Makeshift floats in the festive parade, the red wagons and strollers laden with blankets, coolers, picnic baskets and the occasional toddler wound their way from far-flung parking spots to the beckoning beach. In 2003, temporary crutches made it rough going for me, but nothing could keep me from East Hampton’s Main Beach on the Fourth of July. Ever since I can remember, I had gloried in the fireworks, lying back on the sand, gazing at the night sky exploding with color.
Thousands of people were converging toward the sand, passing me and my group of friends and family as I labored forward. Then one couple spotted me. They stopped, saying, “You need this more than we do,” insisting I ride in their kids’ red wagon. I clambered aboard, slightly embarrassed but grateful for the lift. The other adults shouldered the picnic gear that I had displaced and took turns pulling me along. And so we continued, wending our way, laughing and joking with friendly strangers— teens, toddlers, parents and grandparents, all in high spirits and filled with anticipation.
I usually eschew crowds, but the convivial throng at that annual celebration was suffused with bonhomie, a shared feeling of community that bound us together. At the beach, we gingerly threaded a path through the clusters of beach chairs and blankets until we could claim a patch of sand. All around us families were spreading their blankets. Picnic baskets opened, disgorging bowls of potato and chicken salads, bags of sandwiches, grilled chicken, guacamole and no end of other goodies. Sodas popped and drinks poured. Boisterous children barely contained their excitement. Crowning their heads and circling their necks, glow sticks began to fluoresce as the day faded into twilight.
Night fell gradually, and the crowd ate the last of the brownies and cookies and the cakes with red, white and blue icing. Flashlights began to sparkle sporadically.
At last it was nine o’clock, and all eyes turned eastward, caught by the first soaring rockets. They burst in midair, showering fire and ice. We settled back, dazzled by the red glare and starbursts that morphed into hearts and atoms of gold and blue and green. Humongous umbrellas and giant jellyfish commandeered the night sky, eclipsing the stars until they decayed, trailing sparks that fizzled and sank into the ocean.
When the show came to its inevitable end, we gathered our detritus, packed the leftovers and reluctantly left the beach. Though traffic choked the local roads and made for a seemingly endless crawl, it couldn’t spoil the good feeling. It didn’t stop us from returning year after year.
But that was long ago … What the traffic couldn’t do, the piping plovers did. I don’t begrudge the little birds their right to nest on the beach. I am a conservationist and I believe we should protect endangered species and not drive them to extinction. But it’s been 12 years, and I resent the little critters who have appropriated so much of the public domain and deprived us of a tradition that had lasted 90 years.
Even more, I bristle at the appropriation of the flag by the Alt Right. The “patriots” who want to take their country back— Back to where? To when? To the time when native Americans were fighting to save their homeland from European invaders? Or later, when the descendants of those Europeans enslaved the people they captured on another continent? The patriotic pride of “E pluribus unum”— out of many peoples, one nation— that we took for granted is now problematic, because the “pluribus” are being imprisoned and deported, their mosques and synagogues bombed and defaced.
I do hope the piping plovers proliferate and I dream of the day when the sharp divisions that now divide us dissolve. Then Main Beach will open to everyone and the fireworks will again dazzle at the twilight’s last gleaming.
Though I dream in vain, in my heart it will remain … the memory of time gone by.