04 July 2006

Ashes of American Flags

(I am large, I contain multitudes.) - Walt Whitman

It's the Fourth of July in Washington, D.C. and amid the brassy echo of the Army Corps Blues & Jazz Band, three Civil War fife players, curdling ranks of portable toilets, and the Washington Monument - lit up by searchlights - a red, mottled expanse of American citizenry prepare to celebrate the nation's birth. I'm with a Guatemalan friend of mine, and, looking at the spectacle with her in mind, feeling a foreigner myself. On a day like today, here on the Mall, surrounded ostensibly by that wisp of indefinable national spirit Whitman heard singing, you can't help but look around you and think, This is America. This, in some way, defines us.

A revivalist preacher screams "Know Jesus!" under a white tent onstage with a band covering the Beatles, rewritten with God in mind: "Come Together (For the Power of Christ)." Twelve women in saris are walking by, next to a knot of the ubiquitous Midwestern family, in matching t-shirts, kids mewling in the heat. A burkha-clad woman with two thoroughly secular friends is saying something about the police. Checkpoints are up at all of the entrances; purses searched, cell phones inspected. I wonder out loud how easy it would be for somebody with pancaked plastic explosive sweating on their chest to jump a fence, and where the Secret Service snipers on the rooftops are posted. A friend tells me he hears there are plainclothes cops in the crowd. An old man sneaks a nip out of a flask in his coat pocket. Six sunburned & drunk college students try to buy hotdogs from a gauntlet of mustard-yellow carts hawking ice cream, water, soda, egg rolls, Polish sausage, candy, frozen coconut balls, Italian ices. Men sell glow sticks, Nationals tickets, hats, shirts, water bottles.

What are we to make of any of this - of this infinite expanse of cotton and skin, this impossible cultural mash, this extravagant, expensive triumphalism? What one thing can we say about a nation that comprises a tent of Indian aesthetics teaching mantra yoga and a tent that preaches the Gospel and a tent that sells reheated bison burgers and Molson Light?

The sun falls and the bombardment begins. Fireworks boom, deafen, echo off of the distant buildings, timed to music drowned out by the explosions. The clouds glow red and orange. The skyline is on fire. There is something perverse about the idea of a mock cannonade, when real skylines light up with real flames. Children play with sparklers. The smoke fills the streets of the Northwest, creeps along the ground like fog. Walking back, afterwards, backlit by the spotlights, we are shadows amidst the ink-green grass. Three hundred thousand of us crowd the streets, blocked off with empty Metro buses, windows gaping out, breaching the mist. It looks for a moment like the aftermath of some cataclysm.

Elsewhere, long-range North Korean missiles splash into the Pacific or disintegrate on launch. Hamas fires a rocket into an abandoned Israeli elementary school. Israel bombs a Palestinian government building and kills a couple kids.

The American flag continues to wave, over embassies, hotel rooms, Ohio porches, outposts of far-flung empire, sits somewhere, I suppose, amid the detritus of our secret and hidden tortures, flutters tiny on the radials of our ironclad military expeditions, and, oversized, above a used-car lot in Michigan. By a narrow margin, it continues to burn, once or twice a year.

From the air, flying over America today in a plane, you'd see every town's little fireworks display, the rockets glaring thousands of feet below, splashing colorful and harmless, each an island of quiet light and fury, invincible and alone.

One year earlier: Fourth of July in Boston.


pomegranate girl said...

completely ignoring anything of value that you wrote in this entry, let me just say that I read "gentleman friend" in the place of "guatemalan friend." The fact that your gentleman friend was referred to as "she" later in the sentence only made me more intrigued.

...and now for a little musical interlude from our good friends The Kinks.

Mary Selig said...

Jim, you have grown thoughtful since 8th grade. I am pleased to see it, and to see The New York Minute again. Blow the Capitil Dome a kiss for me and tell the DaVinci in the National Gallery I love and miss her.