It was not a dark and stormy night.
In fact, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The weather was perfect for a 4th of July celebration, complete with hot dogs, barbeque, merry fellowship between families, friends, and neighbors –and of course the fireworks.
Despite the clear skies and joyous merriment, however, more than a few questions swirled inside the clouded and confused head of little George. He watched curiously as his mom hurried around the house in her usual way before party guests arrived, pretending that our family and our home was something that it was not. He watched his dad start the grill as night began to fall and guests began to filter through the doors. George watched them all; he didn’t know most of them, though. He recognized a few of the next-door neighbors and a couple of friends, but most he concluded were simply strangers. (Later he was politely informed that these foreign but smiling faces were his family.)
He watched and listened as they all drunk themselves into a loud and joyous stupor, which became irritating and annoying rather quickly to little George –but nobody seemed to care. They seemed to be enjoying themselves as they raised their funny colored glasses to three cheers for “freedom!” and then again to “independence!” It was turning out to be a perfect 4th of July party.
Then the fireworks began.
George used to be afraid of fireworks. They made loud noises that hurt his sensitive ears. They were big, bright, and unpredictable. Over the years, though, he had become accustomed to them and even enjoyed them. They were a tradition valued and celebrated, he came to understand, not just by his own family but by almost everyone in the country. Tonight, however, they puzzled him. As children are known for asking, George couldn’t help but wonder, “Why?”
Little George approached his mom in the kitchen. He found her washing the party dishes hurriedly so as not to miss the firework show. “Mommy, what does independence mean?” he asked quizzically.
“Honey, I don’t have time right now. Can’t you see I’m busy? Go ask your father.”
“Can you tell me how to spell it, then,” George proposed, hoping to look it up in the dictionary sometime.
“I-N-D…umm…I don’t know. Just go ask your father, okay?”
George grudgingly obeyed his mother’s wishes and walked outside. Some had secretly slipped back inside their big house and found a quiet room to themselves, but his dad and most of the guests had congregated on the back porch to watch the fireworks. From what George could tell, everyone was happier and louder. That didn’t cheer him up though. He knew from experience what that meant and it was hardly ever good. Besides, he still had a few riddles to solve.
His dad sat on a lawn chair in a circle of all his friends. He was in the middle of telling a joke that he had probably told five times already that night, so George didn’t care that he was interrupting. He lightly tapped him on the arm. “What is freedom, Daddy?”
His dad stopped mid-sentence. At first he appeared furiously angry and George thought he might hit him; then slowly, he began to grin. “What a silly question, son!” Everyone in the circle began to laugh. “This is freedom!” he shouted as he raised his funny colored glass; and, as if on cue, a huge firework lit up the night sky. The circle erupted in hysterical laughter, a sound that frightened George more than any firework ever could.
“If that’s what freedom is,” thought George, “I don’t want any part of it.” The crowd continued to laugh and George made his way back inside.
He knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep, but he decided that he would go to bed anyway. Tears began to well up in his eyes, but before he could make it to the stairwell he spotted out of his watery vision a figure sitting on the couch in the living room. He wouldn’t have cared, but as the figure spoke he heard the deep, rich sound of his grandfather’s voice calling to him, “George, where are you going young man?”
Shamefully, the little boy wiped the tears from his eyes and went to join his grandfather on the couch. Sitting in his lap, he rested his head on his grandfather’s big pot-belly. Before he could speak again, George asked, “Can you tell me what the 4th of July is, pa?”
“I can tell you that and more, my love,” he replied in that deep, sonorous voice. From his position, George couldn’t see his grandfather’s face, but he didn’t need to. He knew the twinkle in his grandfather’s blue eyes when he was about to tell a story. Snuggling up closer to his grandfather, he closed his eyes and listened…
He couldn’t remember how long his grandfather talked or when he finally fell asleep. He woke up sometime in the middle of the night, snuggly tucked into his bed upstairs. With his eyes still closed, he did, however, recall a faint recollection of a wonderful story –a story of love and hate, war and secrecy, freedom and slavery, heroes and villains, and a simple but great man named George –George Washington. He also remembered something about the birth of a nation, a declaration of independence, and an assembly of demigods who crafted some ingenious piece of paper…
A loud boom interrupted his thoughts. And then another, and another. It was the firework finale.
He knew it. He was right. There was something to celebrate on the 4th of July –something real, something powerful. He still hadn’t figured it all out yet, but maybe someday he would. As George slipped into the realm of consciousness that so curiously dominates a child’s thoughts, he drifted away from this reality and entered into a new one. As if on horseback, George galloped through the gates of darkness and entered the shining land of dreams. It was a place of heroes, victories, and true freedom. It was a land where families are strong, traditions are meaningful, and the good guy always wins.
Alan Groves | Freed-Hardeman University | @AlanGroves2