Just six months after the attacks on the World Trade Center, we found out we were moving to Washington D.C. My husband had scored a great, career-enhancing job, and we were excited to start a new chapter of our life together. We tried not to dwell on the fact that we were, as my dad pointed out, moving our family (with four young children) to “the bull’s-eye.”
In the end we loved our time in D.C. Despite the fact that the sniper kept us indoors for six weeks that fall, we spent every weekend exploring museums, fairs, festivals and exhibits. We had been told we would be in D.C. for two years, so when we got word that they were sending us to Utah a year early, we had mixed feelings. There was so much left to do and explore.
It was then that I made a vow that we’d do one last big thing in the nation’s capital, before we packed up and moved west. For many years I’d faithfully watched my PBS, and its broadcast of the Capital Fourth of July celebration. There was no way we were missing it, when we had the chance to see it in person.
Forget about the fact it was only the second celebration since the nation’s understanding of terrorism threats had changed. Most of the year we’d lived in D.C. the terror alert level had been high. But it wasn’t enough to keep me, and my house full of impressionable kids, from enjoying a great American tradition.
Since there is a limited area of lawn in front of the Capital, I knew we had to claim our spot early. And there was no way I was making four young children sit in the hot sun all day (a surefire way to kill a great family memory).
So while hubby stayed back home in the air conditioned house, I took off in the early morning and made my way on the metro, down to the center of the city. There was a long line already forming when I arrived at the Capital about 9 am. We all patiently waited for the security stalls to be set up and manned. Then, one by one, we filed through metal detectors and politely answered strategic questions posed by Capital Police officers.
I hauled my big lawn blanket over to the roped off areas and found the perfect spot for my family to rest. Once the blanket was situated, saving just enough space for all six of us and a stroller, there was nothing to do but wait. I have to remind you that this was eons before the age of ipods or kindles. I was on my own with a couple of books and a small bag of snacks.
The day was hot. What they officially call “stinkin’ hot.” Wisely, the powers that be decided to be proactive and handed out free bottles of water. Cases were brought in throughout the day, on pallets maneuvered by forklifts. By noon it was so hot that most of us were dumping more on our heads than we were pouring down our throats (which explains my hideous hair in most of the pictures from that day).
But in the end, I have to say, it was worth it. So very worth it. Hubby showed up with the amped-up kids just an hour before the show was to start. We all settled in to watch history unfold.
The venue was full of actors and entertainers. Dolly Parton did a few fun numbers. We all sang along when she broke out her famous 9 to 5. Barry Bostwick hosted the event, which also included a great performance by the Chieftains.
But the highlight of the night, especially for my band-loving hubby and his GeekMom wife, was the music provided by the master composer himself, John Williams. The night was full of his magical compositions, of course including a rousing production of the Star Wars theme and a round from Raiders of the Last Ark. It was his first appearance at the D.C. event, since he usually hosted the ones held in L.A. or Boston.
The fireworks at the end were good. They were much farther away than I’d realized, but seeing them in the shadows of the National Mall monuments was a once in a lifetime event. I’d always imagined the fireworks part would be the highlight of the show, since that’s how it’s portrayed on my trusty PBS broadcast. But I have to say, in person, the long patriotic show that’s produced on stage, as the sun sets on the day, is the real star of the night. Anticipation is everything, and after a long day of waiting in the hot sun, the first chords of the Star Wars theme never felt so delightful.
Once it was all over we packed up the stroller and filed off the lawn, down into the Metro tunnels, with thousands and thousands of others. My kids were very familiar with the Metro, in the daytime. They’d never ridden it past sundown, much less the middle of the night, and that part alone is probably the strongest memory they have. But I’ve never had any doubts that it was worth it. Every drop of sweat. Every minute of planning.
Our country is one of a kind. And celebrating her birthday, sitting below the steps that lead into a building where her laws are created and upheld, soaking in her glory with hundreds of thousands of her citizens, is a treasure every American should get to experience at least once.
[Editor’s Note: Check out the PBS Capital Fourth website for some fun online Fourth of July activities for kids!]