I remember the blast.
I remember the crunchy grass and a setting sun.
I remember the crackling flashes and the eggy, ashy smell.
I remember squealing and laughing and diving under a blanket with my brother and some other kids.
I remember being proud of America.
I remember feeling honor.
I remember being caught up in strong waves of patriotism.
I remember it in a way, forty-one years later, that I’m not sure if I remember it accurately or just in that way fond memories grow mythically in one’s mind, but I remember the 4th of July, 1976, more than any other Independence Day.
It was the Bicentennial, so it was a pretty special year for celebration. The country was 200 and I was 8.
On the evening of the 4th my family had gone to Chester Park in Anchorage, Alaska, along with some friends from church, to watch the fireworks show. And at one moment a shell of some sort went off right next to our blanket. In my 8-year old mind I was sure it was one of the large professional shells that had gone terribly off-course, but as an adult now I’m sure it was probably just something small that a teen had set off nearby. We squealed in fear and dove under the blanket, giggling and poking and kicking after we realized we had survived.
That year always seemed special to me.
I was caught up in a lot of the patriotic fervor that accompanied the Bicentennial. I had a brand-new stamp postmarked in Philadelphia on the 4th sent to me to add to my stamp book. I had a handful of the exciting new Bicentennial quarters. I had a red-white-and-blue bicycle with streamers on the handlebars. I remember just about everywhere you looked you could find something that the Bicentennial theme had been applied to – cars, toys, clothes. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that McDonald’s had made a red-white-and-blue milkshake.
They called it the “Spirit of 76” and to a young 8-year old boy, it was pretty impactful. For a year or so I felt like I was wrapped up in something powerful and prideful. It felt good. It felt like the grown-ups were in charge and handling things well.
I know now that a lot of that sense is just youthful innocence and selective nostalgia.
In July 1976 our country wasn’t any more united than we wish it were now. Nixon had resigned in disgrace 23 months earlier. South Vietnam fell to the Communists only 13 months prior, leaving America with its first real defeat in a war that seemed to accomplish almost nothing for the cost in money and lives paid. Oil prices were high, interest rates were high, Middle-East tensions were high, conflict with Soviets seemed likely, there were race riots and women’s rights marches and environmental movements and a sense that American manufacturing jobs were disappearing forever to Japan.
Oil prices and interest rates are pretty low right now, but other than that, there’s nothing new under the sun. We have a historically controversial and unpopular president. We have tensions with the Middle-East and Russia. We have race riots and gender equality protests and environmental movements in the news. Jobs seem to slip away to China or somewhere else in Asia too easily.
But in 1976 they found a way to be proud. They found the “Spirit of 76”. Maybe it resonated because so many needed something to rally to in tough times, something to unite around and celebrate together. Disco wouldn’t arrive in force for another year for everyone to hate publicly (and listen to secretly).
I realized something a while back: I’m one of the grown-ups now. Statistically speaking I’m older than about 60 percent of the U.S. population (median age is around 37). My children and other young people are looking to myself and my generation for guidance.
I take inspiration from a famous painting by Archibald Willard entitled “The Spirit of 76”. It was created for the Centennial Exposition in 1876 and commemorates three Revolutionary War soldiers, one who is wounded, playing instruments and marching with determination. They set the tune and they set the pace.
And this is where I find myself in 2017: the country seems to be reeling from similar situations as 1976. War, economy, politics, jobs, rights, you name it. We’re torn on many issues.
But we’re still America.
We can work on what divides us or we can work on what unites us. The amount of work is the same.
We’re still free.
We still have much to celebrate. Just look at the incredible advances we’ve made in technology and medicine and the progress we’ve made on equal rights! 41 years ago you couldn’t write a check in another state! We’ve got a spacecraft launched back around the Bicentennial that is now leaving the Solar System!
Is there work to be done? Absolutely. Wounds to be healed? Yes. Terrifying, awkward conversations about rights to work through? Most certainly.
But we have the freedom to tackle all of those.
We get to set the tune.
We get to set the pace.
We get to make our children proud.
We have an opportunity.
We can summon the Spirit of 76.
Happy Independence Day!