I was 19 when I celebrated my first Fourth of July, in the back yard of a row house. It was, I later learned, a quintessential Washington summer evening: muggy, with a thunderstorm threatening to break loose any moment. My suit, which I had thought was lightweight, felt like a wet bundle of itchy towels. I figured that a national holiday was my best chance to turn the tables on people who had been asking me "How do you like America?" I was determined to ask questions about the meaning of being American.
The tiny back yard was packed with humanity dressed in the casual uniform of 1957: Bermuda shorts of bleeding Madras and polo shirts of shocking pink and canary yellow. Everyone had a beer can in hand and insisted on cracking jokes. People spoke and laughed louder than usual. They consumed huge quantities of hamburgers and frankfurters roasted on a grill, downing their non-taste in ketchup and mustard, sometimes both. As far as one could see, wisps of charcoal smoke rose from every back yard.
Children seemed to be everywhere. I was puzzled when a teen-ager boasted that the firecrackers being set off were illegal. Then somebody kindly explained to me the difference between a rocket and a racket, and why this case qualified as "a rocket racket." I was pleased that at the very least I was learning English.
I had been in the United States for less than seven months, but the party was still a shocker. A national day in Hungary, anywhere in the Old World, is as solemn as a state funeral and as starched as the prime minister's shirt collar. The event is a commemoration rather than a celebration--an occasion for speeches extolling the sacrifices of ancestors. The present always comes off as unworthy, an imperfect copy of the splendor that was.
The country I had to leave is now a memory. The revolution I took part in--its brief spell of glory and its heart-rending finale--now seem as distant as childhood.
I have learned that the Glorious Fourth is an American original: a time out, a break in the action, the slowest of slow-pitch softball games. My family celebrates it with a barbecue. Perhaps my wife puts more spices in the hamburgers than our neighbors do, but hamburgers they are, as American as our T-shirts and blue jeans.