It’s the bicentennial. Our country is 200 years old which seems deeply significant to me because I am ten. I feel this solidarity with the United States of America because we are both these perfect round figures. I feel this bond with all ten year olds all over the country. It’s as if we kids are the true Americans. I don’t tell anyone I feel this way. It is too momentous, too poignant to speak of. To be ten. To be an American. On July 4th, 1976. It is a feeling I cannot explain. It only is.
About a month ago—around my own tenth birthday—red, white and blue hats, flags, posters, beer mugs, buttons, t-shirts, sweatbands and sweat socks that say “1776-1976” went on sale and are subsequently everywhere. My parents don’t buy any of it; they think the memorabilia is silly. Are you a better American just because you wear a t-shirt that says so? Still, when I ask for a Spirit of ’76 button and hat, they say yes. Since I am a child, I’m allowed to be silly.
Since I am ten, and believe on some level that my being ten is as important as America turning 200, I think at first that when they say Spirit of ’76, they mean 1976.
My friend Tom—who is more a friend of the family than a real friend—is also ten. My parents and his grandparents go way back; they have us out to their summer home on Fire Island for the July 4th weekend. Tom and I might not otherwise be friends but we are routinely thrown together by circumstance. Since we are kids, and there is a beach with sand and waves, since there is ice cream and a house with a cool balcony, this is okay. Since we are not teenagers, the fact that we are different genders is not awkward. Besides we’re not just the same age; we’re both ten year old Americans on the Bicentennial.
We arrive on the Island on Friday. Tom meets me and my parents at the ferry with his little red wagon and helps us carry our things to his grandparents’ home in Ocean Bay Park. He and I take turns pulling the wagon as we chat. We are eager to get into the waves, to go to town for ice cream, to see a movie, to do everything by ourselves, which we are allowed to do here on the Island, because there are no cars.
The independence makes me feel giddy. Tom and I wake up at six for the next two mornings and go to the beach alone. The adults are asleep, but told us we could go the night before. No one told us to be safe. We wade in up to our knees, looking for jelly fish, looking for special shells.
Later in the day we go to town in Ocean Beach to buy ice cream and Wacky Pack cards which we will trade later. Tom gives me his bubble gum.
Saturday evening, while the grownups are having cocktails and recovering from a big day, relaxing on the beach, Tom and I are given five dollars apiece and sent back to town to see a movie which came out about a year ago: Jaws. This is a big deal; to see a scary movie, a scary beach movie, without grownups to take us. We walk along the beach to the theater: a big white house with a screen and folding chairs. Ten dollars is enough for tickets, popcorn and sodas for us both.
The movie is truly terrifying. Not just to a pair of ten year olds who know they’ll soon be walking home on the beach, but to everyone. No one is jaded yet when it comes to horror films. No one can predict that one day there will not only be Jaws 2, 3, 3-D and 4, but also Michael, Jason, Freddy, Chuckie, Saw and all their sequels. We are not desensitized to the formula. This stuff is all new. So that every time the music reaches a crescendo and there is an attack, everyone in the house screams. Loudly. People call out urgent words of caution to the actors. No one shushes anyone. We are all in this together.
Later that night, I am afraid to go to the bathroom. Fire Island is itself a sandbar, which means that in many homes, when you peer into the toilet, you are looking down a deep hole and can see the sea. After seeing Jaws, peeing under these circumstances seems like a foolhardy thing to do.
I hold it in for as long as I can, then say some kind of prayer, sit and go. No shark comes, so that the next morning, still alive, still gloriously ten, I am able to help the nation celebrate its bicentennial. And at night, Tom and I run wild on the beach with a bunch of other kids. We’re all holding sparklers which we’ve ignited ourselves.
Happy Independence Day to all.