14 – The Most American 4th of July

red brick building on a school campus
Once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ’em all.

My second semester of school, my parents drove from Ohio for a visit that would result in the most spectacular 4th of July of my life. But there is a lot happened between that party and now. My parents wanted to see my apartment, they said, and my office at school. They persisted even though I told them that my office was a desk in a room with a bunch of other desks crammed together like a student cattle-yard.

When they arrived, we went through all the pleasantries. A tour of campus, a view of the cattle-yard, all ending at my apartment. Then came those special words: “you should probably sit down for this.” It wasn’t dinner time, but there I was lowering myself onto a chair. I knew something bad was coming—of course something bad was coming. But why was I sitting?

Fainting

Was there a fainting epidemic at one point, so that sitting was needed as an actual precaution to hearing news? Maybe people’s hearts were too weak to keep their blood pressure up when they heard bad news. Imagine some old timey guy dropping Raggedy-Ann style in the street because he read that the White Sox lost. I mean, I always took Victorian depictions of fainting as hyperbole, unless caused by a corset, of course. At least one real theory is that fainting was “associated with threat to life [situations]. [And] humans’ tendency to faint (or “play dead”).” Still, I’ve never known anyone to faint, but people sit down for bad news all the time. Anyway, I sat down. Ready for my meal of misery.

My dad had moderately advanced prostate cancer. They assured me it would be ok, and they had found the best surgeon, and that there was going to be a post-op treatment. I think I just heard “cancer” and stopped taking in new information. I had flashbacks to those Polaroid moments when we learned about our mom’s cancer, flashbacks to the green La-z-boy and chemo days when we hurt our mom so much without knowing it. At least, she has since recovered. Oddly there was no click as my brain processed the bits of information, just a steady hummmmm. Like “fuuuuuuuuck. How is this happening again?”.

But this was to be different. After the surgery, which was in Maryland, my parents went to Loma Linda Cancer Center in California for the summer. I was there for the surgery, but I was asked to stay home in Ohio for the summer to watch out for my brother. He probably would have been fine on his own, but, they figured, two is better than one. Boy, was that a mistake. Putting the two of us together would ultimately lead to more trouble than anything else.

Landscape

It was then the end of the academic year, and life didn’t give me much time to coordinate leaving early. Wrapping up my courses and withdrawing from my lease prematurely were added complications. I remember my brother and I driving a U-Haul away from school with the vortex of an actual twister forming high in the rear-view mirror. It seemed like we were escaping hell. There were a lot of tears as my parents drove off to Loma Linda, but there wasn’t anything we could do about it but hope.

The next problem was what to do all summer. We had been lifeguards in previous years, but we burnt that bridge to a crisp. I had experience landscaping, but had left the company on bad terms. But we were young and lived on a farm, so I called and called and called and called every landscape company in the area until one hired me.

On the second day of the job, the boss was complaining about how one of his guys never showed up. “Hire my brother,” I said, “we live together and I’ll make sure he always gets to work on time.” In a total of five days, Gabe and I were working at the same small landscape company. We didn’t quite know what we were getting into working there, but at some point we decided to try a summer of full on red-necking sans racism. That job is what ultimately paid for our parties and the 4th of July blowout.

Man cutting grass in even rows.
It’s smaller than it looks, they said.

The “company” consisted of five guys, even counting my brother and I. The owner, Sean, was a slightly built man who always had a call to make when there was something heavy to move. Then there were Danny and Jake, the mowing crew, who were not go-getters. Two less motivated people have seldom found each other. Once, because Jake let his new arm tattoo get infected with streptococcus, Gabe had to take his place for a week. Turns out the mow crew parked and napped for the first part of the day, and then took it easy. The one day Sean and Gabe did the mowing together, they were done by noon. Even then, Sean only joked about how the mow crew was messing around. He didn’t have the courage to chastise them, let alone fire them. He didn’t have the courage to own a company. 

Alcohol Enhanced Relaxation

By the time the weekends came, Gabe and I were exhausted, but we had a system. Sleep on Friday night, have a party with our old lifeguard friends on Saturday, and recover on Sunday. The parties were all different. In one we got increasingly drunk while trying to write down the “cleverest” lines from the movie “Hot Tub Time Machine.” The list went from legible and funny to scrawling code discernible only using the enigma machine.

One weekend before the 4th of July, we decided to go paint-balling road signs out the roof of our Honda Element. It was me, Gabe, and three girls blasting music down curvy country roads. At some point, two of the girls were hanging out of the sunroof with a shirtless Gabe shooting paintball guns. We pulled up to a one-stop-sign town where a few tweens were practicing skateboard tricks. I do not know what great Greek gods they may have thought we were, but they gazed upon us as supplicants before we nailed their stop sign and rolled on.

People drinking wine and cheers-ing
We were decidedly less fancy about it.

There were bonfires and contests. We had a “be a man” contest where the girls had to do push-ups, name tools, and hammer in a nail. Not to be sexist, we let the girls devise a “be a girl” contest where we had to name the cut of different underwear, fold fitted sheets correctly, and explain the use of the washer and dryer. We tried not to be sexist, but as a bunch of teenagers we were about as sexist as it got. We even had a rain party where we ended up dancing around the kitchen table making whooping noises while running in and out of summer’s warm rain on the back deck.

Guns in a Minute

It was an incredible summer, especially the 4th of July. We decided to make that day as full of life and action as we could. And as full of coping as was possible to make it. That whole summer, the only time Gabe and I talked about our dad was when he and mom called. Exhausting labor and parties blacked out our time. I know that I couldn’t handle the thought of our dad dead and having only mom. So when the 4th of July marched in, we decided to have the most American holiday in history. For us, the first step was getting guns. 

We based our gun preferences in life on the preferences we had for guns in video games. My brother preferred the frontal approach of a shotgun, while I preferred precision. It should frighten you to know that after shopping two stores we settled on our guns: a 12 Gage Remington for him at 100 or so bucks and a WWII surplus Mosin–Nagant with a beautifully polished wooden stock for $99. We browsed accessories and ammunition cases for an hour and a half before our background checks came back.

Within two hours, we walked out the door well armed for the party that night. It still disturbs me how quickly we were able to purchase weapons. On the way home we picked up a large number of Budweiser beer cans with the flag on them. We had stacked the bonfire at home already. Can a 4th of July get more American than that?

The 4th of July

Now, just to be clear, we didn’t mix the guns and beer. We had our fun with clay pigeons and targets, and then we commenced having our fun with our American flag cans.  People started arriving and cans began to disappear. We danced on the back deck and tried to blow smoke rings with Backwoods cigars. We even had tents set up so that people didn’t have to drink and drive.

AMERICA! FUCK YEAH!

You know how after a while a party turns from a memory into disconnected images? After the dancing and smoke rings, I recall some kind of outdoor blur with music blasting in the background. My brother came to a tent I was in asking for vodka. After that, I remember waking up beside two girls. It was a pretty memorable 4th of July.

We spent the 5th with a little hair of the dog watching TV on the sofa. As far as coping went, we were able to blackout any fear about our father for the entire holiday. In the end, our father was fine and is now very healthy. We didn’t lose any time with him, though we managed to lose a lot of summer.

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