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Wednesday, October 28 News

Woog’s World: Founding Fathers, sacrifice and fitting in

Traditionally, Westport does not celebrate July Fourth with fireworks.

We can’t wait that long. For decades we’ve done our “Happy Birthday, America!” thing on July 1, 2 or 3. Once or twice, it’s even been a full month earlier — well, June 30, to be technical.

I’ve never been sure of the reason. Some people say it’s to avoid paying holiday overtime to the dozens of police, firefighters, EMTs, Parks and Rec employees and others needed to make the event run smoothly. Some say it’s because the barge from which the fireworks are fired costs more on the Fourth. I’ve also heard it’s to get a head start on the holiday, or simply because “we’ve always done it that way.”

No matter. For many Westporters, the fireworks is our town’s red (and white and blue) letter day. It’s a party to end all parties — the one time the entire town gets together, and literally has a blast.

From mid-afternoon on, crowds gather at Compo Beach. Kids romp in the water, and on the sand. They get lost (and eventually found). Soundview Drive is closed to traffic; house parties spill from decks to the street. Middle and high school students roam all around in packs, performing timeless teenage rituals. A marching band marches, drummers drum, dancers dance. Vendors sell sparklers, ice cream, American flag-themed stuff. It’s Norman Rockwell at his best, Fairfield County-style.

Entertaining 15,000 hard-to-please Westporters is no easy feat. For a few years now, the day has begun with an early morning arms race. Families and friends send someone down, at dawn, to stake out a prime viewing spot. He or she will plunk dozens of chairs in a large circle, surrounding blankets and tables. In the past couple of years, they’ve erected giant tents too. The scout then disappears. For much of the day, the beach is populated by ghosts. It aggravates the hell out of everyone who doesn’t do it, but no one seems able to stop it.

A few folks also grumble about the $35 per car ticket needed for beach parking. Never mind that the price hasn’t gone up in years, that the money funds Westport PAL programs and scholarships for thousands of youngsters, or that the Melissa & Doug toy company underwrites the actual cost of the fireworks as a gift to the town. Never mind either that anyone can park elsewhere — a friend’s house, Longshore, the office complex on Greens Farms Road — and hoof it to Compo.

There are complaints too about traffic, despite the wonderful work by a corps of cops and others. Every party has a pooper, and people always poop on this fantastic day of fun and fireworks.

Fortunately, most people appreciate the day, and thank the many folks who make it possible. Unfortunately, this July Fourth — or whenever the event would have been held — has been canceled. It would not look good for the town that was one of the first in the country to have a super-spreader party to then pack 15,000 people together on a beach, even if it’s to celebrate the birth of our nation.

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For many reasons, this may not feel like a time of celebration. Besides case numbers — which seem to be rising everywhere except here, like a firework shot from a barge — we feel assaulted by bad news. The number of unemployed Americans is staggering; the percentages have not been seen for nearly a century. Each day we hear stories of social inequities and injustices. All of us, wherever we live, are having serious discussions about who the United States is as a nation, and who we are as a people.

So perhaps, instead of our traditional July Fourth behaviors — staking out large swaths of the beach for ourselves, enjoying a community-wide celebration, wearing American flag t-shirts while sitting on flag towels and wiping our faces with flag napkins — we can take this day to think about where we are today, and where we are headed tomorrow.

Perhaps we can talk with our children about our Founding Fathers — not as idealized heroes, but as real human beings with many genius ideas, and some that were flawed. Perhaps we can look back at our lives over the past three months — the sacrifices we’ve made, the changes we’ve adapted to, the ideas we’ve discarded or adopted — and consider how they fit in with the “America” we’ve always talked about, but seldom truly thought of. Perhaps instead of shooting off fireworks, we can light a couple of candles: one for everyone we’ve lost, and one for everyone who will follow us in this strange new world.

We have no idea what’s ahead. Of course, neither did anyone else at the creation of America, 244 years ago this week.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.

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