Barbeques, Fireworks, and FlagsPosted: Jul 6, 2005 12:40:55 AM
"Your ketchup's in the bag
And a check is in the mail
I hope your chicken's raw inside
And I hope your bun is stale."
Happy 4th of July! American Independence Day is a strange creature, and I think it can best be summarized in three words: barbeques, fireworks, and flags. The barbeque (at Siobhan's parents' place) was splendid, with burgers, hot dogs, oysters, and - of course of course - apple pie. While we had our barbeque in the back yard, a quick poll of the neighbourhood established that many people prefer to set plastic seats, tables, or blankets up in the front yard or in the driveway, probably so they could watch the fireworks as well.
The fireworks! The etiquette for such explosives seems to be to set them off at the end of your driveway with a hose at the ready for safety, although some people elected to set theirs off in the street instead just as we were driving down it (yeah, thanks guys). There were also public fireworks, sponsored by the local radio station (it was a country station - gak! my ears! my bleeding ears!), and we watched them from the top of a multi-storey parking lot. It was just as well that we missed the musical accompaniment, because from what I heard it was a combination of Sousa marches ('Stars and Stripes Forever' being the most obvious) and countrified Tim McGraw songs like the one quoted at the top of this report (it's from a song called 'Do You Want Fries With That?' gak! my ears!). But the fireworks were very cool!
The flags, of course, are fascinating. American flags are everywhere in the States, and revered to a large (inordinate?) degree. Typically people have them hanging on a short pole on the front of their house, attached by magnet to their car, or pasted into a window. Or all three. Or multiples of all three: at least one house had a dozen flags festooned around the front door. Some people take the flag-carrying to an extreme: we saw one person with a huge American flag sticking out their sunroof, and another with two flags extending like ears out of the top of their SUV (patriotic but not very practical; he had to brush it away every time he wanted to take a turn, as the Red, White, and Blue completely obstructed his view... geez, I'm sure there's an instructive metaphor in there somewhere). In the supermarket, there are huge packets of cupcakes that form the flag in their icing.
It is a little strange, coming from a country that does not treat their flag the same way (there's constant talk of changing the thing), but obviously the Fourth of July is very strong on patriotic symbolism and the flag is the best way to express this. The flag is often related to the military for some reason: I'm told that many of the people hanging flags from their houses have relatives in the army, and most of the aforementioned car magnets bearing the flag also announce 'Support our troops!'. It's also exploited for commercial reasons. Pretty much every car dealership has dozens of flags (in one case, a gigantic flag several storeys high hanging from a crane, in another, a little decorative flag for every SUV in the lot), and it is not unusual to see a multitude of flags on the roof of a fast-food outlet.
Very occasionally the fervour becomes fetishism (idolatry?), as with the supermarket's Flag Retirement Program. This allows people to dispose of old and tattered flags in a way commensurate with their apparent value - they are collected and burned in a solemn Disposal of Unserviceable Flag ceremony. There's also a proposed Ammendment to the Constitution of the United States that would outlaw the desecration of a flag. Yep, an Ammendment, putting protection of the flag on par with the ammendments that protect freedom of speech, abolish slavery, and ban cruel and unusual punishment. From my perspective as an outsider this seems to be deifying the symbol over the reality way too much, but I suppose it's inevitable when you use a physical object as the focus of your patriotism, and goodness knows it sometimes happens in my country too.
Anyway, the Fourth was great fun - barbeques, fireworks, and flags - and next report I shall begin to explore more of the country that it celebrates. Yes! Coming next Monday, Damon.co.nz will be heading out of California and into another America. See you then.
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