It’s not about the fireworks.

But don’t forget the fireworks.

It wouldn’t be the same without them.

If you’re old enough to remember the good stuff: the way a pack of unwrapped Black Cats felt in your hands, supple and dusty. The instructions on the pack were straightforward:

Place on a level surface.

Light fuse.

Get away.

Of course you got away, but you jogged backward because you didn’t want to miss a thing. Six sharp seconds of brash, crackling racket.

The hiss of the bottle rockets, the pop! in the sky. The nasty plastic capsules with wings, rising on a shower of sparks, angry and dangerous. Fountains, yes, but not like today’s fizzle-spitters, these would shoot colors 6 feet up and fire flaming orbs into the sky.

Rockets? We made our own. You’d pound a pipe into the ground with a mallet and thread the thick stick into the hole. The fuse was the width of your aunt’s Virginia Slim. It shot fire when it took off, and no grass grew there ’til spring.

It wasn’t only your family. Everyone else was shooting off fireworks on the block, but not all at once. For an hour after sunset, the air had that gunpowder perfume, thick smoke gathering around the streetlights. And then it tapered off, with the occasional M-80 cleaving the night. You couldn’t decide if it meant summer had really begun, or if the best had passed.

Then you slapped your arm: skeeters.

Everyone inside. It was done, and that’s fine.

It’s not like Christmas. No one waits a month for the Fourth. No one’s heard Sousa marches in the mall since mid-May. No one looks forward to half-price bunting sales on the Fifth.

The Fourth just arrives, explodes, subsides and concludes. But what does it mean, exactly?


It’s not about the grilling.

But don’t forget the grilling. You may sear meat and char chicken any other day of the year, but this is the great civic feast. It doesn’t have the piety of Thanksgiving, with its endless brown food. It doesn’t have the good dishes or the special napkins. Eat with your hands. Wipe corn juice off your face. Have seconds. Compliment the chef, who stands sweating over the inferno, bound by duty, tending the meat. It’s all perfect, even if it’s a bit overdone. It’s all delicious, even if you’ve had it before — and you have.

What does it mean, exactly?

Well, it’s not about the flag.

But don’t forget that it’s all about the flag. Not necessarily the object itself, the piece of colored cloth, but everything behind it. The ideals it represents, and the history of a people trying to live up to those noble goals. The Constitution is our marrow. The flag — rising each morning, alive in the breeze — is the Constitution in spirit.

Have you been to Washington, D.C.? Highly recommended. Bring the kids.

On our recent trip we had our French foreign exchange student, which seemed apt: Thanks for the help back then; give our regards to Lafayette.

We stopped at the National Archives, where the founding documents repose under glass. It’s a remarkable sight. The rights they describe are self-evident and belong to all, regardless of whether they’re marked down on a broad sheet of vellum. The Constitution’s ideas are not contained in that glass case.

But you still shudder to think what might happen if all copies vanished. If the Constitution is our shield, it seems perilously thin at times.

All the more reason to hand out flags, tie them to bikes, hang them from porches. We don’t all agree on much today — something both distressing and typical. But we’re always arguing. We’re always at odds. You think this is the worst, tell it to ’63, or ’65, or ’68. Pick a century.

Now? It’s the same as then: We all have the same flag.

It may mean different things for different people — pride in what this nation has accomplished, an insistence we do more to meet its ideals, or both — but it’s all our flag, and this is the day to say hurrah to everything we prize and cherish.

Is this a perfect place? Hardly.

No one’s invented a flagpole that shoots Roman candle balls and cooks a brat at the same time. But we are still a young nation. Give us time, and we’ll figure it out.