July 4, 1976, is the first Independence Day I remember. I'd grown up hearing about the Bicentennial; I had always been excited about the prospect for such a momentous birthday. But what I remember mostly was the quiet of the morning as I strode down a neighborhood street, walking through a corridor of flags. That morning I imagined that every porch in America boasted some fluttering emblem of pride. But there was something more to that day.
I remember feeling somber on Independence Day. I think I recognized a cultural exhaustion that affected most folks that summer, a feeling that all of America was sighing with relief after a hellish decade of war, assassinations, oil shocks, and social upheaval. We'd seen a president resign in disgrace. We'd seen the dismal end to our adventures in Indochina. We'd seen students shot on college greens. We must have felt battered and lost on that Bicentennial Day. I was only a kid, and my memories now are surely altered by the weight of history. But that seventies-sense of sadness was palpable, even to me.
That night my mom and I went to Dunedin Beach. Folks played music from their cars and unfolded blankets on the sand. The adults chatted while kids ran around waving sparklers. We all waited for the darkness to fall, anticipating the first explosions. The dazzling colors commemorated things I didn't entirely understand at age eight. But I knew that many of the adults in my life were quietly relieved that we'd made it to the Bicentennial somewhat intact.
Today the nation celebrates its 231st birthday, and I recognize that same quiet sense of exhaustion that I felt in 1976. My generation has also endured its share of sadness. We've seen the impeachment (and subsequent acquittal) of a president. We've seen an electoral crisis in which the foundation of America's trust in its government and courts was profoundly shaken. We've seen airplanes turned into missiles and towers turned into tombs. And we've endured a seemingly endless quagmire in Iraq, producing a presidential approval rating that is comparable to that of Nixon in the darkest days of Watergate. It's the Fourth of July and our flags fly at a spiritual half-mast.
But today we will celebrate nonetheless. Jenny, Vienna, and I will grill hot dogs on the deck. We'll applaud fireworks bursting over the soccer field. And we'll watch Independence Day, which (at Jenny's insistence) has become a Wood Family Tradition. We will continue to fulfill the sacraments of our civic religion, even if our faith has been battered of late. We will celebrate a nation whose basic goodness will not succumb to tyrants either beyond our borders or within them.
We haven't had a lot of luck lately, but we continue to have hope.