Independence Day 2021 started with a whisper. Late sleeping. Long napping. Plenty of goofing off.
Later, it would explode with furious anger but not that of arguments and harsh words. Instead, it would produce in me a fierce feeling of patriotic fervor.
The fun really started at 5 p.m. I hoisted myself out of my chair with reluctance. My knees were stiff from a long week at the Post Office. I didn’t feel like meeting new people. But I knew that friends wanted me to show up, to be there for them.
After all, I thought, they had been there for me. Just the week before, my friend Ken Larson hosted a party for me at his glorious house just across the street from the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art. Over the course of the afternoon, some 50 or more people showed up for Patrick’s Gone Postal Bash. I had expected that most would make an appearance, say hello, and be on their way. To my surprise, most people came and stayed. Old friends, people I hardly know but admire, and complete strangers gave their time and social expertise to me.
It was a very low-maintenance affair. Outside of one or two people, I didn’t have to shepherd or show anyone around. I introduced people to each other and conversations started of their own accord. The food was good. Everyone was moderate—there were no falling-down drunks. It was a brilliant occasion with good companionship and sparkling repartee.
So, July 4, I climbed in the car and made my way to Waldo. There, at Malcolm Cook’s new house, I took a seat and had incredible conversations with him, his sons, and his friends. They threw names around like Murray Bookchin and Noam Chomsky. People talked of classical economics, democratic socialism, and computational analysis. I heard terms that warmed my heart—“means of production,” “sale of labor,” and “capitalist class.” I reveled in the ethereal realm of abstraction. While the Post Office is the only job I’ve ever had that demands my complete presence in the moment, it doesn’t offer much in the way of intellectual challenge.
While Malcolm wasn’t able to attend my bash, he wanted to. Other things more important, like moving into his new house, preoccupied him. Over the last years, Malcolm has been a good friend. We first met at Stowers Institute for Medical Research. I had the habit of dining with my good friend Bill Neaves, then director of the institute, once every three or four weeks. On one of those visits, Bill was seeing me out of the building. We met a friendly man on the elevator. Like with many pleasant, short, conversations, I never thought I’d see that man again.
But Malcolm began showing up to poetry readings and other places where I was hanging out with writers. We struck up good discussions. I always enjoy knowing that I might be going someplace where I might meet up with Malcolm.
When time came, I felt the pull of another event, this one far from home. My good friend Jeff Gardner had invited me out to his sister’s house in Spring Hill, Kansas. I drove with some trepidation. I looked forward to seeing Jeff, who I have known since I was 17 when I worked at Boy Scout camp as Nature Merit Badge Counselor.
Jeff and I made good companions and spent several years goofing off in the Kansas City suburbs where we lived. Friday or Saturday nights would generally find us someplace with beer, cigarettes, and burning desires to find out what life held for us. Since those times, the end of our teens and early 20s, life has woven us together between years, even decades, of not seeing each other. We have a complex history, him going his way and me mine, hooking back up again to pick up the conversation where we left it so many years before.
I arrived at my destination. Jeff’s brother-in-law Mark met me. A wiry man with a strong handshake, he greeted me at the car and led me into the party. I spent most of my time with Jeff, talking of where we’ve been and where we found ourselves today. Nearly everyone he introduced me to had some form American-flag gear on—t-shirts, shorts, shoes, hats, and so on.
It wasn’t a place to discuss politics, not in today’s touchy world where just the utterance of a word or phrase would put me on the other side of an impenetrable wall that serves no other purpose than to divide and alienate. Besides, after the discussion at Malcolm’s, I’d had a good pull off the political bottle and was good for the time being.
Being with Jeff made me comfortable in world that was familiar to me but that I’d mostly left behind when I flew my house at the age of 20. I reveled in Jeff’s handshake. I felt in many ways that I had come home and that I belonged exactly in that place at exactly at that time. The nervousness of being around strangers left me. I eased into easy conversation with Jeff and, slowly, with the sisters of his I had not seen in almost 40 years.
As the sun was setting and time came for fireworks, of which Jeff and his family had, literally, truckloads, it came time for me to leave. Mark regretted my departure. But I told him quite frankly that fireworks had landed me in the hospital and in very traumatic family situations before and that I was more of a spectator from afar than a participant. I left Jeff with some regret, as I know that we will not see each other for a while longer.
The long drive into town was a time a contemplation and reflection. Who were these people to me? How did I get so lucky to have such friends as Malcolm and Jeff? What kind of person does it take to negotiate these disparate worlds? What does this say about me? I’m imperfect, flawed, impure—despite me greatest effort. These people must be great giants of sympathy and love to be friendly to me.
I was glad to drive into the low, sulfurous fog that forms over Kansas City on the Fourth of July. When I climbed out of the car at Ken Larson’s house, I entered another of my universes. Friends I’ve known for over 25 years were gathered at the end of the driveway watching my son Nick and his friends light off fireworks. I thought of how paltry—and safe—their activities looked compared to the conflagration I missed seeing at Jeff’s family’s gathering.
The evening ended for me sitting on the stone wall in front of Ken’s house, discussing rights, liberties, and responsibilities. We talked with increasing energy about the Constitution, the meaning of “All Men are created equal,” and, in between, stories about the great outdoors and our childhood encounters with nature.
When I left, I was tired and psychically whiplashed. It was nearly 11 and way past my bedtime. As I fell asleep, my heart pounded with the thoughts of the great blessings I have in friends, in rights, and in the ability to navigate the intricacies of liberties. I thought that we may lose them—we are very close to just that, and it made me irreparably angry. But for the moment, my love of being an American, a member of a contentious, argumentative, short-sighted and acquisitive club that may well extinguish itself overcame my fears, my flaws, my selfishnesses.
My feverish head would not let me sleep for a long, long time. And I didn’t mind.