Thursday, July 06, 2006

On patriotism and July 4

One may view American patriotism several ways. To much of the world, it seems to be a blinding insularity - and it is true, America is, in general, more interested in itself than in the rest of the world. That said, American patriotism is deeply touching and, in some ways, enviable. It goes hand-in-hand with a fierce sense of identity - the same sense of identity that irks the outside world when it struts and brags. But, it also encompasses a love for home and country which is really very sweet. And this is what strikes one most profoundly when July 4 comes along and Americans celebrate their country's birthday, the birth of Independence, the rejection of British imperialism.

American patriotism is the fiercest and most unified in the world - as so very far from the casual love of country of the Australian. Australia, after all, has experienced nothing much more than the Eureka Stockade by way of rebellion in its history and, still, lives under the token rule of the Queen of England. Even its flag is more a cause of debate than delight. It is burdened by the Union Jack - the apron string to the "Mother Country". It is not a flag which stands on its own like the Stars and Stripes, or the maple leaf of Canada or the cedar tree of Lebanon. So we don't flourish our flag as the Americans do. It is just not as handsome a flag.

My first impression of the ubiquity of flags in the USA was one of cultural cringe - very Australian. I thought it was way over the top. How come all these people bedecked their homes, clothing and cars in their national flag? Did they have to be reminded of their nationality? I made jokes about buying shares in American flag-making companies.

Yesterday, 11 years after those first impressions, I popped a little American flag in one of the potplants on our porch. It was July 4, after all. I had been given the flag at an Independence Day march in the New England town of Chelmsford - just a few miles down the leafy, riverside road from Nashua.

Independence Day dawned threatening storms - heavy with heat and drenched in humidity. It is a public holiday for everyone but the retail world, which celebrates with sales. Nonetheless, the roads were less jammed with cars than usual - until we entered Chelmsford where they were queuing to park anywhere/everywhere. Serendipitously (Bruce would say with scintillating brilliance) we parked by a school sportsfield whence a short walk took us to the town parade's rallying point - and we passed through the costumed locals and their assorted floats to take a place at the roadside, just as the march began. Perfect parking AND perfect timing.

Big surprise of the march was the presence of the regional politicians. They all had floats and banner-waving teams along with people throwing candy to the children. It was the big wave and gladhand parade - for the first 15 minutes or so. Republicans and Democrats, candidates for local office and elected leaders.

The crowd was huge, stretching down the road into the tree-lined distance. People had brought chairs, their pets and one woman even had a portable playpen set up with her two toddlers in it. Most had dressed in honour of the day - Stars and Stripes on everything. Children were in red, white and blue ensembles. Many wore Statue of Liberty crowns. Everyone had flags.

The floats represented local businesses and community organisations - some more spectacular than others. Interspersed among them were trucks loaded with jubilant little boys equipped with very large water pistols. It was their job to squirt the crowd - something they did with absolutely delight. And it was wonderful. We had been standing, sweating in the cloying heat for some time. Sprays of cool water were delicious. We spread our arms and welcomed the wet. So we didn't flinch when confronted by the biggest truck, done up as a pirate ship with huge water cannons down the sides.

The pipers piped, the drummers drummed, the bands played, the girls danced and waved pennants, the vintage cars and theme floats went by along with war veterans and dance students, people stepped out in period costumes, Minute Men bore antique arms and shot blanks into the air... and the people waved their flags, clapped and cheered while the children scooped up the thrown candy until they had more than they know what to do with.

At march's end, we hummed back to Nashua and indulged in some retail therapy and lunch in the mall. Surely there could not be a more American activity on July 4.

Well, there was - for there was also the Nashua fireworks in the evening.
We parked in the main street and walked a distance to the Holman Stadium, again avoiding the parking melee. The closer we got, the more people joined our route until we were in a river of walkers. Well, they were strolling. It was an annoyingly slow pace for those of us used to stepping it out. We were astonished by the number of Hispanics around us and realised it was they who were setting the excessively languid pace. The demographic in Nashua seems to have changed. I do not remember such a large Latino representation in the past. None was speaking English - and I suddenly realised why so much Spanish signage had popped up in the retail areas and restaurants. It strikes me as odd and excessively considerate of the Americans to translate their world into Spanish and not to require their Hispanic immigrants to speak the national language. Instead, America is teaching Spanish at school. I wonder at the social wisdom of this. It strikes me that the great cultural melting pot is melting away from its traditional identity. Perchance, in a few decades time, the USA will be a Spanish-speaking nation.

An interesting phenomenon to ponder as we assembled in the stands amid the families eating hot dogs and fried dough. It was all very convivial - and very warm.
Nashua's pride, the Spartans marching band, performed very sophisticated and complex music as a prelude - and then the fireworks lit up the sky and lit up the sky and lit up the sky.
Nashua is the second-largest town in New Hampshire and it turns on a real spectacle for its people - for free. Well, the price is a bit of a sore neck, since the sky show goes on for so long. Loud and lovely.

And then it was all over - apart from the townsfolk who set off their own small skyrocket shows from their back yards, to entertain the crowds as they streamed away from the stadium. And, again, we were enclosed in a colourful river of people, together bathed in the moist warmth of the summer night.
And we were all home in time to watch the Boston July 4 fireworks on the TV. Just in case we had not had enough.

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