The 4th of July
Wallace MacGregor

It was the absolute celebration, a celebration for ourselves, of our unique independence, of a freedom never before known. It was a celebration born out of the victory of our first war.

My wife and I wove through the crowds that had gathered along the Long Beach, Calif., waterfront for this saturnalia of sensual delights and visual spectacles. On the Belmont Pier we waited for the spectacle promised by radio and newspaper.

Firecrackers randomly popped. Green, red and blue sparklers flared into existence only to fade into darkness along the beach. Yawls dotted the channel between the oil islands and the shore. The beach was peppered with explosions. A flare reminiscent of the kind used in Vietnam to signal distress rose into the sky.

Suddenly I was transported back into a leech-infested rice paddy 90 kilometers west of Da Nang. Coordinates “five-zero-niner-delta.” My orders read, “Photograph and narrate hostile activities and friendly counter measures at Bridge 5, I Corps.”

The blast of an anti-tank grenade flared white and blue as it shattered the reinforced steel frame and axle of our self-propelled howitzer. Shrapnel slammed into a 20-year-old corporal. Red tracers came from the tree line, zipping through our perimeter defenses. The corporal sat behind the wreck of the vehicle. He held his arm in the air and stared in stunned disbelief at the white bone protruding jagged and splintered from the stump that had once been his left wrist. The CO ordered starlight flares. They floated down under their parachutes, illuminating the jungle 100 meters away with a cold, white light. We poured everything we had into the jungle.

I was back on Belmont Pier. “Doesn’t the dome of the Spruce Goose look great!” a little girl said. “And the Queen Mary! My gosh!” The fireworks burst in the sky—blasts of brilliant color and three-dimensional spheres burning into my deepest emotions. “That must be the finale,” someone said. But the explosions came and came—beauty and sensations that went beyond the salute to patriotism and courage with their force. The repercussions of the rocket blasts reverberated throughout my body.

Three people left. One said she was bored. I’m sure it was shell shock. “When’s the finale?” people kept asking. Spectators debated what would signal the beginning of the end. Then it came. Blast after blast of dazzling lights and colors springing to life in mid-air, then floating into the deep blue-black sea below. A twin engine Cessna flew directly into the cloud of gunpowder smoke.

It was an F-4. Two 500-pound bombs, napalm, fell from its belly. The resulting fire obliterated the Queen Mary, Spruce Goose, the boats and schooners and the oil islands. The entire harbor erupted in flames and billowing, black smoke.

For a moment the crowd applauded. They were thrilled. The sweat rolled down my face and soaked my jacket. I wanted a cigarette. I wanted to inhale the nicotine and dull my senses. I wanted to cup it in my hand to hide the glowing red tip from enemy detection. But I was only on Belmont Pier.

As I drove home, I thought about the spectacle. I thought about how rockets and fireworks celebrating courage, patriotism and democracy went the way of the horse and carriage. Of how the power and force represented not independence, but rather the specter of war itself.