It’s hot — most days over 100 degrees. It’s South Texas. It’s July. Of course it’s hot!
For people in more northern parts of the country, summer brings welcome relief to the gray, cold, heavy days of winter that seem to linger too long. Summers mean a change over in wardrobe, from winter sweaters to summer whites; it means men don’t wear jackets and women don’t wear hose. It means cleaning up the yard, clearing the deck of fall and winter debris, and firing up the grill. It means making weekend trips to the shore, stocking beer in the pantry, and digging out recipes for potato salad and cold slaw. In short, for most of the country, summer means relaxing into that school-is-out, livin’-is-easy lifestyle — casual, convivial, even chic.
But not in Texas. Here, summer means a descent into environmental hell: budget-wrecking electric bills for the AC that runs 24/7; swimming pools like bath water at 90 degrees; citronella candles and bug sprays in battle with mosquitos; chiggers and ants in the lawn, cockroaches and millipedes in the house, and sun screen and sun lotion and sun hats on everybody everywhere every day. Oh, but yes, there’s beer in the cooler and margaritas in the freezer, because damn it’s hot!
Texans don’t especially love summer, which may be why the 4th of July isn’t celebrated here with quite the fanfare that it is in say Boston, or Washington or New York. When you live in a place where fireworks are often banned as a fire hazard, the holiday tends to lose some of its “sparkle.” When I was a kid growing up down here, July 4th meant going out to the drive-in movie theatre where the hamburgers and hot dogs in the concession stand were grilled for you and where there would, in fact, be fireworks overhead at intermission, if fireworks were allowed at all that year. We would sit out on the hood of the car and watch them spiral downward almost close enough to touch — until I invariably got scared and scrambled back into the car. To this day, I have never really liked fireworks.
But then there are the pyrotechnics by Grucci, which is in a class all by itself — virtually a “Chihuly in the sky,” full of color and wonder and whirling fantasia. The Gruccis of New York have been in business for six generations in America and are affectionately known as “America’s First Family of Fireworks.” Little wonder: they have staged the official inaugural fireworks for every US president since Ronald Reagan in 1981. Their fiery starbursts and exploding chrysanthemums have rained down on Olympic Games, World’s Fairs, America’s Bicentennial in New York, the Millennium on the Mall in Washington, and on countless other holidays and celebrations across the country and around the world. These days there are other big pyrotechnic companies competing for their business, but Grucci still sets the standard. (And you can catch a Grucci display this July 4th, either in person or on TV, bursting over the Charles River in Boston.)
I don’t have many fond Independence Day memories, but a couple of the most vivid do involve Gucci, such as being at America’s Bicentennial in 1976 with Operation Sail and fireworks over the Hudson River in New York or, some years later, sitting out on a boat with good friends on Long Island Sound with Grucci overhead being choreographed to the music of “Dirty Dancing.” Mostly, though, the July 4th picnics and cookouts and treks to the beach all blend together, highlighted here and there by sometimes humorous, sometimes less-than-fond recollections of horrendous traffic, hot-as-Hades temperatures, and minor mishaps with barbecue grills and firecrackers.
Memories have a way of coming full circle, as does so much in life. On a recent July 4th evening, I found myself once again sitting on the hood of a car to watch fireworks. This time, though, I wasn’t at a drive-in movie theatre, but here in “Military City” San Antonio, parked outside the fence around Randolph AFB, where a broad collection of off-the-highway humanity had gathered to ooh and aah at the lighting of the Nation’s birthday candles. And ooh and aah we did, all of us, expressing spontaneous enthusiasm for the show and general good will toward each other. There were no marching bands, no empty political slogans, not even much flag waving. There was simply us, a wildly diverse group of gathered spectators — kids and grandmas, old and young and middle-aged, black and white and brown, with coolers and lawn chairs and blankets alongside pick-ups or Cadillacs or Camrays— all of us there simply sharing a pride of place in America, a moment of — dare I say it? — unity.
The fireworks may not have been Grucci “Chihuly in the sky” that night, but we certainly had a “rainbow coalition” on the ground. Now there’s a concept worth trying to recapture and a memory worth holding onto, especially this year.
Happy Birthday USA.