When I was a kid in Buffalo, N.Y., the Fourth of July was all about the fun and the noise. We’d light super snake coils and toss party snaps at each other’s feet; stick M80s in tennis balls, almost losing a finger in the process. We’d throw around firecrackers and, if we got ahold of them, set up lines of demarcation and go to war with bottle rockets. Sometimes the fam would go to the city festivities – I recall one big affair held at Front Park by the Niagara River. There, Chubby Checker got on the mic and said “C’mon everybody!” and we all got up and danced the Twist.
As you make that transition to adult, you realize that all those sparks, crackles and booms are meaningful – that they represent rockets, cannons and firepower of our wars for independence (1776 and 1812). Fourth of July festivities take on a more sobering meaning, with the knowledge of the men and women who have died and continue to sacrifice their lives for all our freedoms. I can’t speak for others, but when I see the firework bursts and hear the bangs and booms, in addition to being wowed at the sheer artistry of it all, it stirs my soul. I may be a godless, tree-hugging, union-loving, bleeding-heart peacenik, but I love this country and all it represents. People had to fight for freedom and equality, then as well as now.
My favorite Independence Day event took place just after the turn of the century, in the Fourth of July Town of Castalia, N.C. Beth and I drove there from our then home in Louisburg, a straight shot down N.C. 56. We arrived too late to make it to the common area, so we did like the locals who parked alongside the road and sat atop their hoods and in their truck beds. At one point, an approaching thunderstorm blew in, setting off as many booms as the fireworks, each one echoing down our alley. After every one, the good ‘ol boys and girls would whoop and holler. It was infectious and we got to hollerin’ too. Excepting the flashes from above, it was dark, there were no city lights or smartphones or glowsticks or food trucks to pollute the night. Even though people were all around we felt insulated – like we were at that moment part of all of America and just two individuals celebrating alone.
My least favorite moment happened right here. At one Wake Forest event, the volunteer emcee, a decent man who no doubt was just trying to work up some patriotic fervor, went too far and rambled on about how Christian the Founding Fathers were, saying in not so many words, if you aren’t Christian, you aren’t American, not really. On a day I’d sacrificed family time for (I almost always worked holidays), on this most sacred of days, our celebration of independence, we outliers were told if you aren’t like us, you don’t belong. It stung. Town leaders were silent during the kerfuffle it caused in the ensuing days, which stung too.
When I think back on it, in a time when there’s so much hurt directed at people based on their skin color or other visual attributes, I’m painfully aware that I was more easily able to shoulder that hurt because my religious belief leaves no visible mark – no one knew I was one of those other people. I just shut my mouth and said nothing, then or later. When you hear people talk about being anti-racist, about combating prejudice, what they mean is while it’s great most of us believe in equality, it doesn’t help if we let bigots speak in our place and not raise our voices or take action to counter it.
Every other Fourth celebration has been wonderful. It takes a volunteer army many hours to put one on – an often thankless job. The July 3 fireworks are always a show: I love to watch the band party all night with couples and kids dancing and the crowd singing along. A local patriotic parachute team would often drop in before sunset. On July 4, the festivities continue: There’s that youth bike and wagon parade down North Main Street with children of all colors and creeds resplendent in their reds, whites and blues; the following kids party in Holding Park has all the coolest fun – seed spitting and sack racing, pie eating, face-painting and tugs-o-war.
Like nearly everything else, it’s on hold this year due to the coronavirus. But it’ll return. Our country will rebound. We’ll be one people again. You better believe it.
— David Leone is a writer, photographer and raconteur who has worked in Wake Forest since 2007 and lived there since 2012.