Fireworks and Circuses: Diary of a Roman Holiday in Washington

By Jeffrey Carl

The Westmoreland News, July 9 1994

Working at the Westmoreland News in 1994 was the best summer job I ever had. I worked for peanuts and had a two hour drive each way from Richmond, but I got to do it all at a small county newspaper where I was a reporter, feature writer, copy editor, layout editor and photographer (because there was nobody else to do those things). Best of all the paper’s editor, Lynn Norris, gave me the freedom to write whatever I wanted – way more journalistic and comedic freedom than anyone should rightly give a know-it-all 21-year-old writing for a weekly in the deeply rural Northern Neck of Virginia.

July 3: A Descent into the Maelstrom My friends and I arrived in Washington about 11 p.m. after three wrong turns, two heated arguments about which direction “North” was, and the Chain Bridge into D.C. being closed after a tree fell on it.  

As a journalist, my obligation was to do what I could to talk to the residents of Washington, to experience the mood and the messages of the masses on the brink of the holiday.  With this firmly in mind, we went to spend the night at my friend’s house in the southwest of the city. My friend attends American University and lives in a large house with several of his Delta Chi fraternity brothers.   

Unbeknownst to us, he and his friends were holding their annual “The Fourth and a Fifth” party and the house was packed to the walls.  Since I had brought along some bourbon – and that is one of the first things you learn in journalism school – we blended in and it seemed like a perfect opportunity to “talk firsthand with plenty of Washington D.C. ‘Generation X’ representatives.”  

Being a “Generation X” representative myself, I can say with fairly absolute certainty that the idea “Generation X” is actually pretty insulting and a wildly inaccurate generic label for twentysomethings.  However, editors seem to love it – and it sounds better than “I interviewed my drunk friends” – so it seemed like a good idea to investigate.  Besides, I owed my friend some bourbon to make up for the last time I came to visit and drank all his vodka and destroyed his computer’s dot-matrix printer.

Looking back on my notes, it didn’t turn out quite as well as I’d hoped: most people didn’t have a whole lot pithy to say besides “Whoooooo!” or “Where’s the bathroom?” and even if anybody had said anything witty and revealing, I certainly wouldn’t have remembered it.  

The best information we could glean was that everybody and their grandmother planned to spend tomorrow on the Mall.  The whole city was gearing up for the celebrations that would climax with the fireworks display in front of the Washington Monument.

July 4: Heart of the Matter We all got up bright and early at the crack of 11 a.m.  I chugged a couple of cans of Mountain Dew (or “starter fluid” as I call it) and my companions and I prepared to check into our hotel room early to watch the U.S.-Brazil game in the World Cup soccer tournament. 

We checked into our hotel and decided to take a stroll to Georgetown for lunch.  Everywhere the city bustled with young people, carrying backpacks and cheap fireworks.  

They say that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.  This was certainly true of all the tourist-trapping vendors selling cheap polyester $3 American flag ties.  I bought one.  It was made in Korea.

Images of the Stars and Stripes were everywhere.  There was even a small American flag in the deli we stopped into for lunch, run by a Pakistani man who prominently displayed autographed pictures on his walls of all the celebrities who had had lunch there.  There were also a couple of pictures of the president in there, but it wasn’t autographed and I think he just had it there in case Mr. Clinton decided to stop by for ice cream and have a pen handy.  I would heartily recommend the turkey club in a pita pocket if I thought that I could ever find the deli again.

We walked quickly back to our hotel to escape the heat. My friends and I scientifically calculated that the temperature on the sidewalk was about three billion degrees farenheit.  You may think I’m exaggerating, but I earnestly expected the hydrogen nuclei in our bodies to start fusing together if we didn’t get back to air-conditioning.

We did return to the air-conditioned environs of our hotel, the State Plaza, just in time to meet another group of friends and settle down for the World Cup game.  Our friends had brought cheap American beer (Miller), cheap American food (McDonald’s), and now all we needed was a cheap, unearned, undeserved, unlikely American victory over Brazil to make our patriotic holiday complete.

In our small party watching the game, we had two foreign elements: Adrian , a British exchange student friend and dedicated football hooligan rooting gladly for the “colonies’ team”; and Maggie, a traitorous element of American citizenship but Brazilian descent who chose to root-root-root for not-the-home team.  

We all became excited as the game progressed and the Americans did not get immediately slaughtered (as had been predicted) by the best team in the world.  The tension mounted, and Adrian – being used, I supposed, to doing civilized British things during soccer games like destroying stadiums and throwing rocks at bobbies – was the most ecstatic and vehement fan of us all.

In fact, Adrian was wildly cheering for the U.S. team with the enthusiasm of a soccer connossieur, while the most spirited thing I could manage to say while watching America’s soccer team players was “Get a haircut, slick.”  

The game continued and the U.S. still hadn’t been eaten alive yet – this was exciting.  The Americans missed an early scoring opportunity, and then Brazilian shot after shot ended as a near miss.  Slowly a great realization dawned upon us: nothing really ever happens in World Cup soccer.  It’s great to play but duller than a barn-raising to watch.

Surprisingly, only two tense moments arose during the game-watching party on this most patriotic of days.  

First was the inevitable debate of nomenclature with Adrian (“It’s football.”  “It’s soccer.”  “I’m telling you it’s football.”  “I’m telling you that the Cowboys play football and this sure as hell ain’t it.”  “It’s football!”  “It’s soccer!” and so on).  

Second came the moment when the Brazilians scored then one and only goal of the game, well into the second half, and Maggie let loose with some Brazilian fervor.  I stood up, leveled a nasty gaze at her, and muttered, “Leave the room.”  A few minutes later we all settled down, but only after heated charges that America was an Imperialist jerk and a retort that Brazil’s greatest contribution to world history was Brazil Nuts.

Brazil went on to win the game and the party was adjourned to forage for food.  Eventually we joined up again and began our walk to the Mall.

The Mall in Washington is enormous – a stretch of grass with the Lincoln Memorial at one end, next the Reflecting Pool and the Vietnam Memorial, the Washington Monument in the middle, flanked by the Smithsonian Institute’s buildings and a carousel, with the Capitol building at the far end.  And the stream of people towards the area was amazing.  

Thousands upon thousands of people drifted away from the other events of the day – the Independence Day parites, the various parades, a noticeable contingent from the Great Smoke-Out marijuna legalization demonstration – and towards the mall to see the fireworks that were to be launched from in front of the monolithic Washington Monument.

It seemed like the whole country had gathered for the celebration.  The whole Mall was covered with people on the grass and even up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial; we crammed into a tiny spot near the reflecting pool and spread our blankets.  The tent of a group who had camped out on the lawn to preserved their spot stood nearby; they took it down before the fireworks began, to avoid blocking the view of the other spectators.

There was a man juggling flaming sticks in the Reflecting Pool, and another who waded through and towed behind him a motorized shark fin.  We kicked back and shared a cigar with a State Department official who sat with his family, just in front of us.

The fireworks were set to begin at 9:15, and were expected to be tremendous: the show was to include over 3,000 individual shells, with 1,100 reserved for the finale.  As the sky lit up, we were not disappointed.

The crowd oohed and aahed as the night air exploded in white and blue and red in a thousand different patterns and designs.  Each firework was followed by the sharp crack of its explosion, a half second later.  Several times the crowd bellowed cheers as high firework bursts rained down a multitude of gleaming tiny shells that trailed sparks like shooting stars.  It was like an aerial war fought by armies of dueling painters.

The blazing finish came and went, the assembles masses roared and clapped while about a thousand “early-birds” snuck off into the Metro station at once to try to beat the rush.

The crowd began to filter away, and police helicopters with searchlights scanned the crowd.  Radios in the crowd played everything from Ray Charles’ version of “America the Beautiful” to Lynrd Skynrd’s “Freebird.”  We stopped for a moment in the Lincoln Memorial to look out over the scene, and then wandered back to our hotel.

After seeing some news coverage of the fireworks and a rather lewd game of charades, we walked to a T.G.I. Friday’s restaurant for some midnight snacks.  I won the “Draw on the back of your placemat what America means to you” competition that the restaurant was holding that day.  My entry had a relatively neatly-drawn (you try filling in all those stars with crayons) American flag, and the words, “A bold experiment.  Some successes.  Some failures.  But we’re still the best house on the block.  What can we say?  We’ve got Elvis on our side.”

I won a T.G.I. Friday’s button and a balloon which I proceeded to suck all the helium out of and talk like a chipmunk.  Then we went back to the hotel and to bed. 

July 5: There and Back Again We awoke from our Independence Day festivities just in time to avoid a grumpy cleaning lady.  The headline of the Washington Post read, “Respect for American soccer: born on the Fourth of July.”  

We took with us some dazzling memories and I took with me the Gideon’s Bible from the hotel room, an act which my friends assured me would lead to my going straight to hell.  I assured them in turn that, judging from the rest of my life, this act simply assured that I would get a front-row seat when I got there.

We bade goodbye to Adrian, as he prepared to catch a plane home to Heathrow Airport the next day.  And we bade goodbye to our nation’s capital, feeling that we really had found a nicely rounded example of America at large.  I was proud that I had shared our national birthday with the rest of Washington, and proud also I had bought a really cool flag tie for only three dollars.  

It had been a fine holiday, and we would have driven off into the sunset with a flag draped over the car, if it hadn’t been the middle of the afternoon, when sunsets are hard to come by.