Fourth of July parades bore me to death. They always have. Maybe it’s because my view is obliterated as soon as anyone over 5’4” stands in front of me. Or it could be that watching ants find a smear of potato salad is much more interesting than watching floats full of waving, costumed strangers inch by. Maybe it’s because I think July is the most hellish month of the year after February, due to the heat (historically, only my birthday saves August from equal dislike). I grew up in a small community, and it rankled me that high participation in the annual parade meant there were hardly any spectators, which, to me, seemed to defeat the purpose of having a parade at all. Nevertheless, I decked my bike with patriotic streamers and envied the kids who had access to a horse. We all wore horrid red, white and blue outfits we wouldn’t be caught dead in any other day of the year. The dogs suffered just as much in their tri-colored bandanas.
The picnics were great, though. In my family the debate over whether the chicken salad would be made with mayonnaise or Miracle Whip was a crucial lead-in. And it’s really fun to eat cross-legged on a blanket with the dampness from the grass seeping through, watching red ants reconnoiter while you balance a plate of rapidly warming egg and mayo-based salads on your knee and wave soused yellow jackets away from the mouth of your orange soda as you try to keep the dog, bandana irreparably askew, from molesting the next family over.
For the fireworks, the whole neighborhood traditionally traipsed through the woods to sneak onto an adjacent golf course with faulty fencing. It may have been Independence Day for us, but it was Thanksgiving dinner for the ticks and mosquitoes. Once each family arrived to stake out the day’s second blanket-kingdom, the kiddies could chase fireflies, moms could chat in the dusk, and over-vigilant dads could harangue boys for leaving dewy footprints on the putting green, which might risk the golf club’s apparent willingness to turn a blind eye to our annual en masse trespassing.
But my family may have a new, infinitely superior Fourth of July tradition. I think it’s best to contemplate our freedom from British rule by getting as close to England as we possibly can without leaving our own glorious United States. I found excellent substitutes for warm egg salad and red, white and blue crepe paper: a sundress, a Jane Austen, and a folding chair rusted by the salty air. An alcoholic punch known as “Peach Power” at my parents’ annual Christmas party is known as “Beach Power” in July, and it goes great with a bag of slightly sandy tortilla chips. I went boogey-boarding with my husband, traded passages of books with my mother, and hoped my brother would turn up some pirate treasure with his metal detector. Dad, robbed of guarding the pristine putting greens, could watch to make sure that none of us shook out a sandy towel too close to other sunbathers. My three-year-old second cousin seemed to have an aversion to wearing pants of any kind, but that was a minor detail.
The lure of Atlantic City almost makes up for the loss of the bee-swamped soda, precarious paper plates and damp, nubby blankets. Harrah’s Casino, we discovered, has a buffet which renders moot the question of mayo or Miracle Whip. Instead of humidity-wilted potato chips, over-warm macaroni salad and slices of watermelon which you regret upon realizing there’s nowhere to rinse your hands and chin, we ate Churrasco steak, crabs, clams, shrimp and mussels, sushi, enchiladas, fried chicken, hibachi noodles, sautéed mushrooms, dim sum, loaded baked potatoes, lemon meringue pie, apple pastry, cookies and gelato.
Maybe you think that a small-town neighborhood parade and picnic just outside of our nation’s capital, like my own July Fourth memories, is the way the Fourth ought to be celebrated. But it’s hard to find a better example of the vaunted America which embraces all races, nationalities, sexes, colors, sizes, shapes, and haircuts than an Atlantic City casino. Just like America itself, here is a place where absolutely anyone can step up to the table and join in, as long as they’ve got plenty of cash. And in the casino, the obesity epidemic is not the crisis it’s made out to be on the news. Those too large to walk comfortably from one bank of games to the next can easily get motorized scooters with extra-wide seats that swivel to the side for easy access to the Wheel of Fortune slots.
Instead of the annual trek through the woods, flashlights stabbing the marshy woods while spider webs festooned the faces of those hardy (or unwitting) enough to walk first down the path, when it was time for the Atlantic City fireworks everyone surged to wedge themselves into the elevators. On the roof of the Harrah’s Casino parking garage, I had by far the most comfortable fireworks viewing I have ever had in my life. My husband and I reclined in our car (cunningly parked on the roof several hours prior), rolled the windows down, and watched the fireworks through the windshield.
There’s something magical about how we’re all transfixed by fireworks. People of every age and description ooh and ah in childlike elation, and for twenty minutes it’s as if 3D movies and YouTube and American Idol never existed, because we’re overcome by a two-colored firework in the shape of a smiley face. Of course, the universal amity which the fireworks inspired on the roof of Harrah’s was over within half an hour, as everyone tried to drive their car out of the garage at the same time and became gridlocked at inexplicable angles. The honking horns would have drowned out the fireworks, were they not over, but eventually, with true American spirit, a few superior minds were elected from the mass to orchestrate the maneuvers which would free the blocked citizens, and everyone subsided into an idling line to pay $20 upon exiting the garage.
Perhaps because we subconsciously felt the lack of a parade, before leaving the casino, my husband and I decided to sit where we could watch the line to get into P. Diddy’s “Red White and Blue” Fourth of July bash. It was a hundred times better than tricycles and fire trucks.
On Fourth of Julys past at home, fireworks were usually followed by an increasingly rowdy porch party at which the the more festive grown-ups got progressively sloshed. On one particularly memorable Fourth, several otherwise respectable community dads had a bottle-rocket war, creeping through ditches to launch explosives across the neighborhood as the kids and dogs (freed from their bandanas but still frantic from the booms of the fireworks) darted through the dark. In retrospect, it might be that moment more than any other which convinced me that consistently responsible behavior is not, as I once believed, a prerequisite for parenthood.
We went back to the beach house for the perfect end to our latest Fourth of July: a mug of vanilla ice cream with some pilfered fudge sauce and Luke Skywalker and Jabba the Hutt on late-night cable (“You can profit from this, or be destroyed. It’s your choice, but I warn you not to underestimate my power.”) There are some things from my childhood I’ll always enjoy. Fourth of July is one of them – whatever form it takes.