It is hot, it is humid, and it is only July. I can recall years, and they not so long ago, when I still had blankets on the bed in July, when I would look forward with Christmas-time anticipation to what some scurrilously called the Dog Days in August. Even the trees pant for breath outside this morning. Were this an oven, and had we a timer, it would ring done. I long for the cooling rack in the kitchen window.
Yesterday was The Glorious Fourth! Our neighbors invited us across the lawn for a little get together, two white haired folks among the other four couples, a herd of small children and one Australian sheep dog, cute and very well behaved. The little ones played in the pool and slipped and slid along the plastic sheet while the ground around them gradually soupified. I took a bunch of pictures and thought of so many other like times around the fire drinking sweetness from the air and satisfaction in the job those men had done 257 years ago in Philadelphia; wondering once or twice what would they have said to us did they walk down the street and see.
We left early of course, as old folks ought to do, and said goodbye to all. The shyness of youngsters before new faces and new voices had gone, and they posed happily for a few last photos. The little dog saw us as far as our own sheepfold next door, looked up as if to say, “Good night and be safe. I must return to my real work, now, but it has been a pleasure watching you.”
Inside we cleaned up a bit, sat a while with a cool drink of kombucha ( a kind of fermented tea) to quench our thirst, and made ready to retire early. We watched an episode of the BBC series “Coppers”, based on the lives and adventures of the Irish and others in New York City not yet a hundred years after the Founders were about their business, and then headed for the barn. As I turned out the lights upstairs I could see the bursts of light from the fireworks down at Holman Stadium, where Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella broke into the majors long, long ago. And, I thought I could see in their glow, the ghosts of Madison and Jefferson and Franklin walking down the street, looking about. What were they talking about?
Perhaps it was that and “Coppers”, set mostly in the “Five Points” neighborhood of The City, that got me to thinking the way I have been thinking this morning in the heat. My own mother’s mother was born in The Five Points in 1880, and her mother came there from Ireland, married a fireman and raised her family in a place that would make the scenes and activities in Slumdog Millionaire look idyllic. My own mother grew up in Harlem a few miles north of hell on Mt. Morris Park South in the early part of the last century, in a six room apartment with a grand piano so far removed from The Five Corners that it could have been another world.. An expatriate Russian princess lived nearby and walked her Samoyed hounds in the park across the street from her front door.
And, yet, fifty years later I arrested a heroin dealer who lived in that very same apartment my mother grew up in, and three years before that 30,000 NYPD officers had assembled in that park before marching out to put an end to the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, meeting desperate anger with disciplined violence.
My father delivered the mail in that same neighborhood, and used to like telling the story of delivering a special delivery letter on the night Joe Lewis beat Max Schmeling. The mail was addressed to a fellow with our same name, spelled in the same not so usual way. He entered the house, an old apartment house, and called upstairs in a loud voice. He was a little nervous on that night, raucous celebrations were taking place all over Harlem. His customer answered and told him to come upstairs. Dad said he’d prefer not, and the fellow came down, eventually, a little put out for having to do so, a much bigger man than my father. He delivered the mail and then said, “The better man won, cousin.” The other guy smiled and my father explained the “cousin” remark. Then he left.
Here is a song I like that captures one part of the way I feel today. I wonder if my “cousin” ever heard it:
Yesterday, after Mass, we sang this song in the semi-dark coolness of the big church. Sing it with me now?
But, you might be thinking, yesterday was the day. It ain’t necessarily so. Everyday is America’s Birthday, and it won’t get any older than that first Day in Philadelphia on July Fourth in 1776 if we do our part the way they did theirs. No, it won’t get any older at all…unless we forget to sing in our hearts and to pledge in our souls fidelity to it; lives, fortunes and sacred honor; pledge them to everything for which it was made, and for which by God’s grace it continues from sea to shining sea….