Happy Fourth of July, soldier

Independence Day is a national holiday, but personal associations -- from heroism to heroin -- are what give it meaning.

Published June 30, 2000 3:29PM (EDT)

Every Fourth of July all that is American and male and patriotic explodes like fireworks in my brain; all the brute, garish ceremony of a Southern boyhood comes back: the Jehovah-like thunder of Blue Angels screaming down out of an impossibly azure sky to skim the trembling waters of Tampa Bay; the triumphal rite of passage of being handed my first sparkler (my very own fire!); our old spine-tingling anthem of blood and martial sacrifice begins to play unbidden on some diabolical Victrola of the amygdala. Across my unpaved psyche marches a ragtag squadron of Colonial pipers, George Washington impersonators, bounders and confidence men in straw boaters kissing babies in the blare of a Sousa march. Every year on the Fourth of July it's the same thing.

On a recent Saturday morning, after a particularly hard week at work, I was in the kitchen eating a bagel and listening to National Public Radio. The reporter was telling a story about a World War II vet who got very sick and went into a coma and they thought he was going to die. And then he came out of the coma and his daughter came to him and said, "If this is going to be your passing, what arrangements do you want me to make?" The vet said he wanted to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

His daughter looked into the situation and found that he had to have a Silver Star to be buried at Arlington. But then it turned out her dad had actually been nominated for the Silver Star for heroism in World War II. But he never got it. And he'd never talked about it.

During the war he flew a mission in a B-24. The plane was hit by enemy fire and the rudder line was cut. Procedure said the crew should bail out. But instead they tried to fix the rudder line and keep going. And then they got attacked again. So this guy, her father, went back to his gunner's post in the plane three times and fended off attacks, and then three times went back to try to fix the rudder cable. And finally they got it fixed and completed the mission. And he was nominated for a Silver Star. But for some reason he never got it. And now he wanted a final resting place at Arlington. So he got his Silver Star.

And out of nowhere I started bawling, with the radio going and my wife looking at me. Every time I tried to talk and say what it was I just could only bawl some more. This went on for a few minutes longer than was strictly necessary to get the point across.

You know how they make sexually traumatized kids talk to puppets? How they have to act it out? I'm like that with America. I have to act it out. Only I use voices of imaginary people.

I can say this: The Fourth of July for me is a holiday redolent of tribal mutilation and fire. It symbolizes with painful acuity some boyhood dream of patriotic manhood that was either lost or stolen, I don't know which, on a long chaotic journey I barely survived and only half-remember, that I seem to have been on from roughly 1967 to 1985, a time during which that simple dream exploded into fragments of half-digested revolutionary dogma, a bland, faithless liberalism, abortive day trips to the "feminine side" and brief unpleasant encounters with some vestigial male child who wasn't raised right and maybe deserved to be beaten and left crying in a corner.

Every Fourth of July this stuff comes up.

That Saturday morning, the radio still going, when I could stop that chesty heaving and nasal keening that is so non-conducive to persuasive speech, I tried to explain to my wife how great it was that all these World War II guys had gone and saved Western Civilization and then come back, spawned half-a-dozen towheaded rascals apiece and raised them in tract homes so newly minted you could still smell the pipe dope, and now how sad it was that those guys were all beginning to pass on, threatening to orphan all of us clueless boomers still trying to program our VCRs.

I admit that one thing behind all my blubbering was a sudden, entirely unanticipated fear of abandonment. "You can't leave, all you World War II fathers; you haven't showed us how to be adults yet!" I was also consumed by a sadness of tasks unfinished because of haste or bitterness or a desire to lock away fear in some vault of disabled affect. There was the sadness of degrees unawarded: my master's I never got because of sheer volitional torpor. (Having passed orals and gotten the thesis approved, I simply and unaccountably walked away, like an utter fool. There's no other word for it.)

Upon reflection, it became clear that the soldier's story of arduous work long gone -- unrewarded and finally recognized -- dovetailed with my own story of the abandoned master's degree. My dad also was in line for a master's at University of Chicago that he never completed until finally he was fired from some journalism job and my mom made him buckle down and finish the thing; I'm from a long line of male non-finishers.

Anyway, these days I'm so torn up about Vietnam and manhood and drinking and fathers that I have to work it out in voices. So I put the voices on paper and call it a novel. I figure, bottom line, finish the novel before lapsing into a coma. Maybe they don't bury novelists at Arlington, but then nobody's shooting at me while I type.

I have a recurring picture in my mind of my boyhood town in the South and a sailor -- one of my "puppets," my imaginary people -- wearing a T-shirt with the sleeves rolled up to hold his Lucky Strikes:

It's the Fourth of July on a sunny Sunday afternoon in a small town on Florida's Gulf Coast and it's the late 1950s and there's a pool hall and a guy just out of the Navy as a radio man on a destroyer escort who's playing eight-ball for the phone number of an 18-year-old cheerleader who lives in Clearwater and has air conditioning and situational ethics and a thirst for gin.

The former radio man is being beaten at pool by a guy his age but two-thirds his size named Hiro who is the son of the Japanese pilot who bombed his father at Pearl Harbor although he doesn't know this but knows it's possible and he's a little bleary-eyed from the beer and he's been known to have a temper but it's the Fourth of July so even the bartender's getting drunk so he just says Arigato, Sayonara, etc., and the Japanese guy gets the phone number of the girl and the former Navy radio man from the destroyer escort walks up the street to his hotel and goes up the stairs and unlocks the door to his room and sits down at the window with a bottle of Schlitz and waits for the fireworks.

There will be fireworks in the evening. But now America's getting drunk -- vast, sloppy, stupid, greedy, shallow America born of English bullets and French philosophy drunk! America staggering on unsteady pins in her unimaginable 200th-odd birthday drunk! America trying to wear the empire with dignity drunk! America every year on the Fourth at the barbecue called up on stage to boogie a few hits with the band drunk!

America's joints groan as she does the old rebel shuffle because she's not the chick she used to be. She's no vagabond stepsister hitching a ride to Memphis. She's old, she's drunk but she runs the fucking world.

Then there's another fictional character who often comes to me. He's an 80-year-old Normandy vet who lost the hearing in his right ear on Guadalcanal and came back to the States to become a caterer:

It's the Fourth of July and I've got hair in my nose and a baseball for a prostate. I've got earlobes like ripe pears. I lost my hearing on Guadalcanal. And then fucking Normandy, body-strewn, bullet-pocked. Uncle Sam and God both crept out back for a smoke when they saw what was coming there. And fuck, we did it anyway. Kali. Kaliuga. This age of ours.

I loved them all, those men of mine who died around me on the beach. I carried their souls back with me so they could rest here in their homeland among the maple and the elm. They're around me all the time now, those men. And that was what America was about back then: my brothers giving it up against Hitler and Mussolini.

Mussolini. Tetrazine. Tortellini. Makes me hungry. After the war all I wanted to do was eat. So I became a caterer. So here I am, feeding Americans in Bermuda shorts on the Fourth of July.

About what could there be less disputation? Except the young know nothing of sacrifice. They will die one day a conquered people if they cannot remember Normandy, if they cannot remember a time when it was hard and they were hungry. I will be long gone then, so what do I care if the country falls to a foreign boot? Still it makes me sad.

We are weak; we have no heroes and we do not care enough. Or we care but not about what awaits our children and what is happening to our cousins in Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Brooklyn. And if we were in the shoes of those deafened cousins sprinting under strafing jets toward broken stone walls to cringe in rubble, praying for deliverance from bombing runs and the rounding up of men, our prayers would be as they are everywhere: Please God let the bombing stop, and let them stop rounding up our men and shooting them.

And our prayers, thus uttered, would be acted on with glacial slowness by celestial clerks.

"You want miracles?" the clerk says. "Here's a miracle: You're alive! You want the strafing jets removed? We can't even keep flies off shit. We just make the stuff ... Hold, please, there's a call ..." For years you hold the phone, watching the red light blink. In the meantime borders shift. Families bundle their treasures in tablecloths and head out across the mountains, listening for the jets.

And finally in my menagerie of auditory puppets there's this junkie sax player who lives in San Francisco in a North Beach hotel:

He ties off and watches the first of the fireworks out the window of the Dawn Light Hotel and remembers that pristine elementary school morning when he became a Safety Patrol member and received his white web belt, shoulder-strap and badge. The flag had to be folded into triangles just so. The flag under no circumstances could be allowed to touch the ground. If it did it had to be burned. The burning of the flag would be a ceremony of immense solemnity. But a flag was never burned on his Safety Patrol watch because a flag was never allowed to touch the ground. Folding that flag in the dawn light, the boy saw only a boundless ceremonial perfection. Folding that flag, he saw only the opportunity for belief ever richer, and ritual ever more perfectly executed.

The future junkie sax player loved his country with tears in his eyes. He stood bravely at Sarasota spring training Yankee games and sang "and the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air" in a quivering preadolescent falsetto; he thrilled at Blue Angels jets forking off into impossible aerobatic arcs; he fought Asian and European enemies by the hundreds in battles enacted each day every day all summer long. He worshipped the gruff, practical GI fathers reared in poverty who fought The War and won it and then fathered his generation. He loved those beery, unshaven, steadily procreating men with the once-muscular bodies now happily gone to pot who taught him above all else: America wins.

Not only did America win but she won fairly, his mother said, according to law and reason. So when she heard that the Bible ladies were still coming to his classroom to tell the story of Mary and Joseph with the aid of easels, biblical backgrounds and felt figures, his mother told the principal that the Supreme Court had affirmed the separation of church and state yet again and so no Bible ladies should be bringing their felt boards into her son's class.

And the principal said her son could be excused from class when the Bible ladies came. But he loved the Bible ladies because they smelled sweet, because their hands were soft, because they were warm and full of good cheer.

He was a good boy in school and was among those chosen to help carry the easel and the wooden carrying case lined with felt figures of Mary and Joseph and Jesus. He loved carrying those cases. He didn't want to be excused from class when the Bible ladies came.

His passion for God struggled with his passion for logic and they tore him apart and after a while, after he grew up and left Florida and started playing saxophone and living in San Francisco's Tenderloin the only place he could find any peace was in heroin.

He watched the fireworks out the window of the Dawn Light Hotel as the drug flowed through his veins. He stared at the explosions: In the beginning was nothing but darkness; then, a sparkly trail up into the sky like a sperm swimming to the stars. Then: Kablooey! A sudden blooming of color over the water, the veins of a rose traced across his retina.

And then falling out of the light: poets and dictators, farmers and salesmen, teachers, mothers, shop clerks all falling out of the brilliance of explosion and color. And here, of course, was the idea of America: many out of one. But the idea had faint hold on him compared to his appetite for oblivion, now keener than ever: his appetite for the soft black sky of sleep. So his chin lay on the windowsill as the heroin crept through him and he slept.

Out of the mouth of the sky flew talismans of grief and revolution, the private and public artifacts of production and desire: smelters and underwear, tires and cock rings, eyeballs and condoms and washing machines, infant symbols of civilization.

He grew sleepy as the heroin sailed his blood like a pirate ship in the night, and then came the slowing of the brain and the sleepy dream of freedom from the body. There was the answer to his unspoken prayers: peaceful sleep, the great reward of revolution. The fireworks went on and on, but without sound.

Soon out of the large American sky came just color, pure color: smooth, aesthetic, unmartial, cleansed by heroin of the explosion out of which it was born. And then finally nothing was left in his head but the sound of his blood bubbling across the surface of his brain like the sea rounding coastal rocks into eternity.

So there I was sobbing in the kitchen over the old soldier who wanted to get buried at Arlington and I think, "I should call my dad." But then I think, "Get yourself squared away, soldier. Snap out of it."

I dry the tears and wait a couple of weeks to call dad and then it turns out, just by coincidence, it's Father's Day. And I make the call and we have a nice chat. He's a lovely man.

And then he says, "Now, I know you called me to wish me a happy Father's Day. So, well, you can consider that obligation discharged."

And we're done.

That's my dad.

Happy Fourth of July, soldier.

By Cary Tennis

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