Funny how the mind works.
Whenever the Fourth of July is mentioned, mine pulls up a precious video clip, squirreled away in some odd corner but instantly available for reference once each year:
Spring Lake, New Jersey, 1969. It’s a beautiful night at the Jersey shore. I am 6. My handsome widower father, then 46 and bronzed from the sun, is off from work as a cosmetics salesman for a whole week. My brother and three sisters and I are giddy. We’re at a neighbor’s backyard party with lots of other children. One of my sisters wears red, white and blue denim shorts. As fireworks rise into the sky from a platform on the beach, we haven’t a care in the world.
That’s my Fourth of July.
When the memory came this year, it almost brought tears to my eyes, not from happiness, but from a crushing nostalgia for a vanishing America. From a foreboding about the future I can’t seem to shake.
My 9-year-old daughter is at summer camp until August. On our kitchen table, she left a worn composition notebook, one of those black and white, speckled numbers. It’s a year’s worth of essays. Some are quite funny: “If I could be any kind of doctor I would like to be a scientist. I would be a scientist because they don’t touch anything disgusting.”
Some of them make me feel ashamed: “Donald Trump will start World War III . . . Hillary Clinton has ethical problems . . . She’s going to make one tiny mistake and our whole country is going to be ruined . . . Bernie Sanders is a dangerous guy. He will make people move out of their houses with his high taxes.”
With the possible exception of the World War III prediction, and the words “one tiny mistake,” those sentences sound eerily familiar. I should stop thinking out loud so much at home.
“Nowhere on the globe do men live so well as in America, or grumble so much,” the clergyman and social reformer Henry Ward Beecher observed a century and a half ago.
If he said it today, he’d be just as right. At least in my case. We have it so good, but my eyes keep focusing on the acned cheek, as the novelist John Cheever put it. I didn’t used to be that way.
This presidential election has taken a lot out of us. So have these past 16 years — 9/11, Iraq and Afghanistan, the Great Recession and the constant political turmoil in Washington. Somehow, the country has to get its mojo back. I suspect the path toward reclaiming it begins with gratitude.
July 1969 was just as tumultuous as today. The Soviets were gobbling up nations whole; the United States had 475,000 troops in Vietnam; a president, a presidential candidate and the country’s preeminent civil rights leader had been gunned down inside of five years; there was rioting in cities; a drug epidemic was raging. The newspaper headlines that Fourth of July came with more bad grown-up news: Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones was dead from intoxicated drowning at 26.
From my father’s steady demeanor, we kids never knew any of it. He always made everything seem all right.
I can still smell his cologne from hanging on his neck in the surf that day.
William F.B. O’Reilly is a Republican consultant.