July 4th – it’s a nationwide party. It’s the one day of the year where families across America put on their party hats, fire up the grills, slap on mosquito repellent, and watch fireworks displays from small-town parks to the National Mall in DC. It’s the day we celebrate our independence. It’s America’s birthday.
This past July was my second year writing about the 4th of July celebrations with the Boston Pops on the Esplanade. The two-day event, which includes an ever-growing pre-show on the 3rd, is filled with families, patriotism and fun! Boston is fortunate to have entertainment from world-famous musicians, salutes to the men and women of our armed forces, the best of the best in the musicians of the Boston Pops, and one of, if not ‘the’ most-loved fireworks displays in the country!
I expected to write this article about the celebration on the Esplanade, recapping the weekend with Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops, musical guest Toby Keith, and event host Craig Ferguson. It’s a weekend I’d been looking forward to since last year’s 4th of July celebration and I couldn’t wait to share the experience once again!
But something happened on the 3rd that changed those plans. It was just a simple photo, shot while I wasn’t looking and not discovered until later that evening. It’s a photo that was taken in jest, but it spoke the proverbial ‘thousand words’ from the heart of an American soldier. The above photo of U.S. Army Officer Candidate Isaac McDaniel altered the focus, journey, necessity and timing of my article.
The past two months across our nation have been filled with politics and a tumultuous 2 weeks leading up to the anniversary of 9/11. Even prior to these most current events, I have frequently reflected on America, our patriotism, our pride, and our support of our military. This I owe to an inspiring self-portrait.
When I discovered OC McDaniel’s photo among my many other photos, I just sat and stared at it, and then I smiled. It told me everything I needed to know about why I was there on the Esplanade that day, and it moved me. I knew from that moment that my article would be different, but more than that, I knew that I would be different.
We’ve been celebrating America’s birthday with the Boston Pops and fireworks on the Esplanade for more than 35 years. It’s called the Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular, but its name really only describes the last half hour of the evening. The fireworks are the culmination of the celebration, but the hours leading up to that are ever so important.
Coming to celebrate the 4th in Boston is something people dream of; my uncle (retired Navy) even has it on his ‘bucket list’. Living in Boston for 15 years, I’d only been to the Esplanade a handful of times, intimidated by the sheer size of the event and the logistics involved — 500,000 people gathered together, all leaving together, makes for quite the traffic jam! And prior to last year I had never made my way to the lawn of the Hatch Shell to see the Pops up close. It’s an exclusive area and people make great sacrifices to get the coveted wrist band that gives them the lucky seating to view the Pops event.
Other than the fireworks, the main draw is the musical entertainment. This year, country artist Toby Keith performed 3-4 songs, and comedian Craig Ferguson hosted the nationwide broadcast portion of the concert. It’s what the nation tunes in for, but they miss out on truly experiencing the Boston Pops, and they don’t have the opportunity to see how Boston celebrates our men and women in uniform. They get the “pomp”, but they don’t really get the “circumstance”.
A significant portion of the celebration on the Esplanade is the recognition of our armed forces. They are represented in person, the U.S. Army provides the Howitzer cannons for Tchaikovsky’s ‘1812’, the Boston Pops pays tribute with a sing-along to each of the branches’ theme songs, there is a presentation and performance by the Middlesex County Volunteers Fifes and Drums, and there is an exciting fly-over by the Air National Guard. Our military is ever present, yet it is overshadowed by the entertainers and the fireworks.
Admittedly, nothing excites me more on the 4th than hearing the Boston Pops perform the ‘1812’. It gives me goose bumps every time I hear it, and I’m giddy with anticipation as the 1812 draws near. The only other Pops moment that equally thrills me is when the flag unfurls from the ceiling during Stars & Stripes. I love the Boston Pops, I have great respect for Maestro Keith Lockhart, and I love all that they represent. They are “America’s Orchestra” and with each stroke of the baton, they remind me of the best that America has to offer. The Pops inspires and as they perform, they instill within me a sense of pride…much like the photo of OC McDaniel.
For two months I have thought on that photo, what it means to me and what it says. When I look at OC McDaniel, I see many things. I see a soldier and his service, and I see the badge of honor that he wears as he defends my country. I see a young man who is proud, with a spirit and smile that reaches beyond the camera, and I see a man who is filled with optimism.
I now think about my patriotism, the pride I feel as an American, and the feeling of optimism that OC McDaniel and the Boston Pops each endeavor to give us. I look at our country that celebrates our independence on July 4th, I see how it remembers 9/11, and I am dismayed how the majority is quick to tuck away its patriotism until the next national observance. I’m no longer in that majority, and every time I hear the Pops pay tribute to America with its patriotic sing-along, feel the power of the cannons during the 1812, see the flag unfurl during Stars & Stripes, or bear witness to a new work as patriotic and symbolic as its newly-commissioned The Dream Lives On: A Portrait of the Kennedy Brothers, I will listen to the music and will embrace its message with newfound discovery, respect and pride.
I got in touch with Isaac McDaniel and thanked him for the photo. He laughed at the memory of taking it, but as I described its impact, he proudly thanked me. We discussed his thoughts about America, being a soldier, and serving our country, and he said,
“My military position seems simple, as everything does in uniformed service, with dedication and hard work. My military position has been training and mentoring soldiers, which I do by setting an example, by trying to make a difference. I chose this route [of officer candidate] and rank because I have served my country, working my way up through the enlisted ranks, and it is now time for me to take a larger step forward.
When it comes to America, my heart throbs and at times my soul aches. America is the land of the strong and the land of the brave, and we should settle for no less. What hurts me the most about my beloved country is our values that we are ‘letting go’, and as a result, we are lowering are standards of greatness.
Through my studies, I have learned that the American dream is not monetary wealth but rather wholeness. Particular pain arises from the lack of respect that our youth show towards their elders. However, I recognize that it is we who must set the example in one way or another and this problem can easily be solved with love and patience.
I want to see America become once again the land of the great and it should not be strange to hear a human speak about love. My long-term goal is to be on Capital Hill making and amending laws so that America will continue to be the home of the free and the brave.
I wish the Fourth of July spirit was awake in all citizens, and its citizens-to-be, everyday. Awake her, she wont mind.”
Celebrating America is a year-long event that shouldn’t end on July 5th. The Spirit of America lives daily within the hearts of millions of Americans, thanks to people like OC McDaniel and organizations such as the Boston Pops that find a way to keep us connected us to our nation’s heritage.
I hope to be on the Esplanade next year for another 4th of July with the Boston Pops, and if it happens, I’ll be bringing a brand new party hat to the celebration!
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