The Allure of Liberty and Fireworks

June 29, 2024

Growing up, July 4th was always a big holiday in our house. We did not call it Independence Day. Just July 4th. The main focus for my siblings and me was getting to the amazing fireworks stands that magically popped up in June. The red, white, and blue banners lured us in, but it was the wondrous and colorful array of explosive devices that drove us out of our minds. We were on our best behavior, just waiting for the day when our parents would take us.

What made it even better, and yet a little worse, was Dad offering to give us more money to spend at the fireworks stand. Big money! Like $20! Sounds great, right? All we had to do was write an essay on what Independence Day meant to us, and then we had to read the essay to Mom and Dad. We had all saved a little bit of money from our allowance, but $20 was too good to turn down. So we all wrote the essays.

I wish I still had those essays. They must have been absolutely horrible. Combine a child’s writing ability, completely insufficient research, and a mind way more focused on holding explosives than on the ideals of democracy, and there’s no way any of us turned in a deep or thoughtful essay. But Dad showed pity on his unfocused children, and we each earned the $20.

When the day of the fireworks stand visit finally came, we all piled into our Ford Country Squire station wagon with its yellow paint and fake wood panels. We would pull up to the dusty parking lot next to the roadside stand and start running before the car even came to a full stop. There were no pesky seat belts back then, or at least nobody wore them, so it was an easy exit from the slowing car. We would wait in line, then get to the counter to make our choices. Firecrackers, bottle rockets – we bought those by the gross – more on that later – snakes, sparklers, Roman candles, fountains, whistling chasers, and then some not-as-spectacular-as-we-would-hope aerial fireworks to end the evening. Leaving the stand with boxes and bags of fireworks felt better than Christmas. Let’s be honest, Christmas gifts are great, but you can’t blow them up!

We waited until July 4th to light most of the fireworks, but the bottle rocket wars with our cousins began the very next day. Armed with hundreds of bottle rockets, two teams of boys took refuge behind walls or piles of rocks on either side of the vacant lot next to our house, and we would proceed to fire rockets at each other for hours. You learned to light a bottle rocket, then toss it at just the right moment so it would fly screaming towards your enemies. Bottle rockets were exploding all around us, and it was glorious. We were of course wearing protective goggles, ear plugs, and fireproof clothing . . . Who am I kidding? We had no protection at all other than our shorts and t-shirts. I can’t tell you how many times a bottle rocket would hit my chest and explode, blowing a hole in my shirt and leaving a mark – some might call it a burn, but it was really just a badge of courage.

What were my parents doing while this chaos ensued? Dad was working, and Mom was inside with my Aunt Alix drinking Chablis, probably wincing repeatedly, like Chief Inspector Dreyfus in the Pink Panther movies, at all of the cracks and bangs of the bottle rockets, and wondering what they had done wrong to raise a bunch of idiots like us. Could something have gone terribly wrong? Sure! I could point to this and many other stunts from my childhood that make me marvel at the fact that I’m still here. But memories of those days do make me smile. We thought we were the luckiest and most bad-ass kids in the world.

Buying fireworks and battling with them. That’s the true meaning of July 4th.

OK. No it’s not. But that’s the 62-year-old me talking. The 12-year-old me would be rolling my eyes at hearing the 62-year-old me saying no. But no, 12-year-old me, it’s not.

Here are my current thoughts on what Independence Day for the United States of America means, using the Declaration and the Bill of Rights as the foundation. It is not at all exhaustive, but these are some of the concepts I will be celebrating. I’m not sure it is worth $20, but here you go.

  • We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. What a radical statement that was back in 1776. It is the cornerstone of what makes the USA unique and so special. It was an aspirational goal then. I don’t think those who signed the Declaration of Independence even fathomed the true meaning of this statement, or how aspirational it would remain over two centuries later. But we have come so far. I am grateful for the American heroes who have devoted their lives toward making the progress we’ve made, and to those who continue to pursue this work. This statement will be true when statistics can no longer predict the educational, economic, or other successes of American citizens based on their race or gender. This July 4, I’ll be celebrating our aspirations, our progress, and our continued commitment to making that wonderful statement a reality.
  • We hold these truths to be self-evident, …  that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. After the American Revolutionary War, or the “American War for Independence” as they call it in the UK, Marquis de Lafayette, the French military hero who did so much to help us win that war, said, “Humanity has won its battle. Liberty now has a country.” For all of our flaws, we are still that country.
  • And I’ll be celebrating the First Amendment, which put into law some of the ideals stated in the Declaration of Independence. I don’t know of a single statement that has guaranteed individual liberties more than this one. It allows us to worship as we please. It protects us from a government endorsing or establishing any religion. (Earlier this week, Louisiana voted to test that freedom, with a law requiring the Ten Commandments to be posted in every classroom – and now Oklahoma’s State Superintendent is trying to outdo The Pelican State, ordering schools to begin incorporating the the Ten Commandments and the Bible into lessons in grades 5 through 12.) The First Amendment also allows us the freedom of speech. It guarantees our right to peaceably assemble. These freedoms make us the envy of the world. And none of them is easy. You’d think after 230 years we would have it figured out, but we humans are very complex, and we keep confronting our fundamental principles with new challenges. But the struggle is worth our time and frustration.
  • Mostly, I will be celebrating our nation and all that it stands for. We will proudly display our flag in our front yard. I will take a moment to be grateful for all that the benefits this country has afforded myself and others. I will take a moment to remember those who have defended our nation through the years. When Warren Buffet was asked the reason for his success, he said one of the most important elements was the fact that he was born in the United States of America. We are an imperfect nation filled with imperfect people. But we are a nation that has continued to improve its ability to deliver on its promises of liberty and equality, and that alone is a cause worthy of glorious fireworks. 

Happy July 4th, and Happy Independence Day, everyone. Let’s be grateful, let’s continue our quest to make our aspirations a reality, and for those of you buying fireworks, let’s be safe out there.

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Warren Buffett goes much further than his success stemming from being born in the United States. He says that he won the “ovarian lottery,” and being born in the United States, male, and white all made his path to success easier. If he had been born to wealthy parents, that would have further increased his odds of success. It still takes hard work to succeed, and history is increasingly filled with amazing success stories from those who did not win the ovarian lottery. To read a few of his thoughts, click here. It is worth your time.

When I taught, religion was a frequent topic in our lectures and discussions. Religion has played a crucial role in human history, and not to teach it leaves gaps of understanding. How can you understand the Civil Rights movement without knowing that Dr. Martin Luther King was a protestant minister and how crucial the Black churches were in spreading the word? How can you understand the Holocaust without understanding the beliefs of Judaism? European history is full of wars fought over religious beliefs. It is crucial to understand all of the world’s major religions if one is truly going to understand the world we live in. But there is a difference between teaching about a religion and proselytizing a certain religion to students. As a public school employee, I never wanted to cross that line. I wanted all students to feel respected, and I wanted to develop as much understanding as possible.

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  1. Seth Finn says:

    Hey Mike, lovely post as always! You mention that the founders probably didn’t fathom the meaning of everyone being equal, that seems clear considering slavery existed at the time. This may not be the place to dig into this, but I’m wondering if you know anything about the founders state of mind on that issue, why did they write it down when they clearly didn’t mean it? Aspirational is one thing, but they were miles away on that one!

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Thanks, Seth! I think they did mean it. Even the idea of all white men being equal was a radical Enlightenment thought. The fact that they did not say “all property-owning men are created equal” was a significant step. With the exception of a radical fringe, most of them did not even consider that the statement pertained to women or persons of color. Their blinders were on from birth, and they simply did not even consider the possibility. It took the persistent and strong leadership from change agents over decades and centuries to change that mindset.

  2. Paul Grisanti says:

    Thank you Mike for pulling another memory from my own childhood to the surface.
    We considered bottle rockets but thought we would ‘”put our eyes out”, and we only had firecrackers anyway. We developed “windfall apple hand grenades” so we could feed our warlike fantasies. We quickly learned that if we wanted to have them all go off we needed to wrap the firecrackers in aluminum foil before we stuck them into the spoiled apples. We also learned to time the throw so that the apple turned into applesauce over our opponents. It was a glorious mess!

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      So you were a little safer than we were, and much more creative! 4th of July Applesauce is classic!

  3. Susan Scheding says:

    The Founding Fathers were, collectively, the well bred, the well fed, the well read, and the well wed.
    Quite a head start.
    And, as I saw on a Tshirt this week, we are The Land of the Free because of the Brave.
    I’m glad none of you knuckleheads are now nicknamed “Lefty.”

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Thanks, Susan. And yes, we were knuckleheads, and I feel more than a little lucky that we were so extraordinarily skilled in throwing those bottle rockets that no significant injuries plague us today, and our skill level prevented people like you from having the opportunity throw nicknames at us that would truly hurt my feelings. Thanks for the laugh.

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