Arc of history

Fri, 07/10/2015 - 7:45am
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We all have one of those youthful summers of exceptional remembrance, mine was the summer of 1969, historic by any account. It was the year Pete Seeger and his crew launched the sloop Clearwater and sailed into the New Harbor and came to town and performed on the stage of the Empire. It was the year men landed on the moon; we were kids and presumed it would happen, and it would be the United States that would make it happen.

It was a year of a music festival on a farm near a town called Woodstock. There were the Manson Murders in California, probably more headline grabbing for one of the victims, the beautiful and pregnant Sharon Tate, wife of movie director Roman Polanski. The Stonewall riots in New York were a blip on my radar, a “city” event the magnitude of which I did not begin to grasp.

Back then, extraordinary events were the expectation of summer, sealed with songs that played between newscasts on AM radio.

The start of this summer felt like that one so long ago. There was unspeakable tragedy — followed by the timing of High Court decisions I know was fate. It did feel as though with that shooting in South Carolina a dam broke and reason and reality flowed down like a river.

The President spoke at the funeral of a pastor slain while attending Bible study. Of that time which already feels so long ago, a writer at a major newspaper put to paper:

It was a week in which a lot of Americans felt they were actually watching the arc of history bend in front of their eyes, and it was a eulogy that both spoke to the moment and connected that moment to the past and the future of what Mr. Obama calls the great “American experiment.”

Now we have made it through the Fourth of July and the town is beautiful. The panorama of old buildings with American flags flying and bunting draped from long verandas could come from a different time but for the number of white stars on the field of blue. The owners of a few cars — another clue to the century — have affixed smaller flags to extended windshields wipers, Stars and Strips waving proudly.

We have a night when fireworks explode over the beach and horns on boats in the harbor blast in appreciation. There is a parade, led by a fire engine, and the Spirit of '76, a group that amazes every year. There are marching pipers and drummers and clubs bands on flatbeds, and older veterans and younger service people; there are floats, mainly non-profits and family sponsored and/or oriented. There are picnics and porch parties and the Fire Department puts on a Steak Fry; we have all the makings of storybook Fourths of July.

But something is off. Someone remarks upon how dressed up people were, so perfectly color co-ordinated; I look up to see a guy in what appears to be an American flag tee-shirt, not a tee with a flag on it but the whole front of the shirt. It is backwards, the union, the rectangle of blue, at the right and I wonder if anyone else notices or if it was printed on a flimsy “it's not-really-the-flag” premise.

I have to wonder as well, how many of these self-proclaimed patriots have ever heard of the Flag Code or if they think it akin to Capt. Jack Sparrow's cohorts’ version of the Pirate Code, “more like what your guidelines” to be applied at whim under some twisted self-serving “freedom” assertion? Sparrow, and company, made no pretense about their motives, I think. I look up, this time to see a red, white and blue cap… advertising beer.

That ship sailed long ago; the flag is plastered about, seemingly with little mind to something as archaic as a Flag Code. I know it is the way of the world, the ignoring of old-fashioned rules masquerading as free market at best, uber-patriotism at worst. Stadiums built with corporate-naming rights funding should not be the model of the Fourth of July. It is brought to us not by fill-in-the-blank businesses who are likely peddling goods manufactured in a far away avowedly communist land. Rather, it is the legacy of a bunch of radical colonists who, unsatisfied with petitions for redress, took on the Redcoats in what could have become a footnote skirmish in the Massachusetts countryside. Over a year, and 12 more colonies later, when the Declaration was signed, they were at war against the greatest power on the face of the earth. They put their lives, liberties and pursuits of happiness on the line. They lent their personal fortunes, they penned some of the most famous words in the language and created a written Constitution that has been in place for over two-hundred years. They bent the arc of history.

Then an older gentleman comes by and assuages my crankiness. He talks of maintaining a family tradition, of participation in the parade even with a few walkers instead of the expected prize-winning float, to be sure the chain of representation in July Fourth parades on Block Island is not broken. He went down to the open field at the edge of the Great Salt Pond, felt the breeze and the energy of the participants and was grateful for the opportunity to be part of this town's group honoring this country.

His gratitude to be a part of this celebration of our nation balanced all the fluffery nonsense, all the I'm-a-better-patriot-than-you-because-I-have-a-bigger-flag bravado that has so littered — in cases literally — our landscape. It brought the holiday back from the hands of drunken “revelers,” a gentle reminder that loudest is no measure of merit.