In the summer of 1977, I was living in Athens, GA. I was working two jobs. Living alone. I was almost a year away from my wedding date. My Beth was home in Alabama, about 4 trillion light years away.
The 4th of July meant a long. needed break. A diversion from the hot summer routine. My plan was to go home to Hampton. Sleep in my old bedroom. Have Mama cook me breakfast and spoil me rotten for a couple days.
I was holding up under the pressure of living the adult life on my own pretty well, I thought. But when you’re young and single, and about to really launch out there into the world, there’s nothing like sprawling out in the house where you grew up for what feels like it could be your last chance to relax. Your last chance to be a boy before life steps on your throat for good.
I don’t remember why, but I waited to leave Athens until late in the day on the 4th. I had the whole week ahead of me. Time was my own. I could have gotten an early start, but it was well after supper and into the evening before I rolled out on my hour and a half, two hour trip.
There’s something about being young and carefree. Now that I have had experience with several 21 year old kids of my own, I have seen this sort of thing from the other side. They have plans for a road trip. They have all day to get there in plenty of time. It’s not a long trip. Two to three hours, maybe. Do you think they would leave after lunch so they could drive in the daytime and get there to set up tents in the daylight? Of course, not. That would make too much sense. They leave at 9PM at night like it’s no bid deal. Life is fun.
I’m sitting on the couch. “It’s a little late to be getting on the road, don’t you think?”
“We’ll be fine.”
“It’s dark, you know. Those campsites are hard to find in the dark.”
“We got flashlights, Papa. We’re young. We can see in the dark better than you.”
That was low. But truth is, if I’m honest, this is exactly why I left Athens as late as I did. It wasn’t practical, but practical is not what necessarily drives the decision-making process of a 21 year old male. Which leads me to the next phase of the story.
I was getting ready to stash a few things in my car, when my buddy Andy offered up an idea.
“Why don’t you just ride my bike? I’m not going anywhere on it.”
Andy had a Honda 350 street bike. It wasn’t an Easy Rider Chopper, but it had two wheels and some clean lines that made a young man dream of the open road. I had a trail bike when I was younger, but this was about the coolest offer I’d ever had.
When I watched the old TV show, Then Came Bronson, I imagined riding the country on a motorcycle and living off whatever I could make from odds jobs that I’d pick up along the way. Fall in love in every town but eventually yield to the open road and the wind in my face. Be my own man. Be free to chase my dreams. This was my chance to try it out for about 80 miles.
I strapped down a bag on the back of the seat and one in front of the handlebars. And I was off. Look out Bronson.
I wasn’t even thinking about it being the 4th of July, not really. I mean, I knew it was the 4th, but I wasn’t focused on the meaning of it. Independence Day. Freedom. Bombs bursting in air. I knew the story and I understood why we had the holiday. But I just wasn’t into it that much. I was just going home for the holiday.
I don’t know if you’ve ever rode a bike before or not, but you become keenly aware of everything around you. You can ride in a car with the window down, or in a convertible, but it’s not the same. You feel every little temperature change as you dip down in the low areas. You see everything. You feel the lean in the curves. The headlight out front of you. The front tire spinning close enough it seems like you could touch it. Bugs that impale you in the throat.
It was just getting good and dark about the time I rolled into Social Circle. My Mama was born and raised here. I could see the lights on in my grandparents house, but there was no time to stop.
As I rolled out the edge of town, I heard an explosion. What the heck? That’s when I looked back over my shoulder and saw the fireworks. It totally caught me off guard. I stopped for just a minute but pushed on.
As I rode into Covington, I could see the fireworks before I got there. Bursts of red and blue and white, exploding over the base ball field along the highway. Screamers. Loud cannons. Boom. Boom. Boom. They had them all. And I was thinking how lucky I was to get to see parts of two shows in two different places.
But it wasn’t over. Porterdale is a little spot on the road kind of town. The kind of place where we could stop and eat a vegetable plate with cornbread on a Sunday afternoon ride to go see our Grandparents. You wouldn’t think that Porterdale could afford a fireworks show. But on my infamous ride that night, this little town gave me my third show in a row.
I have seen fireworks at professional baseball games on the 4th. I saw them in Knoxville, TN at the 1982 World’s Fair. We stood over the bridge above the river and watched the show in the sky and the reflection on the water. It was spectacular. But of all the fireworks I’ve ever seen, none of them hold a candle in my memory to the three little country shows I saw that night from the back of a motorcycle.
I was just a passer-by, but I found myself singing in my head over the roar of the bike, over and over again.
“And the rockets’ red glare, The bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night, That our flag was still there.”
I felt American. I felt proud to be here. I had a little bit of a lump in my throat. And still do.
When I turned into the driveway at home, I road around to the back yard. Old habit, I guess. I used to keep my trail bike on the back porch, but Dad had since closed in the porch and put up these huge glass windows.
When I turned the bike and the headlight hit those glass windows, I could see Dad inside get up out of his recliner and reach for his shotgun. It occurred to me that I had not told them I was coming. And to show up on a motorcycle was an even bigger shock. He came to the back door.
“Hi, Dad. Happy 4th of July.”