The Fourth on the Fence

America’s Independence Day celebrations go full-on patriotic today, including a plethora of centuries-old traditions. Barbecues and fireworks. Downtown parades with marching bands. Baseball, apple pie, and ice cream. Flags, and countless costumes of red, white, and blue. Another round of Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest. These are the images consistent with America’s 243rd birthday party. But tennis shoes and tanks? Nope; not what I had in mind.

Photo by Nike

I’m referring to recent headlines, of course.  Nike – in an obvious nod to Independence Day – produced a limited-edition running shoe with the “Betsy Ross” on the heels (the version of the American Flag with a circle of thirteen stars on the field of blue).  The shoe would’ve made it to hundreds of feet were it not for concerns voiced by activist (and Nike spokesperson) Colin Kaepernick.  In response, Nike immediately recalled the shoe.  In response to that, the state of Arizona withdrew financial incentives for the construction of Nike’s latest manufacturing plant.  In response to that, the state of New Mexico created a political fence at the NM/AZ border, inviting Nike to “come on over”.  “Betsy Ross” instantly became a hot topic on Twitter.

Photo by Andrew Harnik – AP

As for the tanks, President Trump requested “reinforcements” for the “Salute to America” parade and flyover in Washington D.C.  In a nod to the U.S. Armed Forces, parade-goers will enjoy a convoy of loud-and-proud servicemen and women and their vehicles.  I can’t think of anything more patriotic: a fortified Independence Day parade in our nation’s capital hosted by the leader of the free world.  But like the Betsy Ross shoes, we have controversy.  D.C. locals are worried about tank-track damage to city streets and bridges.  More predictably, the progressive left sees President Trump’s actions (and Salute speech) as an inappropriate opportunity for political gain.  In response to that, there will be protestors and flag-burners galore.

My Independence Day childhood memories have nothing to do with flag-burning, let alone tennis shoes and tanks.  Our family would trek to the beach in Southern California full of pride and patriotism.  We’d spread blankets on the sand at dusk alongside thousands of others, with a couple of buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken for dinner.  My brothers and I would run around in circles with sparklers.  When it got dark enough we’d enjoy the fireworks erupting from a nearby pier.

As a teenage boy – and budding pyrotechnic – Independence Day was all about the fireworks.  My dad would purchase a large “Red Devil” assortment and we’d set them off on the beach.  My favorites included “black snakes”, “ground-spinners”, and “fountains”. (Alas, I never experienced the machine-gunner thrill of hoisting a Roman Candle.)

When my own children were young, I delighted in our local (and thoroughly hokey) Independence Day parade.  Our supermarket participated with a group of dancing, shopping-cart-wielding cashiers.  Our dentist shamelessly advertised on a float with a giant toothbrush. But our son carried the flag as a Boy Scout and our daughter rode her pony as part of an equestrian team.  Later in the evening we’d gather at the shore of the nearby lake to watch the fireworks display, fully funded by donations to the local fire department.  Small-town America at its best.

Like any other living, breathing American, I have my opinions on the tennis shoes and tanks.  I don’t think Nike intended to dredge up Revolutionary War-era civil liberties simply by displaying the Betsy Ross on its products.  I don’t think President Trump did anything more than exercise the privilege of the office by serving as host of our nation’s capital’s celebration.  In both cases, I think digging for dirt below the surface only makes things dirtier.  I’d wear the shoes or attend the Washington D.C. bash without an iota of self-consciousness.  I’d simply be an American celebrating our Independence Day.

Nike defended its shoe recall by claiming it’s “proud of its American heritage”, but worried the Betsy Ross would “unintentionally offend and detract from the nation’s patriotic holiday”.  President Trump’s advocates said he’s “… not afraid to buck convention and put his own twist on these types of events”.  How about we get off the fence, take a step back, and remember what we’re celebrating?  America’s birthday deserves more than focus on yesterday’s regrettable events or today’s relentless politics.  Perhaps – just for a day – we could be the “United States” of America once again.

Game of Stones

Do you know the absurd story of the London Bridge? Built in 1831, the famous bridge lasted 130 years over the Thames River before overwhelming traffic demanded the construction of a new one. So, what did London do with the old one? They sold it. Robert McCulloch, an American oilman, paid over $2 million to have the bridge dismantled into pieces, shipped to the coast of California (through the Panama Canal), trucked across the desert to the edge of Arizona, and reconstructed in newly-established Lake Havasu City.  Look at that photo below – that’s a lot of truckloads.  Call him crazy but McCulloch recouped his bridge money by selling the surrounding desert properties to retirees. He also took several thousand bits of the bridge and put them in tiny glass bottles for souvenirs. I bought one of these bottled bits when I was a kid.

The London Bridge story came to mind this week after reading a Wall Street Journal article about Hawaii.  It seems volcanoes are making their way to mainland America much the same way the London Bridge made its way to Arizona.  Tourists to Hawaii’s Volcanoes National Park – the 500-square mile preserve on the Big Island – are stuffing lava rocks into their suitcases as souvenirs; some over a foot long.  I’d like to see the size of the volcano you could build from all the lava bits stolen (yes stolen; helping yourself to rocks in a national park is technically illegal).  That volcano would be hundreds of feet taller than the paper mache science project you assembled in your youth (baking soda + vinegar = lava flow!)

This rock-robbing in Hawaii is big business.  How do I know?  Because the real story here is the hundreds of rocks being returned to Volcanoes National Park.  Park rangers claim they’re receiving mailings every day, each containing a) a stolen lava rock, and b) a letter of apology.  Turns out – if you believe this sort of thing – taking lava rocks puts a curse on your life and bad things start to happen.  In one case, a tourist claimed his sons began having behavioral problems, his marriage fell apart, and his mother died; all within a few months of bringing home a lava rock.

The Hawaiian Goddess of fire, lightning, wind, and volcanoes – Pele – is responsible for the curse.  She is credited with creating the Hawaiian Islands in the first place.  Her domain encompasses all volcanic activity on the Big Island, and she’s known for her power, passion, jealousy, and capriciousness.  Yo, don’t take Pele’s rocks!

(Note: as I was reading up on “Madame Pele” I recalled the 2014 computer-animated short “Lava”.  Remember the story, about two volcanoes who fall in love – “Uku” and “Lele”?  Maybe Lele was Pele in disguise – casting her powerful curse from the big screen!)

My wife and I went to Hawaii on our honeymoon thirty years ago.  We saw several volcanoes but never did we consider taking a lava rock home (loading up on pineapples and several boxes of chocolate-covered macadamia nuts instead).  I mean really, what do you do with a lava rock: display it in your living room as if you own a share of Hawaii?

Perhaps these rock-robbers are the same peeps who fell for Pet Rocks in the 1970’s.  If you weren’t around back then, Pet Rocks were smooth stones gathered from Mexico’s Rosarito Beach.  They had cute painted faces and were sold as if live animals, in little boxes with straw beds and breathing holes.  They included a lengthy training manual to “properly raise and care for one’s new Pet Rock”.  (The easiest commands were “sit” and “stay”.)  The Pet Rock phenomenon was as absurd as rebuilding the London Bridge, yet 1.5 million were sold for four dollars apiece in a six-month frenzy.  Gary Dahl – “founder” of the Pet Rock – became an instant millionaire.

My conclusion on all this rock talk?  Real people are as capricious as Hawaii’s fiery goddess.  London Bridge inspired a nursery rhyme (“… is falling down…”) so we sing about rocks.  Hawaii’s volcanoes inspired a Pixar story so we watch a movie about rocks.  But stealing rocks inspired a curse, cast on all who dare to help themselves.  No thanks, Pele.  Put it in stone; if I must have a rock I’ll take my chances and invest in the $4 pet-friendly variety instead.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.