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.

The Aging of Independence

Ten years from now – this month – the U.S. will celebrate its 250th birthday. That’s remarkable to me considering I still have vivid memories of America’s bicentennial back in 1976.  To put it another way, I’ve been witness to more than 20% of the entire history of the United States.  We really are a young country, aren’t we?

54 - sesquicentennial

Earlier this week my wife and I were driving back to Colorado from California, after a week of vacation at the beach. Passing through Utah we reached a small town called Cedar City. There’s nothing remarkable about Cedar City. It’s the home of Southern Utah University and almost 30,000 residents. But the name stirred a memory in the deep recesses of my brain. And then it hit me. Cedar City was part of a contest the Los Angeles Times newspaper sponsored when I was a teenager – a creative way of celebrating the nation’s big birthday.

The contest (if my vague memories serve me correctly) took place over fifty of the fifty-two weeks that year. Each week The Times published a trivia puzzle consisting of a jumbled American city name and a couple other facts you had to figure out about the locale or surrounding state. As the contest went on you realized The Times was picking one city from every state in the union. You cut out and completed each puzzle by hand, and at the end of the contest submitted the whole pile to The Times, to be included in a cash drawing. Our family’s World Book Encyclopedia – not the Internet that was still twenty years from reality – helped me with the research.

I didn’t win The Times contest but I know I learned a lot about our country in the process – including a few details about little Cedar City, Utah.  Needless to say we are a remarkably diverse collection of states, towns and people; especially for a country so young.

America’s 150th birthday – the “sesquicentennial” – was honored back in 1926 when Calvin Coolidge was president.  You can find Coolidge’s celebratory address to the people here.  One passage in particular resonated with me: “Amid all the clash of conflicting interests, amid all the welter of partisan politics, every American can turn for solace and consolation to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States with the assurance and confidence that those two great charters of freedom and justice remain firm and unshaken.”  Powerful words then, but I wonder if today’s leaders would be so bold as to make the same statement?  Look no further than the current presidential election: the Constitution and the Declaration are being called into question like never before.

Ten years from now the U.S. will celebrate its “sestercentennial” – fully 250 years of glorious independence.  Philadelphia is already campaigning to be the host city for the national celebration.  2026 won’t be a presidential election year nor an Olympic year, but the fireworks and pageantry will surely be brighter.  Let’s hope another decade brings not only renewed pride and optimism in America, but also a sense that we are – states, towns, citizens – “united” once more.