The most patriotic Fourth of July celebration I’ve ever been to was not in Washington, D.C., but at a little lake in Virginia. We were picnicking on the shore of the lake along with about 75 not very close friends and family. This was a few years ago. I must have been 8 years old.
The lake was packed with boats almost the way the Beltway gets packed with cars, but this fact wasn’t slowing them down. The boats were mostly, if not all, decorated with red, white, and blue, and mostly, if not all, had motors and were using them. Predictably enough, every once in a while two boats would collide. It sounded like the end of a car crash, without the screeching before it.
The first time two boats crashed into each other, my Dad jumped into panic mode, ready to call 911, eager to coordinate a rescue, but my Uncle and some other grownups standing around waved him off. This was normal, they said. Everyone would be all right. “Are you sure?” asked my Dad. He seemed worried, but by about the third crash he didn’t even look up.
It was about 90 degrees out in the bright sun of early afternoon when the fireworks started. There was a floating platform out in the lake, and a bunch of kids on it began setting off fireworks that were no doubt smaller than those on the National Mall but really didn’t seem it. Some of the boats slowed down to watch, but watched from as close as immediately against the platform.
You should know that my Mom has always been horrified of fireworks. When they began going off in the daytime, she assumed something was wrong. And when it was kids, some of them younger than I, setting them off, she — in her turn — went into panic mode. She was quickly reassured by all around her that nothing was amiss. I’ll admit I thought this was all pretty cool.
But when a little boy on the fireworks platform began screaming as if in horrible pain, I started to worry. The fireworks continued, uninterrupted, but there was a bunch of hurried movement, and a few minutes later a man carried a boy up the grass away from the lake, blood dripping from his arm, which was wrapped in what looked like an American flag. The kid had “just lost a pinky” everyone said, and had some “minor burns.”
Not one to make a public fuss, my Mom spoke quietly to me, but more seriously than I can ever recall: “Don’t ever go near fireworks. Do you understand?”
I said that I did, and it was actually true. I did.
Uncles and others were firing up grills when the fireworks finally stopped and the sound of boats motoring and crunching into each other returned. I was actually feeling hungry. Nobody had consumed anything yet, except soda or beer.
As soon as the smoke had all cleared from the sky, the air show began. There was a buzzing noise that drowned out all the boat motors. A shadow passed over our picnic table. A predator drone, flying very low and carrying two very visible Hellfire missiles, circled over the lake. Drunk guys started telling their girlfriends that the drone was going to blow some people up, so that when it turned toward us there was lots of screaming, followed by uproarious laughter.
Luckily, the drone finally left without firing. I wish it hadn’t. Left, I mean. As soon as it was gone, all concentration seemed to focus on food preparation. I’ve never been much of a meat eater, and there appeared to be nothing but hot dogs and hamburgers. I asked one of my cousins if there were any veggie-dogs and he acted like I’d said something rude. “Only other thing is war meat,” he said. Whatever that meant.
I found out soon enough. The man at the grill by our table shouted for everyone to listen up. He pulled a metal container, like a large curved lunchbox, out of a freezer. “Are you ready?” he asked. For what, I did not know, but everyone nodded. “One,” he said. “Two. One. Two. Three. Four.” And our whole table started singing the Star Spangled Banner, and I mean bad enough to make a dog cry in agony, which a couple of them did.
When the song was finally over, the man opened the metal container like he was opening a birthday present. People started asking, “What’d we get? What’d we get?” The man pulled a big red chunk of raw meat out with his hand and said, “Pakistani.” And after a pause, “Again.” He seemed a bit disappointed, but then quickly seemed overwhelmed with pleasure. “Pakistani!” “Pakistani!” our whole little bunch started shouting. Although how the chunk of flesh had actually been identified or recognized I couldn’t tell.
“Pakistani!” “Pakistani!” Other tables were shouting it too. Word was passed up and down the picnic grounds, tables telling each other what they’d received. The tally seemed to include almost entirely Pakistani meat, with one or two Yemeni, a few Afghans, and a Libyan. But then a rumor spread that actually caused a hush. One table at the far end of the area, down around a curve in the lake, had apparently been so fortunate as to pull out a piece of “U.S. troop.”
“This is a really sick joke!” my Dad said, turning to our table from my Mom, to whom he had apparently been talking and who was apparently crying. “This needs to end right now,” my Dad said quite firmly and impressively. But people didn’t respond the way I hoped. They just edged away from me and my parents. “What’s the matter with you?” a woman asked. There was a lot of whispering. I heard the words “pacifist” and “socialist.”
Then a big commotion in the parking lot up the hill took attention away. There were lights of numerous police cars. A crowd of people clumped closely together began drifting in our general direction, stopping at each picnic table for a moment or two before moving on. As they drew closer they took on the look of a celebrity encircled by body guards and swarmed by paparazzi. Then a strangely familiar voice was saying “Good afternoon! How are you all doing this fine day?”
And there was President Obama, grinning and shaking hands. Our crowd seemed delighted and respectful, but not at all surprised. However, one guy spoke up kind of loudly: “I hear we’re not having any more wars next year, Mr. President.”
Obama turned on him, not unlike that predator drone turning toward us, and with a somewhat similar reaction. “That’s all right,” he said. “That’s all right. Let me repeat a principle I put forward at the outset of my presidency. Let me be clear. The United States will use military force, unilaterally if necessary, when our core interests demand it — when our people are threatened, when our livelihood is at stake, or when the security of our allies is in danger.”
The President grinned as though he were in possession of a wonderful secret. “Let me let you in on something,” he said, almost whispering. “We’ve got troops permanently stationed in 175 countries. Our people can be threatened any time we want.” He laughed and glanced around appreciating the knowing nods and smiles. “So, how’s the meat?”