and realize those people aren't like you.