Sunday, July 04, 2004
Happy Fuckin' Fourth

I'm always skittish about the Fourth of July (aka Independence Day). As a holiday, it just seems so frought with existential peril... if the 1-penny firecrackers and M80s don't take off a chunk of flesh, then you can at the very least expect to be gently oppressed by some big hairy guy with a beer belly and an American flag decal on his truck. I tend to stay away from Fourth of July picnics for the same reason that homophobic guys tend to stay away from gay bars... I don't want those people to think I'm one of them.

And yet, and yet... this is just a knee-jerk reaction on my part, and doesn't actually have much to do with my genuine feelings on the subject of patriotism. It's just that, while I'd much rather say, "God Bless America, With a Few Qualifications and Caveats, and Pointing Out That Saying This Emphatically Does Not Make Me a Right-Winger, Just So We're Clear On That," it doesn't seem to have the same, y'know, punch as just "God Bless America." Which is pretty much the liberal dilemma in a nutshell.

Anyway, since fireworks and other small incendiary and/or explosive devices are illegal for sale or use in Shelby county (in which lies Memphis), all the people who like to blow shit up have to cross the state line into DeSoto County to buy their fireworks. Thus, the surrounding area becomes a haven for brightly-colored tents housing a fairly pedestrian array of small explosives. My favorite this year is "Jerry Lawler's Fireworks Stand," named for Memphis hero, B-list professional wrestler and former Mayoral candidate Jerry Lawler. I always like seeing Lawler's name around town, not because I once shook his hand at a high school pep rally, but rather because this is the man who bitch-slapped Andy Kaufman on the Letterman show. As such, he's a kind of secondary holy relic to me: this man actually smacked the great Andy Kaufman.

But I suppose the blowing-shit-up crowd needs a day, too, and they'd better seize it while they can, 'cause it's supposed to rain for the rest of the day. Incidentally, none of these fireworks stands (not even Jerry Lawler's) are terribly interesting... they've got the usual assortment of Black Cats and roman candles and sparklers and so on, and always one or two enormous 200-dollar fuck-off motherfuckers to a) impress the yokels and b) give the really drunk guy something to blow a wad of cash on. If you want really interesting fireworks, you have to go Boomtown Fireworks Superstore in Illinois or someplace similar. Those places carry all the freaky fireworks from China and Japan, the latter apparently being particularly obsessed with the Civil War (or, if you want to be Confederatorially Correct, the "War Between The States"; or if you want to be Confederatorially Assertive, the "War of Northern Aggression"... no shit, a surprisingly large number of people down here still have a bug up their ass about the civil war. More on that in a moment.) The Japanese name all their fireworks things like "Johnny Reb" and "Rebel Yell." But my all-time-favorite firecracker, purchased at aforementioned Boomtown, was a Chinese thingy called the "Egg Laying Chicken." It was a cardboard chicken, about two inches long and one inch tall, that blew its little head off in a shower of sparks and shot fireballs from its ass. Brilliant.

The Fourth of July can be a contentious holiday in the South. In Vicksburg, Mississippi (several hours south of here), I believe they still refuse to acknowledge the day completely. Y'see, 141 years ago the town of Vicksburg was sacked by the Union army under Gen. Ulysses S. Grant on the Fourth of July, and ever since then Vicksburg has been playing the offended Southern belle and refusing to participate.

But Vicksburg has certainly not been alone in the South as far as boycotting (or all but) Independence Day; the South has never been as enthusiastic about the holiday as northern and midwestern regions have been; up in Vermont there were always big parades full of Shriners in vaguely offensive "oriental" costumes and fezzes driving teeny-weeny little cars in looping circles up and down the street, and of course shitloads of marching bands. These parades have always been harder to find in the South, where people are quite happy to take the day off work, but they don't want to put too much effort into it. (This, it seems, is less true for African-Americans, who have enormous community barbecues and family reunions on the Fourth... and there's probably a thesis in there somewhere, but I'm just not up to it tonight.)

Only since patriotism became a Core Republican Value has the South begun to embrace the Fourth of July (no small thing since it's invariably hotter than Satan's nutsack down here in July), which brings us back to where we started... I avoid the Fourth because I don't want those people to think I'm one of them. These days it often seems as if a second Civil War (the War of Southern Aggression?) is ultimately inevitable... there's so much tension between people that it feels as though the country is about to split at the seams. Independence Day has become just another point of tension and pressure.

Could that correctly be called "ironic"?
2:13 AM ::
Amy :: permalink
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