Notes on Flagstaff: an Eyewitness at Bird Camp

On my third morning in Flagstaff, a Friday, we eat breakfast across the tracks at Biff’s Bagels (named for somebody’s dead dog and now a repository of memorial photos of everyone else’s dead dog) then split up: I head back to the hotel to pack while A. drives one of the camp Suburbans to a tire place to get a tire patched, a frequent necessity for camp vehicles given the rough roads on which they are operated. I finish packing and take her laptop down to the coffee shop on the ground floor to take care of some work emails and otherwise embrace the grid one last time before heading into the woods. While I wait, a man in a bushy beard and a cowboy hat and a shirt with mother-of-pearl snaps walks up to the counter and, in response to the counter girl’s question as to whether he’d like a menu, says he’d like a double shot of Jack with a glass of water on the side. It is 8 a.m.

“This is what you look like the day after your anniversary,” he says, adjusting his sunglasses.

When A. finally arrives, the man, who is “down from the rez” for a visit to town, is buying breakfasts for the fourth set of customers who have walked in since he did.

“I bought everything last night,” he says. At least he is only sipping the whisky. “I might as well keep going.”

I wish him a happy anniversary and we hit the road.

Bird Camp takes a three-night break every week and a half or so, with campers needing to be back and ready for work bright and early (in the field by 5 a.m., remember) the morning after the third night. In effect, this means that the last night of break can really only be spent in camp; most of the campers come back to camp in time for dinner, but some might have a reason to trail in very late that night. We are headed back early, trying to get to camp by early afternoon, because A. needs to make rounds on some nests that are due for monitoring visits that day. Riding with us is a Taiwanese UM grad student and a friend of hers from back home, also a biologist, who will be visiting the camp for a week or so. (She is a Virginia Tech student.)

Before leaving town we stop at a grocery store. (Each camper is responsible for his or her own food and other supplies, plus A. needs supplies for the BBQ she is throwing because her predecessor will be visiting the camp with her husband that evening.) The Taiwanese students are keenly aware that a container of ice cream they had purchased in town will not last the drive, much less survive at camp, so they eat it with a set of metal chopsticks as they shop.

As the Suburban makes its lumbering way out of town, the trappings of civilization fall away very quickly. Soon we are on a curving, two-lane blacktop through tree-covered hills. We pass a geographical feature known as Mormon Lake that currently has no actual water in it; it’s been a very dry season so far, though the area around Bird Camp got a lot of snow last winter.

After about an hour we reach Happy Jack: a gravel parking lot serving a gas station, general store and cafe. I fill up the Suburban while A. gets the camp’s mail. The two Taiwanese duck into the general store, surprised that I am not joining them.

“Are you sure?” asks one. “Last chance for ice cream.”

At this point, we are only halfway there, in terms of time on the road: we leave the highway at the ranger station (we stop and A. picks up the two eBay video cameras she’d ordered, which had to be sent to a street address instead of the P.O. boxes in Happy Jack) and commence the final leg, about an hour on narrow gravel roads up and down steep grades through the Coconino National Forest. The roads vary greatly in quality along the route. Often they are in good shape, but occasionally they have developed those latitudinal ridges that gravel roads sometimes get; when we encounter these on a downgrade, the Suburban has the disquieting tendency to swim back and forth across the road unless driven at barely noticeable speeds. In fact, other than its general sturdiness (I’m assuming) and high passenger/equipment capacity, there seems little to recommend this particular model of SUV for this purpose. (It’s not even four-wheel drive, although to be fair it’s not like they really need to drive off-road or deal with snow or much mud.)

Finally we pull into the camp. The first view is of the few personal vehicles that some of the campers keep at camp, parked next to the four chemical toilets that the visiting Taiwanese student refers to as “porta-pities,” which seems apt. Under a tree in this parking area lie a pile of ladders, poles, traps and other equipment. From the parking area, the tiny gravel track continues toward the center of the camp, still fifty yards distant. Off in the trees I can see some of the campers’ personal tents, which are scattered in all directions on the outskirts of camp, according to the idiosyncratic privacy desires and other considerations of each camper.

The heart of the camp consists of a row of three military campaign-style utility tents, floorless, house-shaped, in white canvas. The largest is the cook tent and the other two are used to store cameras, records and other necessities. There is a late model, smallish camper trailer to one side, where the Bird Camp Professor stays when he visits and which is otherwise available as a spot for sheltered computer use and for its refrigerator. (These people eat a lot of cheese.) The wisdom of using the computers inside the camper – in addition to comfort – is clear after only a few minutes in camp. With the dry weather, a fine red dust rises from the soil and covers everything. The white canvas tents are dingy with it.

A. confers with Kara, who is also back at camp, about which nests need a visit, flipping through the pink cards on which each nest’s location is recorded and where visits are logged. Then they get their equipment together: various small instrument cases, backpacks, notebooks, a narrow ten-foot ladder.

I am already sneezing. I seem to be allergic to every place A. does field work.

On the even rougher gravel roads around Bird Camp, the Suburban is deafening to ride in. The windows are open for what little comfort the hot breeze brings, so we hear the tires crunching and popping over every rock. The vehicle jounces up and down over hard ridges and through washed-out gullies, suspension and seat springs squeaking, the dashboard rattling. The aluminum ladder, lying across the seat backs, is its own symphony of clatters.

We need to visit three nests: one to install an egg probe, one to change out the data logger at an already probed nest, and one to measure some nestlings that have recently hatched.

The first nest is accessible from a road, so we park and A. and Kara pile their instrument cases on the ground. This nest is in a snag, or the trunk of a snapped-off tree about eight feet tall. A. walks to the nest; the mother waits until the last second, then takes off, flying low to the ground, hoping we’ll follow her, whoever we are, whatever it is we want. A. stands on tiptoe to lift a tiny, rust-specked egg out of the nest, which is built into the exposed hollow at the center of the tree. The egg is about the size of an almond M&M; the number “3” is written on the side in blue ink.

This egg is doomed; the process it’s about to undergo will kill it, but the plan is to hook up a probe to it that will allow the Bird Campers to monitor the temperature of the nest as the mother continues to incubate her other eggs. This is a difficult thing to pull off, since – while mother birds don’t mind their eggs being handled, it seems – they will reject eggs if they detect the probe, and they often do. But the often frustrating effort is worth it for the fascinating temperature data that are collected. For example, eggs must be kept above a certain temperature to develop; below that temperature, they just don’t grow and will eventually die. This temperature is easily maintained when the mother is sitting on the eggs, of course, but what about when she leaves for food? The probe data, which – when downloaded from the logging devices – is visible on a computer screen as a jagged line graph of steep peaks and valleys, show that the birds are somehow able – and somehow “know” – to increase the temperature of the eggs just before leaving, just to give themselves a little more time before they must return.

The first step is to collect a yolk sample; this isn’t necessary to the probing but might as well happen since the egg will die anyway. A. inserts a tiny, needle-shaped nozzle into the egg. The nozzle is connected to a tiny pieces of tubing on the end which is in turn attached to a syringe, where the syringe’s needle would usually be. Drawing up the syringe’s plunger, A. is pleased by the result.

“I got yolk on the first try!”

I can tell from Kara’s reaction that this is not usually so easy.

Now it’s time for the probe. A. takes out about three feet of skinny wire with black insulation. The wire terminates in two bare metal wires that come together in a little tear-drop tip, about the size of a glob of ink from a dying ballpoint. The two bare leads remind me of the filament in a light bulb. She inserts the little tear drop into the hole she made for the yolk sample, and then she and Kara work on sealing the hole as smoothly as possible with super glue and a spray accelerant that speeds the glue’s drying. A little clumpy, one of them says, but it will do. A. writes a code on the data logger, a small black plastic object the approximate size and shape of a pack of cigarettes cut in half. Holding the egg, the probe wire trailing, a roll of camouflaged duct tape around her bicep, A. walks over the nest, followed by Kara with the logger and a large ziploc bag. Now the other two eggs come out of the nest as well so that this one can be placed in the middle and the wire hidden as well as possible. After arranging the eggs and leading the wire out of the back of the nest, A. tapes the wire to the tree trunk and plugs it into the data logger, which she places in the ziploc and wedges into the space behind some peeling bark. More tape. She studies her handiwork. Nothing obvious, no strange human-related objects immediately in view. This should do the trick.

For the next nest we drive again and then pile out of the vehicle for a quarter-mile walk through the woods. If A. and Kara haven’t been to a particular nest before, they must get out an orienteering compass and follow someone else’s written directions on the pink card for that nest: start at station A, walk 30 yards at 070 degrees to a jagged stump, walk 90 yards at 180 degrees to two aspens growing in a V, etc. It’s like looking for pirate’s treasure. At this nest, which is built in a low tree at about thigh height, A. only needs to change out the logger hooked up to an already probed egg. After doing so, A. walks to two or three other low trees in the immediate area and makes the same motions, pretending to examine non-existent nests. This is to confuse any of the smarter nest predators – namely jays – who might be watching; incredibly, they are known to use human scientists to lead them to their lunches.

As we walk back up to the car, from the wetter region at the bottom of the little valley or drainage to the drier ridge, we pass from deciduous forest back into pines, the air dappled with late afternoon sunlight and shimmering with dust and pollen. As we drive, the wind kicks up little dust devils from the red dirt in front of us. I’m blowing my nose about every minute or so, and my lips are already severely chapped from the dry air.

The last nest of the day is also a quarter mile or so from the road. Unlike the other two, this one is built high in a tree, about fifteen feet off the ground. Also unlike the other two nests, this one is guarded by a kind of a bird – a Steller’s Jay – that is known to be a little less passive when humans come knocking. Kara warns that it might fly at our faces, which has me wishing for ski goggles, but A. isn’t concerned. Kara and I prop the forestry ladder against the tree and hold it while A. worms up through the branches to lift out two of the three nestlings (never leave an empty nest, in case the mother returns and decides to abandon the nest because, she “thinks,” all of the eggs/nestlings have been eaten) before climbing down again. We retreat to the instrument cases piled about twenty yards away from the tree. Against prediction, the Steller’s Jay never once attacks.

Eggs are easy: you just weigh them. With nestlings, you must measure various parts of their wings, which means holding them firmly and grabbing the wings and unfolding them. The little creatures are startlingly ugly and pathetic; no feathers yet, although you can see where ridges of something featherlike are growing in; their skin so thin it is almost transparent. They seem too vulnerable to be exposed to the outside air, like little gallbladders with wings. After the measurements are taken, they are stuffed head first into a film canister for weighing; the film canister holds them still and keeps them on the scale. Periodically, some reflex triggers their feeding instinct and their massive mouths pop open.

A. returns the first two, retrieves the third, and completes the round of measurements. We return to camp, where more campers are trickling back from break. There is paperwork to complete, the next day’s routes and procedures to plan, and then it is time for the BBQ.

The next morning, I do not join A. when the alarm goes off at 3:45. She dresses with her headlamp on and brushes her teeth at the tent door before kissing me goodbye. I drift in and out of sleep while the camp wakes up around me. Pots and pans clank in the cook tent, vehicle doors slam, equipment clanks. When campers walk past the tent, their headlamps project the grasses and trees against the side of the tent like a shadow-puppet show. The birds’ dawn symphony is warming up, not exactly loud, but dozens of different patterns melding together from all sides. Something howls: is it a coyote or just the dog visiting camp with A.’s predecessor?

I pass the morning wandering the meadow next to the camp, my only company the flies and whatever left the large piles of poop I must keep half an eye out for. But it’s beautiful: grassland along a meandering creek, bordered by pines. Other than Bird Camp, the closest permanent human structures are seventeen miles away, at the ranger station. Back at the camp, I read and chat with two of the grad students who are working in camp today. One is transferring notes from one notebook to another; the other is making “dummy eggs” for some purpose from plaster of paris. Eventually they head out and at 10 a.m. the camp is empty, the only sounds occasional bird chirps and the wind, starting as a light whistling in the treetops before gusting louder and louder, kicking up the red dust as it whooshes through. The dust coats the haphazardly arranged plastic patio chairs, the picnic table, the six red gas cans in the shade of a tree, the seven trash cans clustered around another tree. The dishwashing station, well off from the cook tent, six blue jerry cans for water, bottles of soap, buckets. The utility tents’ doors flap with a sound like sails in the wind. And far off in the tall grass, a soccer ball sits forgotten.


Saturday evening we will return to a motel in Flagstaff for the last night of my visit, since my shuttle to Phoenix leaves at 7:30 Sunday morning. But first I accompany A. out on afternoon rounds, similar to those we made on Friday. We visit the first nest again, the one she probed, to change out the data logger. But the probed egg is gone, its innards smeared across the other two eggs. At first, A. can’t even find the logger but eventually locates it in the tall grass about six feet from the tree snag. It has been ripped from the tree and the black probe wire chewed neatly through, as if clipped by wire cutters. Back at camp, on the computer, the logger is shown to have been collecting normal nestlike temperatures until six a.m., which is when the probe seems to have been detected and destroyed. The mother might have been trying to rotate and rearrange the eggs, one of the grad students says. I ask if he’s ever seen a wire chewed straight through like that.

“They get pretty upset sometimes,” he says.

Report on Flagstaff: Some Notes on the Town

The Monte Vista Hotel opened in 1927 and trades on its retro image. There is an old-fashioned front desk with mail cubbyholes in the wall behind it. The decor is dark wood; the bar has a black and red color scheme. On the front desk, a brass plaque advertises “Ear plugs available upon request.” (Perhaps because, as I’ll later hear a local claim, 83 trains pass through Flagstaff on an average day.) In the elevator, a brass plaque asks “Please be kind to our ancient elevator.” The brochure A. sent me mentions that “several dozen rooms are named after our celebrated guests: Carol Lombard, Humphrey Bogart, Bob Hope, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracey, Zane Grey, Jane Russell, Bing Crosby and more.” Indeed, as we walk down the hall toward our third-floor room, we pass the Jane Russell room and the Alan Ladd room. So my head just isn’t in the right era when we come to our room, read the name beneath the black and white framed photo on the door, and try to place the name “Robert Englund.” It comes to me before we open the door, but, if it hadn’t, the framed picture of Freddy Krueger next to the mirror would have tipped us off. It’s autographed by “Freddy” and is annotated: “Suite Dreams — Ha, Ha!”

It’s not a suite, though, just a small room with a bed, dresser and sink, and the shower and toilet in a little closet-like space. Adequate to our purposes. There is no bedside table, which will be significant a few nights into our stay. By then, I’ll be in the habit of hanging my metal-framed glasses from the floor lamp next to the bed, by hooking one temple over the lampshade. This works just fine when turning in for the night, but on one occasion I do this while resting my eyes during the an “Office” marathon we’re watching on TV. (Probably I did this during the many previews of the apparently execrable movie “Evan Almighty,” also starring Steve Carrell, that they are playing at the commercial breaks.) The light is on. Fifteen minutes later, I scoop the glasses up and pop them onto my face too quickly to notice that the metal temple has been superheated by its proximity to the light bulb. All at the same time, I hear the sound of my sizzling flesh, feel the pain and find that I am yelling with pain and surprise.

Our room could have a cooler namesake, but it could also have a worse one. On our way out for dinner at Karma Sushi Tapas, on Route 66, I notice a Bon Jovi room next to the elevator.

The next morning we walk across the tracks to the laundromat and start a load of A.’s clothes before ordering breakfast next door in Macy’s, one of these places where you order food at the counter and some hairy young person eventually walks out into the middle of the dining room with your meal and yells your name. Mismatched, scarred wood furniture, a general atmosphere of virtuous reducing, reusing and making do. Ahead of us in line, a Frenchman apologizes for his English. “Don’t apologize,” the clerk instructs him. All of the Bird Campers are in town and we run into various of them everywhere we go; at breakfast, A.’s colleague Kara joins us. They eat granola, I eat a “steamed egg” sandwich (which is much better than it sounds). While A. and Kara talk birds and camp, I flip through a copy of Us magazine I’ve stolen from the laundromat. I had thought I wanted to see the “scandalous pictures” of Lindsay Lohan holding a knife to Vanessa Williams’s neck, pictures which the headline claims are “testing [Williams’s husband’s] love”], but I find myself transfixed by an ad for the Canon Powershot digital camera featuring Maria Sharapova, and not for the reasons you might expect: the camera ad features about a dozen photographs, but they are all pictures of Sharapova taking pictures, with no suggestion that the photos are supposed to represent what the camera is actually capable of. You should want this camera, in other words, so that you will look like Maria Sharapova when you are using it?

While we eat, a heavyset woman stirs coffee beans in the massive roaster that dominates the dining room. Her iPod and the coffee roaster are the same shade of red. On the way back to our side of the tracks, we are stopped by a train, an immensely long row of doubledecker cargo containers full of all the stuff China makes for us.

Flagstaff is such a small town that, when I visited last year, I drove through it thinking it was its own suburbs. There is a tiny downtown “grid” before the town peters out into suburban sprawl and strip malls. But the downtown has an appealing, defiant feel to it, remnants of the old west, no building taller than four or five stories. There are interesting restaurants and small boutiques where one can pay a lot of money for clothes to go for a hike in, and other stores with signs advertising “Crystal Sale” and “Sustainable Fashions.” The side streets feel sleepy and of another time, the local motels advertised by billboards on steel Eiffel Tower-like structures towering fifty feet above the sidewalk, a clear sign of the absence of zoning laws, like they were thrown up during a plutonium rush in the 1960s. One block over from the tracks is a street of old-fashioned motor-court-style motels, overgrown with unplanned foliage and obviously offering weekly and monthly rates.


July 1st. Officially my last full month in Baltimore has begun, and, since A. now arrives back here on August 1st, my last full month alone. It’s a good feeling and a daunting one at the same time, since – to repeat it for the thousandth time – there is so much to get done before then. The little household tasks aren’t such a big deal; they’ll take time, but I know I can get them done, and it looks like I’ll have some help. The biggest load off of my mind would be if I knew we had a house in Missoula lined up, but I just keep telling myself there are 30 days left in which to find one; it’ll get done. It does look like we’ll have to lie about Zuzu, though, as it seems that pretty much no Missoula landlords allow pets. Well, this is what they get, and let that be a lesson to you, if you’re in a similar position: if your ad says “pets on approval,” then your tenant will tell you he or she has a pet, and you can make a determination based on what kind it is, etc. But if you just say “no pets,” well, you need to realize that lots of people have pets, and they’re not going to just drown them so that they can rent a house from you. So then they lie, and now look what a fine start you’re off to. . .

My brother and I departed West Virginia around noon, after brunch (and after setting my father up on Skype, a VOIP phone service that supports video as well as voice, so that he could see the video phone effect he’s dreamed of – he claims – since before it appeared in Dick Tracy comics, i.e., before the dawn of the modern age). It’s a beautiful drive, although more beautiful on the way to West Virginia, the direction in which the ugliness dissolves layer by layer like peeling an onion. Being a weekend close to Independence Day, there were an inordinate number of classic cars on the road, not to mention motorcycles. One thing that struck me was the relatively high number of three-wheeled motorcycles (or motorized tricycles, as I look forward to referring to one some day in the presence of its owner); my impression is that these were once a relative novelty, but perhaps they have gone into higher production. Maybe they’re the “safe” motorcycle that more and more novices are starting out on or that are being purchased by Milquetoasts who want to ride along with their friends.

We were home by five. My brother went swimming with friends at Pretty Boy Reservoir (he’s obsessed with swimming in “natural” bodies of water) and I went grocery shopping before planning some freelance work, packing three boxes (that’s my new, doable daily goal), and otherwise puttering around. Busy busy busy keeps the black dog at bay.

P.S. I learned over the weekend that the tenants have finally signed the lease. Now I is a landlord, I guess.


Dateline: In West Virginia, at my parents’ house.

My mother finally retired about a week ago, which meant the end of the almost year-long situation in which she spent the weeks in Silver Spring and the weekends in Elkins, making an approximately 300-mile drive most Fridays and most Sundays, with some variations. Once the Silver Spring house finally sold, she was staying in the basement of her friends’ house in Silver Spring – a nice basement, no doubt, and a nicer living situation than in a house “staged” by real-estate agents for selling, but a basement and what felt like an imposition, nonetheless. Now she’s finally, totally a West Virginia resident but still hasn’t gotten used to it. In fact, she’s just been recuperating the last week, finding her balance, acclimating first to retirement and second to being in one place and finally getting to just stand still.

My brother and I arrived on Friday in the afternoon. Given my upcoming move to Montana, this is probably the last time I’ll visit Elkins for a while. It was nice to partake in the regular daily rhythms of a functioning household that isn’t in the process of being put into boxes: walking the dogs, eating a leisurely dinner, watching a movie. (Robert Altman’s California Split, which I’m not going to have time to say much about here but which is really worth seeing: 1970s film about two men who let the temptation of the gaming tables loom a little large in their lives, but really it’s about life expectations and hope and the lies we tell ourselves, and I enjoyed the hell out of the meaty, real-feeling portrayal of human characters, not to mention the scene where Charlie is fighting the tall mustached guy in the racetrack men’s room and they crash into a stall that is already in use and the guy sitting on the toilet can’t think of anything to say except “Get the hell out of here!”)

I was up early on Saturday and took Hannah, the German Shepherd, for a run. This was something she used to enjoy back when she first joined the family, but I have to remind myself that that was almost eight years ago, which makes her a senior citizen now. I took it slow and tried to engineer things so that she was running on grass as much as possible, but, by the end, she was dragging behind me and even seemed to be forcing stops more and more often, ostensibly to pee, except nothing really seemed to be coming out, leading me to wonder just who was really in charge in here. I took a zigzagging route through the residential streets near my parents’ house. Mostly these streets were sleepy, just a few early-risers out and about, except down in the city park where dozens of classic cars were being directed into position as part of the Independence Day festivities that the county would be observing this weekend. I had the thought that, in Germany, or maybe just in the novels of Ursula Hegi, there is a superstition that celebrating one’s birthday early is a mistake, a jinx along the lines of counting one’s eggs, etc. Given how many localities in the country have probably been doing this for a while now, maybe this is why the nation seems vaguely cursed these days.

After a breakfast of poached eggs and waffles, we piled into the Element and drove to Blackwater Falls State Park, where we once skied as a family about two decades ago. As I recall, it was a warm spring weekend when some skiers were wearing shorts (and got bloody knees as a result), and the lodge was nearly empty of guests, it being so late in the season. I guess the state parks must have had a policy of hiring the handicapped to maintain its facilities at the time, because nearly staff member was either retarded or in some other way (oh, what polite, careful way is there of saying something like “deficient”?).

This time we just took some short hikes, first to the falls (this “hike” took us down wooden steps the whole way) and then through the woods at the edge of Pendleton Lake, which was really more of a large pond than a lake. At overlooks and other suitably photogenic places, I was struck as always by the amount of photographing going on. At the falls, as we approached on the wooden walkway, a twentysomething man and woman were there ahead of us. She was struggling, making some sort of adjustment to her camera, while he snapped away. After a while he walked back to where she was still fiddling and I heard him say, “never mind, I got it.” Fifty feet below the platform where we stood, a stuffed yellow Pokemon doll lay spreadeagled, face down on the rocks.

We drove home through the town of Thomas and stopped for lunch at the Purple Fiddle, another of these casual, sprawling places that don’t quite have table service and where the vegetarians aren’t disappointed. Massive carved bears hefting mugs of something or other stand watch over the outdoor seating area, while the walls inside are covered by quilts, Bluegrass posters, built-in shelves brimming with board games and coffee-table books, and, yes, a purple-painted fiddle or two or three. As we made the drive back to Elkins, the wind turbines on a far hillside loomed into view, out of scale and alien, like the tripods in War of the Worlds.

Back at the house, there was a point in the afternoon when everyone was sitting around either reading or talking or dozing and I was about to suggest that we walk over to the park for a look at the classic cars, which I’d been assuming all day that we would do. My next thought was wait, why would we want to do that? And so I kept my mouth shut and we just kept reading and talking and dozing.

We ate dinner on the river at a restaurant with a deck and a train car (we on the deck), to a folk/string/”old time” music band’s serenade. Then it was just a matter of killing time until the fireworks display scheduled for the evening, about twenty feet over from my parents’ house, on the campus of Davis and Elkins College. As we whiled away the hours, we could hear the amplified echoes of the talent contest we were trying to avoid, a talent contest consisting entirely of would-be country singers. We thought the fireworks were scheduled for nine p.m., although this turned out to be a mistaken impression. We arrived and spread our blanket (my brother pointed out that we seemed to be some of the only people not sitting on these luxurious folding camp armchairs everyone has now; well, my dad had one, but the rest of just stretched out on the blanket, and it was true that there didn’t seem to be many others doing so) on the fringes of the crowd at about 8:45 and then sat through nearly two more hours of the talent contest before the fireworks started at ten thirty. (Is it really talent if everyone has some?)

It was an interesting but eventually not particularly enjoyable spectacle, although I’m always fascinated to see How People Live and all that. The event was hosted by some local country-music-station DJs and sponsored by various local businesses (who definitely got their money’s worth, as the DJs listed their names almost as often as they said any other words in the English language) and Colgate toothpaste, leading to the bizarre spectacle of a toothpaste giveaway to children in the crowd at one point that just went on and on. It was strange to hear the DJ refer to the standard jokes that are made about West Virginian dental hygiene as the giveaway progressed, although I’m not sure if his point (that these allegations were being disproved by the toothpaste enthusiasm in the crowd) was underlined or -mined by the surging river of children who came running down the hill toward the stage to receive their toothpaste: if they had some at home already, would they have been quite so excited? But I guess it’s always exciting to get Something for Nothing, and maybe these children’s enthusiasm spoke more to their awareness that they live in households where dollars must be stretched.

Notes on commerce: there wasn’t much, and that surprised me for some reason, although it was a relatively small event, with a crowd of no more than a thousand. All you could buy were root beer floats, various sodas/lemonades, etc., hot dogs, popcorn, and snowballs. There was no beer truck, but the house was only twenty feet away, so were adequately supplied.

The fireworks themselves were a modest display, nothing to be ashamed of but not quite as overwhelming and coordinated as those I’ve gotten used to in the Inner Harbor. While the rockets glared redly, etc., the DJs played a soundtrack of the pop-country songs that must probably at this point be considered “standards” at events like this one. The first one was the Brooks and Dunn number “Only in America,” a blandly inoffensive paean to this country’s alleged equal opportunity (although studies now show it’s not so equal after all):

Only in America
Where we dream in red, white and blue
Only in America
Where we dream as big as we want to
We all get a chance
Everybody gets to dance
Only in America

(As a side note, I wonder if Brooks and Dunn intended the distinctly Buddhist “let go of desire and ambition” sentiment at which the song gestures at one point: “They just might go back to Oklahoma/And talk about the stars they could have been.” No, I guess probably not.)

And at this point, it wouldn’t be the 4th of July without “God Bless the USA,” which was followed by a sort of electronic/muzak version of “God Bless America,” sung by a singer who didn’t sound like she quite meant it. All well and good, but frankly the evening ended on a sour note with a song that I hadn’t even known existed but which seems to me to Explain A Lot. I’m just going to reprint the lyrics below, without comment, except to wonder (1) just how many people’s worldviews are shaped by this sort of thing and (2) why all copies haven’t been retracted by the artist and burned at this late date in the 21st century. (I mean, I don’t need to actually point out that he gets it all entirely wrong, right?) It’s by Darryl Worley, if you want to run out and buy a copy.

I hear people saying we don’t need this war
I say there’s some things worth fighting for
What about our freedom and this piece of ground?
We didn’t get to keep ’em by backing down
They say we don’t realize the mess we’re getting in
Before you start preaching
Let me ask you this my friend

Have you forgotten how it felt that day
To see your homeland under fire
And her people blown away?
Have you forgotten when those towers fell?
We had neighbors still inside
Going through a living hell
And you say we shouldn’t worry ’bout Bin Laden
Have you forgotten?

They took all the footage off my T.V.
Said it’s too disturbing for you and me
It’ll just breed anger that’s what the experts say
If it was up to me I’d show it every day
Some say this country’s just out looking for a fight
After 9/11 man I’d have to say that’s right

[repeat CHORUS 1]

I’ve been there with the soldiers
Who’ve gone away to war
And you can bet that they remember
Just what they’re fighting for

Have you forgotten all the people killed?
Yes, some went down like heroes in that Pennsylvania field
Have you forgotten about our Pentagon?
All the loved ones that we lost
And those left to carry on
Don’t you tell me not to worry ’bout Bin Laden
Have you forgotten?

Have you forgotten?
Have you forgotten?

Thankfully, the crescendo of fireworks explosions at the finale drowned out the final stanza or two of this song, but it had done its damage to my mood. Up until that point I had enjoyed the show and feeling of community, but now I felt sad and alone. As the last fireworks faded from our retinas, they played “The Star-spangled Banner” (a bloodless, “country” version, i.e., the singer drawled in a slight southern accent over music that might as well have been created by computer program and a drum machine), and everyone stood up, but mostly just to fold their chairs and blankets and start to leave. I was certainly in no mood to salute, not for some crappy muzakified version of the national anthem included in the same playlist as the song I reprinted above. I was struck by the fact that the crowd didn’t seem impressed either and was pretty much just filing out, not exactly the sort of anthem-related behavior that stereotype might lead one to expect in a small town in West Virginia. But at least no one was going to take our own lack of observance amiss, it appeared.

We folded our own blanket and trudged back to the house, in depressed and thoughtful silence.

But all in all it was good to be with family, not least after my mom broke out the Irish cream.