July 14, 2006


Our moment of independence

by Patrick Dobson

Flag burning, gay marriage, and women, gay, and minority rights. Abortion and the death penalty. Race, ethnicity and culture. Feminism and family values. Liberal and conservative. Religious and secular.

Fox News and talk radio depict Americans allegedly split into camps, divided by barriers of rhetoric and ideology. Media mavens pimp the basest impulses in people. The most vulnerable become the greatest supporters of those that would exploit them, and wealthy and powerful sit back to watch their bank accounts grow.

But none of our worst was apparent July 1 at Case Park, which overlooks the Missouri River and the Downtown Airport. Hundreds of people had gathered to watch the fireworks from Riverfest, and everything but abortion-family-values-racism-gay-rights-etc was apparent.

The day was just cooling down. People sat on sun-warm bronze paws of Seaman, Merriwether Lewis’ Newfoundland, now memorialized in a larger-than-life statue. They climbed Lewis and leaned against Sacagawea’s buckskin. Children laughed and kicked balls over brick and concrete in the parks’ roundabout plaza.

Most amazing was the variety of race, language and dress. Young Hispanics in white muscle shirts and long shorts traded handshakes with black men with heavy gold chains, their mothers and fathers sitting on benches and car hoods. White and black kids played together on the plaza and the long lawn falling down the hill before the rock walls. Old and young. Rich and poor. Gay and straight. White and black and Hispanic.

Hyphenated Americans mixed in. Tall, skinny Nigerians. Chinese. Broad-shouldered Samoans. Mexican Americans. Arab. Indian. The dialects and accents indicated Caribbean, China, Africa, and Middle East.

Everyone wanted to see the fireworks. At least one television station broadcast the show by the famous Zambelli Fireworks Internationale live. But television, where one could see what seemed to be a gaudy laser-light show choreographed to patriotic music was not good enough.

These people wanted to see the real thing. In doing so, intentional or not, they wound up with a lot of other people. They had to get along. The way through the park for a view wound around oldsters, pimped rides and families that seemed to have a hundred kids. Barbeque grills smoked next to coolers topped with plates, cups, and bags of buns. Once at the walls and benches, people had to slide up close to each other. They had to talk to each other.

Frankly, it was beautiful; they were beautiful. People of all shapes, sizes, ages and colors carried and waved American flags. They watched the last embers of sunset fade and turned to the river, looking for a sign that things would begin.

When the first flare went up, the park fell silent. An audible hush replaced the cacophony the crowd had lifted over the river. Ooos and ahs followed each blooming of light and punch of explosive report. For nearly an hour, they sat, faces illuminated by the park lights and flashed with fireworks wonder. Lines of smiles. Kids frozen in place, balls still. Couples holding hands. Men and women sipping distractedly from cups and cans.

It ended with a burst of applause, a standing ovation to the fireworks, the night and the people. With a sort of long sigh, people folded their chairs and umbrellas. Bug repellent and leftover sandwiches were tucked away into canvas bags. Everyone, it seemed, waited their turn, let the person next to them go first, and drove and walked away from the park with easy, almost melancholy smiles.

Every editorial needs a conflict that drives fact-based argument to a strong conclusion. The scene at the Independence Day celebration lacked a fight, a confrontation, a police raid.

The argument is subtler, less apparent at the point of contact, but no less strong. The conflict was between what we have been told we are by the pundits, demagogues and politicians, and who we really are.

Patrick Dobson can be contacted at


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