Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Celebrating our Independence

July 4th fireworks as seen from 29th Street and Fifth Avenue. 10 PM. Photo: JH.
Tuesday, July 5, 2016. Yesterday was a warm sunny day at the end of a quiet, comfortable Fourth of July Weekend in New York. Rainclouds around us by 8 p.m., and there was some concern that the rain would dampen the pyrotechnics.

I had been thinking of Fourth of July’s of the past that impressed my memory. What came to mind was the Bicentennial of 1976. It was a very patriotic moment in the American psyche in the beginning of the last quarter of the century, and celebrated everywhere across the land. It brought an emerging confidence about the future that had been a long time coming.
New York City celebrates the Declaration of Independence bicentennial anniversary on July 4, 1976.
I was living in North Stamford, Connecticut, and had invited friends for the weekend, as well as friends who came from nearby towns for dinner. We dined on the terrace on a hillside overlooking treetops. All was green and fresh against the fading blue sky of dusk, and picture perfect in memory. It was a privileged moment for everyone there – all good friends, many still good friends – living amongst the abundance that many Americans of our generation had grown used to.

It was also a privileged moment in America. In the fifteen years preceding, we had come through a massive change as a society, rife with calls for liberations; and bedeviled by the Viet Nam War, the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Dr. King, and Watergate, which finally brought the resignation of Richard M. Nixon. He had been replaced in 1973 by Rep. Gerald Ford who was appointed by Nixon as Vice-President after Spiro Agnew resigned from the office after being investigated by the United States Attorney for the District of Maryland on charges of extortion, tax fraud, bribery, and conspiracy. Agnew was charged with having accepted bribes totaling more than $100,000 while holding office as Baltimore County Executive.
Gerald Ford at the Bicentennial Celebrations on July 4, 1976 in New York CIty.
Ford had a sunny but serious countenance, and a bit of Midwestern drawl -- wrong word but you get the idea. He had a solemnity to his presence, and also a contemporary paternal quality. His generation fought in the World War. He was already famous to Americans, and well-liked for being a plain Midwesterner.

Gerry Ford had a very nice wife, too: Betty, who had personal issues not uncommon to Americans and to women in particular. She confronted all of them publicly and courageously, lending dignity and stature to the rest of us with our problems.
Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip joined President and Mrs. Ford at The White House for an official State Dinner to celebrate the Bicentennial.
Betty Ford and Prince Philip during the Bicentennial Celebration in 1976.
They also had a healthy all-American-looking family of three young men and a young woman. American radio, television and movies in those days always had fictional series about the local, down-the-street-neighbors where Father Knows Best, Sanford and Son, or All In The Family and many others.  This was America’s ideal image of itself. The Fords were that family in the White House. They were so much that family that we didn’t even realize it at the time. They were nice, and like your neighbors or the neighbors of someone you know, real.

So the War was over, Nixon was gone, the social “liberations” had begun -- and had taken hold -- and would take us far beyond anything we could ever have imagined at that moment forty years ago. And there we were that lovely summer evening in Connecticut, mainly in the prime of our lives, still youthful adulthood, well sheltered, fed and clothed, on that terrace among friends. There was an unspoken sense of safety and security around us and in our lives.

At that same time, July 1976, the year of the Bicentennial in the United States, a peanut farmer from Georgia who had served as governor of that state, was running for President. I first saw him that June on a morning talk show, when I happened to be walking by the TV as he came on. “I’m Jimmy Carter, and I’m going to be President” were his first words introducing himself. He repeated those words hundreds, maybe thousands, of times in his campaigning. We had experienced lies and liars. Now we were going to experience truths. Or so we thought. Not everybody would agree of course.

I’m not sure if he actually said  “and I’m going to be…” but it felt that way. I believed him. Not that I was for him – I didn’t know anything about him – but that there was a quiet confidence in his voice and manner, as if he were visionary, maybe even psychic. He ran against Gerry Ford and beat him by a small margin. However, Jimmy was an American family man too, like President Ford.

That was the mood of the country in 1976. We were the post-War generation, and yet we had seen a lot, experienced a lot, and now were back in the arms of stability. Forty years later, it is a far far different society from that which we were celebrating on that summer evening. Different enough to actually glimpse the state of evolution we are in as inhabitants on this planet. Of course we are older too, and learning what that is. There are many ways to look at the world we live in now, but only history is the real witness. Because we are living in the future, at all times.
Grucci Nights. The night of the Fourth I went to a Burgers and Hot Dogs non-barbecue of some friends on Park Avenue in Carnegie Hill. It was definitely not a cookout but the elements were there, along with the cole slaw, and crabcakes, and corn on the cob. The talk at the table was about the coming election with no sides-taking and no commitment expressed or requested. Then we all went down to Sutton Place to the terrace of another friend which overlooks the East River south of the 59th Street/Ed Koch Bridge, all the way to the Williamsburg Bridge about four miles down as the crow flies.

The fireworks were scheduled to start at 9:25. Although about 8:30 it started to rain – lightly but with a low ceiling – and they started about 9:35. The Grucci fireworks are the most famous in the world, and always spectacular. I took some photos showing the river and the bridge to give you an idea on the vast space each shot took up. The worry last night was whether the low clouds will mask a lot of the pyrotechnics. In some cases it did. But it was still spectacular. Then after it was over, an hour later, the rains came.
Our view from the terrace, about 9:15, looking south, over to Queens, and down the East River to the Williamsburg Bridge where the fireworks are set to go. The blue lights under the pearly lights of the bridge, and along the river, are NYPD boats.  The string of lights in the near center outlines Roosevelt Island and the southern tip which is now the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park. To the right of the park are the private boats waiting to watch the fireworks. They were not allowed any farther south than the tip of the FDR Park.
Another view from my friend's terrace is this optical illusion of the Chrysler Building and the Empire State which is lighted for the holiday.  When Walter Chrysler's building was finished in 1931— at the corner of Lexington Avenue and Forty-Second Street, it was the tallest building in New York and maybe the world. Six months later, however, the Empire State Building, which is three blocks to the West of the Chrysler, and eight blocks south on Fifth Avenue, was completed, retaining the title for the next eighty years.
The show begins ...

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