My goal, unmet, was to write a piece on being the grandson of an immigrant, on what it meant to grow up with a combined sense of where you come from and where you are, and to wrap it all up in a big American flag and bring it on home for Independence Day.
Instead what you're about to read is a true story of Slavic accents and grilled meat, cold beer, Lucky Strikes, and a stick of dynamite borne on the wings of Tweety Bird into the twilit sky on the Fourth of July.
Afterward, if a relevant metaphor for 'What it means to be an American' presents itself, all the better. Let's call it intentional and be done with it.
So here's what happened.
It was maybe 1990, maybe '91, I can't remember exactly but the first Bush was president and my grandfather had been dead for a couple of years. I know this because my grandmother occupied a lawn chair next her sister, each around 80, my grandmother a larger version of my great-aunt which is saying something since my grandmother was five-two. As close as the old sisters were, had my grandfather been alive it would have been him sitting next to my grandmother, sipping a cold beer, watching me arrange a boring assembly of fireworks...store-bought, safely legal...which I was dusk-minutes away from turning into a display of dull sparks, muted whistles. My grandfather was a naturalized citizen, born in 1900 in the hills of Turkey close to Salonika, ethnically Macedonian, wise enough at 16 to blow out of the Ottoman Empire in its last year of existence before the Greeks thundered through his village and scrubbed the Slavic-Turkic out of their names and heads forever.
I say this with no ill will toward Greece, Greek citizens or Greek-Americans. History is what it is, rough and unrelenting, and so please, no Greek rebuttal on how that part of the world was actually Greek and not Turkish or how my grandfather and his people were not really Slavic Macedonians but Greek. It wasn't and they weren't but after 1917 it was and they were. That's history, babe.
Back to the story.
So my naturalized grandfather was definitely the type of American who enjoyed gigantic explosions on the first weekend of July, especially when it was accompanied by steaks, wieners and burgers on a roiling grill and coolers packed with glistening bottles of the only thing Milwaukee ever did right besides producing my grandmother. She was Macedonian too, everyone in her large family born in a village not far from my grandfather's except for herself and the wee pit-bull sister sitting next to her, and in 60 years of marriage she probably reminded my grandfather every day that she was genuinely American since she'd been born in that Wisconsin Valhalla by the lake. Except of course, she reminded him in Macedonian.
My family celebrated holidays like other people stitch quilts. A Santa Clause and a Saint Nicholas, a turkey and toasts of rakia, Easter eggs that we stared at for 10 seconds before challenging one another to chakie, which is smashing the pointed ends against your competitors'. American holidays were overlaid with a Macedonian sensibility and it applied to that most American of holidays, as well. The standard Fourth of July cookout became a small feast with feta cheese and kalamata olives, marinated peppers and pita sharing space with potato salad and some other American shit that no one ate. And of course there were the beers and wines, the Canadian whiskey and 7-Up, ours being a tavern-owning family, and the Lucky Strikes enjoyed by my uncles and most of the rest of us, including my grandmother not-so-secretly.
This year in particular she probably had one alone on the side of the house waving away smoke, probably with a heavy heart since my grandfather's absence had created an emptiness in the family that was persistent and vital, like a memory replayed in a dream that seems real when you're asleep and so incredibly gone when you wake.
It was around that time that my cousin suggested dynamite.
He and I were 20 years apart in age but the closest to our grandfather; we had different relationships with the old man yet similar in that we each sensed something of ourselves in him. And on that Fourth of July for no specific reason I can think of, we each felt the void of his non-presence. And I think my cousin wanted to blow it up, explode it in a way that would have made the old man from that old Eastern world grin.
I should mention again beer was involved, plenty, and some of that Canadian whiskey, too.
It had to have been in retrospect, because when my cousin produced what he referred to as a "firecracker" which in reality was an exact replica of the sticks of TNT that were props in Warner Brother cartoons...kielbasa-long, candy apple red, long white wick...our first thought was that if we simply detonated it, it would blow a hole in the ground perfect for a small swimming pool. And he tilted his head at the twilight sky smeared with pink clouds and said, "How about up there?"
A half an hour later we returned to my parent's home in my cousin's tricked out '73 El Camino with the tiny cab stuffed so full of grocery store helium balloons that we squeaked when we moved. The same El Camino, not incidentally, in which he'd smuggled the "firecracker" into the U.S. from Tijuana hidden under the driver's seat, sweating the possibility not of being discovered by customs but of hitting a pothole and mushroom-clouding on a Mexican highway.
It was a riot of balloons, a dozen floating fatties emblazoned with Popeye, Bugs Bunny, The Hulk, I Wuv You kitty and, of course, Tweety Bird. The assembly of relatives was silent as we trod upon the puny display of loser fireworks and began tying balloons to the dynamite. One balloon, two balloons...it bobbled, lifted, came back to earth...six balloons, eight, 10, until the full dozen made the TNT weightless. And by this time everyone was on their feet, lawn chairs kicked aside, burgers forgotten, and in classic Slavic fashion, excited advice and dire warnings bumping into each other. It was "What if...?" and "Lissen-a-me, you oughta..." combined with "God almighty, that thing's nuts!" until finally someone posed a pertinent question.
"How you gonna put fire to it so you make sure it stays lit?"
"I'm saying you light it, you let 'er go, up, up and away, and the fuggin' fuse goes out. Then what?"
An uncle tapped a pack, ripped a Lucky in two, lifted a quarter inch of cigarette and said, "L.S.M.F.T."
And we screwed that mini-cigarette to the wick and lit it, it started smoking and my cousin and I exchanged a look, it was the same look the first NASA eggheads must've given each other right before blast-off number one, and we released the explosive. It did indeed go up, up and away, 20 necks craned and then it seemed to pause, it treaded oxygen a moment before an air current snagged it and off it went, lofting high and fast.
Another pertinent question someone should have asked.
"What if the wind carries it away?"
That red stick of death was flying furiously and we watched it go, and then we started after it because how could we not? Twenty people ranging in age from 80-plus to eight crossing the unfenced backyards of our neighbors with heads thrown back, giggling, smoking, speaking two languages excitedly until someone paused and said, "It's out."
"The wick. It's out. No more smoke."
We slowed watching the bouquet of balloons lift higher and higher, carrying its dangling auburn passenger into the highest branches of an enormously tall and decades-long dead oak tree which belonged to a neighbor whose entire house looked dead. The guy drove a car that was rust-colored because the car was pure rust. He wore white t-shirts with half-moon sweat stains under the arms and sucked desperately on brown cigarettes. A cracked green reflective globe sat in a stand above a weed-strangled patch next to a lawn jockey that had been painted white. He was the guy who hacked and phlegmed at a kid who rode a bike too close to his "property," the guy with a trembling little dog of unknown breed. The guy Walter Matthau played a thousand times but not as well.
We shrugged collectively, turned toward my parent's yard and were halfway there when that same someone screamed, "It's lit!"
We turned in slow motion.
In slow motion a grey puff of tobacco became an orange spark as fire bit wick.
The explosion, when it came, rocked shocked birds from the corpse of tree, and then a creaking began. The entire top of the oak, maybe 10 feet, maybe 15, seemed to spit bark and salute before it toppled with a cacophony of screeching, barking, splitting and shredding that trumped any noise I'd ever heard on any Fourth of July ever.
And in the tradition of my grandfather, we ran.
He'd seen explosive destruction rolling toward his tiny Macedonian village as Turkish and Greek armies prepared to kill each other for it head-to head, hand-to-hand, and he ran to America and made it his home.
We ran laughing and then opened beers and lit cigarettes and talked about it because we could, because all it was was a blown-up dead tree and it was the Fourth of July and we were safe in America.