Seven years ago today I was sitting on the tarmac in Los Angeles waiting for my plane to take off. I had booked a red eye flight to San Juan Puerto Rico, where I would spend the month studying bomba, a popular dance form, and immersing myself in all things Puerto Rican.
I was traveling post 9/11, meaning that the country was on alert this particular 4th of July for possible terrorist attacks. The thought gave me pause as I imagined my fellow countrymen and women gathered at cookouts, watching parades, and celebrating a national holiday. I also imagined myself, a tiny creature, strapped inside a relatively small metal object flying across the continent and then out to sea for the next seven hours of my life.
The plane took off around 9:30 pm, banked over the sea of city lights and turned eastward. I peered out the window into the clear night and suddenly a white flare shot up, aimed directly at the plane. I registered the terrifying visceral sensation that it was all over at the same moment that the flare blossomed into a dandelion head with white feathery seeds that dispersed into the darkness. Omagod! This is what fireworks look like from above!
For the next half hour or so I sat with my forehead pressed against the window, enthralled by constant zigzags of red, blue, green and white flares that transformed themselves into flowers and cascading waterfalls and shooting stars that hung in the air for one long shimmering moment. Aaron Copeland’s Fanfare for the Common Man played inside my heart and head .That experience, so unexpected, so arresting, remains one of the peak visual experiences in my life.
The fireworks diminished as we flew over Arizona and then there was a vast darkness punctuated less and less frequently by the brash light of cities and towns. I imagined the desert below me, remembering the first time that I saw that landscape, so different than anything I had previously known. Somewhere down there were the Rockies, white shawled in summer. Sleep continued to elude me and I stretched my legs and thought about the flatness of the plains, neat squares of fields plowed and planted and ready for harvest; the loopy scrawl of rivers; the deep green silence of forests.
I slipped off to sleep around the same time the plane slipped away from the edge of this vast continent, and awoke on an island in the Atlantic Ocean that is us and not us.
The fourth of July comes and goes each year, and I have never spent the day wrapped in a flag reading the Declaration of Independence and wondering what would our Founding Fathers do. I’m simply not that kind of patriot. To be honest, I have only seen pictures of that kind of patriot.
That flight, however, that began with 4th of July fireworks made me conscious of both the tenderness and fierce identification I feel for this astounding, beautiful land. Woody Guthrie sings “This land is your land, this land is my land… this land was made for you and me.”
I am that kind of patriot.