Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The Fourth

I apologize--I've let the guns fall silent for far too long. I received a bit more attention than I was ready for when Doonesbury linked me, and to be honest I felt the need for a break. Now that things have quieted down, one can expect a more regular posting cycle.

It's the Fourth of July--Independence Day. Being in Iraq, this day is of special significance for me. However, rather than revisit the usual themes so often discussed on this important date, I'd like to shift the focus to something more personal. For just a moment, I'd like to drop the soldier mask.

I miss the Independence Day celebrations of my youth.

As I've mentioned before, I grew up in Port Austin, a quiet harbor town along Michigan's Lake Huron shore. It was a simple place, and still is. Sunny and willow-shaded, it sits on a shoal of land that locals fondly refer to as "The Thumb," and it lacks many of the accoutrements that many suburbanites deem necessary for daily living. Still, it's a pleasant little village, brimming with cafes, diners and charming shops of wide array. It boasts a wealth of public beach space, and for this reason the place attracts a swarm of summer tourists; birdwatchers, biker gangs, and buxom young women clad in bikinis and multihued sarongs.

As with any such place, the locals look on these outsiders with mixed wonder and disdain. I, for one, love them. Growing up as I did upon the beaches, I felt as though I ruled over a sacred Elysium, and that these travelers were visitors to my garden. I was privileged enough to marvel in this beauty every day; why not share it, I reasoned? Besides, the shoreside pilgrims that my Huron attracted were what gave rise to one of our town's greatest celebrations: the ones for Fourth of July.

The Fourth. I remember every single celebration I ever witnessed.

Every year, the same lilac breeze, the same rush of birdsong and cicada. I used to get up early on these days, even though it was summer vacation. The rush of morning beachgoers, and of fishermen out to harbor, was usually in full bloom by about nine. I liked to be out by seven. Ever since childhood, I've found a certain beauty, a holiness even, in being up early enough to witness the waking of the world.

The throng of diners over at the Lighthouse Cafe: families stepping out for brunch, construction workers enjoying a rare break in summer labor; the same batch of old charter fishing captains, laughing coarsely and telling bold lies over endless jovial pots of coffee. Or the old-timers at Chuck and Jane's, joking and grousing to the strains of poorly-captured Glenn Miller. I even relished the sight of young tourist couples, walking their dogs along the beach at Bird Creek. Watching the quiet streets slowly fill with life continues to be a fond memory, one that on this day still manages to fill me with succor.

By ten, the lawn chairs started coming out. Arrayed in color guards of gunmetal and gauzy neon, they always posted watch along the same bucolic route; starting at the old Middle School, where M-53 became Lake Street, and continuing north until the Marina sloped down toward the water. Here the route swung left, turning onto West Spring, down along the residential avenues lined with beech and cottonwood. Glancing right as the street followed west, one could see the inviting green of Huron; feel her clean breezes coming in from just thirty feet downslope. By eleven-thirty, I found it prudent to have a spot staked out on the curb. The parade, which started at one, attracted revelers from as far as Ohio, and tended to accomodate standing room only. Though I made the first journeys with my parents, by the age of nine or ten I preferred to make such journeys alone. I was a lonely kid, but self-reliant, and as I grew older I came to prefer the comfort of solitude.

The parades themselves were always a spectacle. Throngs of cars and trucks, entered by local businesses; local beauty queens and civic groups. Gangs of war-painted go-carters swerved between the ranks of ambulances and neon-yellow firetrucks, tossing out candy to smiling kids as they whipped past. On several occasions, the cheers of bystanders were shattered by a trio of Air National Guard F-16s, shooting low over the shoreline to the shock, then later awe, of zinc-nosed resorters. Those of the more urbanized sections of America might not understand the simple joy I took in these small-town spectacles, but to me they were representative of a few things that I found were right in rural America: a sense of pride, of diversity, of shared hope . Call it shmaltzy, but I found that such displays held a sense of authenticity, of warmth, that I've since found lacking in the larger communities that I've since called home.

So many smiles, on so many strange faces, on what was almost always such a beautiful day. On those days, I found patriotism, not merely in ideals, in documents, or even in chintzy country-music songs, but rather in that simple display of people coming together. In those days, I felt blessed.

The parades passed, eventually, as they always do. The late afternoons in Port Austin belonged to the beachgoer, and so it was that I often found myself, strolling lazy and barefoot, along the boardwalks and coarse cinnamon sands. The shorelines, and particularly the breakwall, were always a jumbling blur of tanned bodies, cocky college guys and their cocoa-buttered quarries, whose long hair always glistened with sand, and whose bosoms peeked, taunting, from behind an impressive array of day-glo bikinis. Fishermen, bearded and suitcase-worn from too much sun, sat in their VFW hats and ratty T-shirts, sipping beers as they silently waiting, Buddha-like, for steelheads and perch. At the far end, near the harbor inlet, packs of teenagers laughed and splashed, shrieking as they leapt, arms and legs akimbo, into the cold emerald waters of Saginaw Bay. I remember, in my younger days, feeling envious of such coltish displays of friendship and budding sexuality. Now that I am older, however, I feel a sense of knowing amusement. Why, I don't fully understand, but nevertheless, in this image I find again a sense of hope. Hope for the world I live in, perhaps, hope that perhaps there will always be such places; places where lives need not be touched by evil.

The days always entered a sort of time-warp, as afternoon began to wane. I remember the southern skies, indigo-blue and piled high with massing thunderheads. The threat of hard, warm rain, borne on breezes that smelled of ozone and wheat, portents that turned the air electric, erotic. In the early evening, say around 6, the hair on my arms stood up, and the smell of grass and sand set on me edge, balanced me precarious and stiff on the verge of some unnamed and unfocused desire.

By seven or eight, my father would be at work, charming customers at the upper-class restaurant where he has long tended bar. At first with my mother and sister, and then later alone, I remember that twilight pilgrimage down to the harbor; down with a blanket and book to the broad expanse of grass where revelers congregated, in preparation for the evening's fireworks. By this time of night, the town's streets would be clogged; cars parked on stranger's lawns and occupants forced to walk. The crowds were enormous; swarms of people 10,000 strong, crammed into a tiny shoreside hamlet barely large enough for 700 year-round locals. The smell of sand and seaweed, drifting off the skin of a young woman's neck; a perfume that ever reminds me of those flustered days. I remember being 12, sitting on the cusp of puberty, seeing the couples, the coed trios and quartets of those just a few years older than me, and feeling a deep longing: not just for sex, for the initiation into adulthood, but for companionship. In a confession rare for boys that age, I found myself jealous not of the swell of breast or thigh, but for the clasp of hand. I sat at twilight, on the shores of Lake Huron, and watched the couples, and lamented that such budding desire should leave me forgotten. And yet, in retrospect, such hollow ache seems today to bring more comfort than pain.

There were moments of beauty, as well. I remember being fifteen, coming into my junior year of high school, and sitting on the lawns, shoulder-to-shoulder, with my friend Teresa, the first girl I can truly say I loved. We laughed together and watched the streaks of multicolored fire thunder skyward, and when we locked eyes in the flares of those tiny novas, she grinned, trying to hide her braces, and maybe nudged at me with her shoulder. In the waking sparks of fireflies, calling out in futile homage to those booming pyrotechnics, as though to elder insect gods, I felt the spark of something new as well. I felt awe, and kindred being. As the skies opening in shuddering finale, I felt the swell of a new part of the self, and in this too, I found hope. I felt the rush of emotions run high, of shared yearning in the height of summer. In those days, far from the reach of sorrow or hardship, became intertwined with the festival of God and country, and so did those early July days become a time of hope, of love, of searching for self. What emerged was the feeling of being a young man, living in the last undiscovered sanctuary, deep inside the last great Empire of our age. It was a heady feeling, and still is.

Later, after the fireworks died down, I remember picked up my book and wandered in silence, back through the departing headlights. A time-honored ritual, I felt, even in the blaring horns and swirls of shimmering glowsticks, an overwhelming silence. The traffic died away as I turned off onto my street, and as I fell again beneath the deep embrace of the maple boughs that shadowed my front yard, I remember how hard it felt, how beautiful, to turn back before opening the screen door to our porch, and savor the night air, and feel myself standing on the edge of something unseen; all at once serene, confused... breathless.

In those days, far from the reach of sorrow or hardship, the days of lovebecame intertwined with the festival of God and country, and so did those early July days become a time of something new. What emerged was the feeling of being a young man, living in the last undiscovered sanctuary, deep inside the last great Empire of our age.

It was a heady feeling, and I imagine it still is. I only hope that in that place tonight, some young man, much as myself at that age, walks home under the stars and the fading sounds of laughter, and understands.


Blogger Mike Kretzler said...

Thanks for that and welcome back.

8:48 PM  
Blogger fjb said...

We just celebrated our Canada Day this past Sunday. Substitute the Shuswap River for Lake Huron, and there's very little difference. I love living in a small town!

Happy 4th, and happy belated anniversary.

10:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Awesome writing. Thank you. Small town July 4th celebrations have always moved me nearly to tears. Even this morning I felt them as we sang the Star-spangled Banner at the start of a small town Independence Day 5K. No t-shirts, no numbers, just singing our national anthem and running our guts out with the kids.

11:23 PM  
Blogger David M said...

Trackbacked by The Thunder Run - Web Reconnaissance for 07/05/2007
A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the check back often.

4:42 PM  
Blogger cinnabari said...


And I'm glad to see you back.

6:54 PM  
Blogger iamcoyote said...

This totally brings me back, Milo, thanks. I grew up in Grand Haven, where we had the same summer influx for the 4th and the Coast Guard festival later in the summer. It was magical then, and more so now reading your words and looking back in time.

Great essay, big guy - so glad you're back!

3:21 AM  
Blogger soul pumpkin said...

...thanks for the wonderful word pictures, Milo...

4:48 AM  
Blogger Dusty said...

Beautifully written post about the days of your youth. Thanks and I wish I could write so personally sometimes.

9:33 PM  
Blogger betmo said...

breathtakingly beautiful. thank you.

3:37 AM  
Blogger Jenny said...

I just wanted to say hi and tell you to just come home and write a book already.

All my best,

7:23 AM  
Blogger julie anna said...

You took me there. Very nice.

12:42 PM  
Blogger Selene Duval said...

Truly beautiful memories. I remember the few times that I went down to Port Austin, and the one time that I was fortunate enough to be there to watch the fireworks. It was one of my most cherished Fourth of July celebrations ever, but I think you delved into it far more eloquently then I could ever attempt.

1:20 AM  
Blogger Pixie said...

Missing your posts mucho. Hope all is well with you Milo and Anne.

7:01 AM  

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