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Three Cheers For Us

Fourth of July. The very words sizzle like a hot dog on a griddle, and as long as you’re up, I’ll have one, easy on the relish. Oh, and an ice-cold beer, pronounced “a nice cold beer.”

Fourth of July, the nation’s birthday, proudest day in our history. Will someone kindly dredge up a copy of the Declaration of Independence and don’t spill any catsup on it. Now that was a piece of writing, composed and signed by giants in wigs and knee breeches who probably spoke with a British accent. July 4, 1776, the first date we memorized in school, never to be forgotten. John Hancock signed boldly, defying the British, and passed into the language — maybe. The other night at the Balboa Cafe, the waitress said briskly to a young man who was paying with a credit card: “Put your John Hancock right there.” “Huh?” said the young man, pen poised uncertainly over the credit slip.

“I’m As Corny as Kansas in August, high as a flag on the Fourth of July” (thankya, Oscar). The Glorious Fourth: hot, sweaty, noisy, dangerous, as American as a holiday can get. A day to get sunburned, mosquito-pocked, sandy-shoed, aching-backed, quite a bit loaded, quite a bit hung over. A day for Frisbees, leaping dogs, bawling babies, mayonnaise stains on the blanket and tuna sandwiches that drip. A day to exult — if anybody stops to think about it — that we are free people on a paid holiday (or making overtime) paying tribute in our varied and peculiar ways to those newly minted Americans who would have had their elegant necks stretched if the Continental Army hadn’t won, with a little help from the French. A toast to Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette. Oh, and one to our own Colonel Stanton, who had the wit and style to say "Lafayette, nous voila!" when the first Yanks landed in France in 1917.

Fourth of July is for kids, getting bruised knees and elbows, splinters, burns, dirty, smelly, sick and altogether lovable, the hope of this mighty nation. The trouble with being a kid in San Francisco is that you can’t celebrate the Fourth in the time-honored manner without breaking the law. Because of our tinderbox cracker-barrel Victorians, firecrackers are forbidden, except to the Chinese on Chinese New Year’s, and newcomers always demand to know why. As I recall, it’s because Chinese New Year’s is a religious observance and fireworks are part of that observance, and if you believe that, I’ve got a nice ball club called the Giants to sell you. Whatever the reason, it works for the Chinese. The Fourth of July, while a religion in our hearts, remains safely secular.

As I’ve observed more than once, nostalgia is a lousy reporter who gets the facts and dates all wrong and isn’t above total invention, but I do remember July Fourth as the high spot of the long Sacramento summer. For days we hoarded fireworks of all kinds, from the tiny “spaghetti” jobs (what were those called?) that spat like angry cats, to the possibly illegal cannon crackers, looking big enough to destroy the neighborhood. There were torpedoes that you ground your heel on, magical pinwheels that whirled on the trunk of the catalpa tree when they didn’t fizzle, crackers to be exploded under tin cans for a satisfying “whomp!”

Then there were the ones that didn’t go off until you picked them up, thinking them dead. That called for a bandage — this was eons before Band-Aids — worn as a badge of honor. You had paid the price. A really dead one you broke open and set ablaze with your punk — fwoooosh! — impressing the girls with your courage.

Fourth of July, a long hot day that began at first daylight with the first firecracker going off in the street below. Drat, somebody had got there first! A leap out of bed, dash down the stairs and outside, banging the screen door and setting the porch furniture to rocking. “Herrrrberrrt, did you brush your teeth?” No, it’s the Fourth and I don’t want breakfast, either. A day that seemed to go on for 48 hours, laced with corn on the cob, iced tea, watermelon and the unceasing wail of sirens. All over Sacramento, houses burned. At our corner of 26th and Q, the vacant lot with its dried weeds was soon ablaze. We threw dozens of crackers into the backyard of the grouchy old man we didn’t like and we concocted painful plans for his cat but never carried them out. We could just see that dumb cat streaking up 26th Street, trailing a plume of smoke. We laughed so hard we fell down on the soft tar street, getting sticky-icky black stuff on our backsides.

I think it was on a July Fourth that Crazy Charlie ate the June bug, or was it on June Fourth that Charlie ate the July bug? If you’ve ever seen a June bug, you know it’s an impressively large and ugly insect, but Charlie would do anything for a buck; so we raised a few and bet him he wouldn’t. Like hell he wouldn’t. He looked that big bug right in the eye and popped it into his mouth. What impressed us most is that he took a bite. That made us fairly sick, but Charlie looked fine as he pocketed the money.

Happy Fourth of July in the land of the free. Salute the flag and the founding fathers at least once. Let yourself be a kid again, hot and smelly, dirty and exhausted, with naive eyes shining at the endless promise of the American dream, promises that are sometimes kept.

(SF Chronicle, July, 1985)

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