Stars, Stripes and Union Jacks
The Fourth of July 1 remember most fondly had nothing to do with military parades, old-fashioned picnics, hot dogs, fireworks or the swirl of patriotic bunting. As a matter of fact, it didn't even take place in the United States. Even worse, it took place in England -- in the enemy camp, you might say.
It was a college student on a foreign-study program and I boarded with an English family named Stringer in Muswell hill, a middle class neighborhood in north London which attained a minor sort of notoriety through the rock-and-roll songs of "The Kinks." England had been my goal since childhood. no British film went unseen, no volume of Dickens unread. I could reel off every crowned head of England like most people recite the alphabet, and sometimes did. For some reason the Stringers liked me anyway.
At breakfast one morning late in June, 11-year-old Grant Stringer pointed out that the Fourth of July was nearly upon us. His class was studying the United States at school just then and he was pleased to have a Yankee in the house for Independence Day. In the face of such unrestrained enthusiasm I could hardly let on how much I hated the Fourth of July. Sunburn, crowds and firecrackers never did add up to my idea of a good time. And then, Anglophile that I was, I wasn't entirely convinced that the Colonies should have declared independence in the first place. Every year I wore my Union Jack T-shirt on the Fourth of July out of sheer belligerence.
"We learned your national anthem at school," Grant said, humming John Philip Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever" around a mouthful of cornflakes.
Gently i explained that my national anthem was "The Star-Spangled Banner," an interruption that was greeted with polite skepticism.
"Are you certain?"
Clearly Grant was unconvinced. His mother suggested it might help if I sang a verse or two to support my case. Now, "The Star-Spangled Banner" is difficult enough to sing alongside 30,000 fans at a football game, but it's next to impossible to perform a cappellam at 8 o'clock in the morning at an English breakfast table through toast crumbs and marmalade. Screeching up to "the rockets' red glare" I said, "Don't blame me for the tune -- it's English."
"Oh yes," Grant's mother said thoughtfully. "We've heard that played on the televised Olympic Games."
"Right," Grant agreed as he left the table. "Yankees win all the time." He scurried off to class to broadcast the latest news on American's national anthem.
The Fourth of July dawned as another unbearably hot day of the worst European drought in three centuries. I suspected that there was mischief afoot. First Grant had been whispering to his father in the cellar while I was cooking my breakfast.then the boy fairly danced up the cellar stairs and through the kitchen, clutching a fishing pole and looking so self-important that I had to make myself very busy with butter and jam to maintain a straight face.
Later I wandered into the back garden looking for some breeze and a patch of shade.Instead I found Grant's mother peeling oranges into a blue china dish and I struck up a conversation with her about Independence Day and picnics and the finer points of American potato salad. Suddenly Grant leaned dangerously out of his second floor window, grinning like a Cheshire cat, and called me to come upstairs for a moment. I had the distinct impression I was about to be forgiven the sins of the American Revolution.
As I approached the landing, Grant's bedroom door swung slowly open and my ears were assaulted by the brassy recorded strains of . . . what else? "The Stars and Stripes Forever." Grant stood centerstage in a pith helmet, looking far more like Rudyard Kipling than Paul Revere, and proudly hoisted a loft on the end of that fishing rod a handcrafted pasteboard American flag. It had the traditional 13 stars all right, meticulously arranged in three rows of four with the stray 13the star squeezed into the center like a footnote.
The untended phonograph record launched into another march as Grant presented me with an Independence Day poster he and his older brother, Paul, had worked on all morning. It was a joyfully jumbled portrait of an American city and it featured skyscrapers, freeways and garbage dumps. Above the towering buildings flew two US flags in colors Betsy Ross never dreamed of, and an enormous smiling sun with a George Burns cigar beamed down upon the slogan, NEW YORK AMERICA.
"But Grant," I protested for the hundredth time, "I've never even been to New York!"
That was not the worst of it. In huge block letters the boys had printed across the bottom:
HAVE A GOOD INDEPENDENCE DAY -- YOU ARE TRUE YANK!
So this was my reward for years of carefully cultivated Anglomania. My english affectations, so effective back home where no one knew any better, had made absolutely no impression on Grant. To him, anyone who lived in his house for four months and still drank tea without milk and sugar was hopelessly American, and needed to be reminded of the fact. He was right. Laughing so hard that I lost my balance and had to sit down, I knew he was right. And I also knew that, though I'd had to travel 8,000 miles to see it. I'd just watched the best Fourth of July parade in the world.
We placed the flag and poster in the front window with great ceremony so that anyone passing on the street outside could see them, and throughout the day pedestrians paused out of curiosity and passed on in confusion. Grant's brother sang "New York, New York, It's a wonderful town!" all day long, and in the afternoon I was asked to name all 50 states and capitals in honor of the day. I came up with only 43, but no one minded.
"Goodnight, you Yank," someone called up the stairs after I'd gone to bed. Two hundred years after the Revolution, the Redcoats were fishing the rebels pleasant dreams.