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.

When the World Stopped Turning

I was an infant when President Kennedy faced the threat of communism through the Cuban Missile Crisis. I was a kid when the Vietnam conflict dominated newspaper headlines. I was a young adult during the Persian Gulf War, when my only memory was Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the USA, the lyrics interspersed with tearful exclamations from family members. However, I was fully grown, married with children, alive and aware, on September 11, 2001. 9/11 stays with me; every anniversary observed with reverence.

Reminders weren’t necessary when Tuesday arrived this year (now dubbed Patriot Day), but I still got two. The first – from a fellow blogger – talked about Empty Sky, New Jersey’s memorial to its 700+ victims of the 9/11 attacks, in Liberty State Park directly across from Manhattan. The second – from my Windows lock screen – the day and date in a large font on my monitor: Tuesday, September 11. In 2001, September 11th also fell on a Tuesday.

“Empty Sky” – Liberty State Park, NJ

Lyric: “Where were you when the world stopped turning, that September day?” Alan Jackson

Anyone twenty or older in 2001 should remember exactly where they were “that September day”. I think a book of such accounts would lend meaningful perspective. Me, I was in Texas for a week at my company’s Houston offices. That Tuesday morning, I was listening mindlessly to the radio as I navigated my rental car from hotel to office. The local news was laughing about “some nut-job crashing his single-engine plane into one of New York’s World Trade Center towers”. By the time I got to work, there was no more laughing.

The rest of that week in Houston was a blur. Work pretty much came to a halt as people processed the horrific aftermath of the attacks. That Friday, it was apparent my return flight to Colorado wasn’t going to happen. With the blessing of my rental car agency, I pointed my car to the northwest and faced 1,000 miles of highway. Midway through my journey, in the middle of the West Texas desert, I picked up the broadcast of the memorial service from the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. I’ll never forget the words of President Bush (“We are here in the middle hour of our grief…”), and the choir’s rendition of “America the Beautiful”, bringing uncontrollable tears.

Fact: 25% of Americans living today were born after September 11, 2001.

Add in Americans who were ten or younger back then (including two of my children), and four in ten Americans have no real memory of 9/11. Thus, we have the memorials, which laud and honor the departed. On Tuesday, President Trump spoke from Shanksville, PA, site of one of the plane crashes. The Flight 93 National Memorial includes a visitor’s center, a white marble “wall of names”, and a “Tower of Voices” – dedicated just this week – with 40 chimes; one for each man and woman killed in the crash.

Flight 93 National Memorial (photo courtesy of C-SPAN)

In Washington D.C., those 184 victims are commemorated with the Pentagon Memorial, outdoors and just southwest of the massive building. The memorial is park-like: an illuminated bench for each victim, arranged in a grid according to age (the youngest was 3, the oldest 71), and interspersed with trees. When you’re reading the name of a victim from the Pentagon, the bench is oriented so you face the south facade of the building. For a victim of the airplane crash itself, the bench is oriented so you face the flight path.

Pentagon Memorial

Question: Why did fate place me in our Houston offices that day, instead of high up in the World Trade Center alongside co-workers from my company?

Finally, the National September 11 Memorial & Museum opened ten years to the day after the attacks, on the site of the former World Trade Center towers. Perhaps I shouldn’t say “finally”. At last count, there were 700 9/11 memorials across the United States.

National September 11 Memorial & Museum

Tuesday night, my daughter and I took in a Colorado Rockies game in downtown Denver. The baseball was exciting, but the pregame ceremony took my breath away. 1) A color guard in a slow, solemn march, the flags borne by representatives of each military branch. 2) A trio of elementary-school choirs singing the national anthem. 3) The Stars-and-Stripes, gracefully unfurled by firefighters from across the state; a flag seemingly larger than the stadium itself. 4) The scoreboard, with it’s red-white-and-blue message of affirmation: “WE WILL NEVER FORGET.”

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