Not Necessarily the Fourth of July


My Everest
(a Writer's Digest prizewinner in 1997)

A celebrated portrait artist whom I would come to know in her old age arrived at Martinique in May 1902. She had been commissioned in Paris to do a portrait of the governor-general in Saint-Pierre which was at that time the capital city of the island and the cultural capital of the West Indies.
She proclaimed it an unforgettable adventure. "I was aboard a ship approaching the harbor at Saint-Pierre when the island's supposedly dormant volcano--Mount Pelée--simply blew into the sky. What a terrifying noise it made! I looked out of my cabin's porthole and saw what looked like a grotesque, gigantic fireworks display. An avalanche of hot gas and lava roared down on the city below. Every ship in the harbor except mine and one other was incinerated to the water line. I remember falling away from the porthole, my eyebrows singed off by the heat and my face burnt red by the blast. Our captain set course away from Martinique at once. Saint-Pierre was no more."
Her story fueled my curiosity about Martinique. I was already interested in visiting there to see Trois Îlets, the birthplace of Napoleon's first wife, Josephine. I finally managed to do so, arriving just before Quatorze Juillet (14th July), Bastille Day. Related to France as is Hawaii to the U.S.A., the island was in a fever with preparations for the celebration of what constitutes the French "Fourth of July"--a commemoration of the storming of the Bastille Prison in 1789, marking the beginning of the French Revolution. I reveled in being there at a time when Martinique paid homage to the events which ultimately brought Napoleon and his Josephine to power. The lady was a pet subject of mine. I had visited her home, Malmaison, a small château of great beauty outside Paris.
With my friend's eyewitness account impressed on my mind, I could hardly wait to see Saint-Pierre. I found it mostly in ruins. Its devastation had been so complete that the capital was moved south to Fort de France, a city only marginally cultural and of little interest to me. Saint-Pierre remained a ghostly place of blackened stone. There had been only one survivor, a man imprisoned at the bottom of a well because the jail was overcrowded.
Although ruined cities are no novelty in modern times, I could not walk through parts of Saint-Pierre without thinking of Pompeii. Like Mount Vesuvius, Mount Pelée had given several warnings unheeded by the general population, who had been engaged, as the French often are, in a frenzy of domestic politics considered more relevant than the rattling of china on a shelf. I came at last to the old church where several hundred had gathered to pray for salvation on what turned out to be the fatal day. In this very place they knelt before the parish priest, his arms lifted in supplication to heaven. What did they see, what did they feel, when a cloud of poison gas whooshed through the windows and literally took their breath away? Ash rained over the city. A river of lava streamed into the streets. The figures were never made clear, but various estimates put the death toll at thirty to fifty thousand in as little as thirty seconds, not much more than the twinkling of an eye.
How could the human mind find romance in such a tragedy as this? Yet there was no question Saint-Pierre had taken on some of the charisma of a place like Pompeii. Perhaps the element of natural disaster stopping a society in its tracks, as often related in earthquake and hurricane films, made the difference. I had been to Hiroshima. All I could do there was weep, even though the city had been rebuilt. Was that because its earlier destruction was self-inflicted by humankind, and not by what the law terms "an act of God"? Did "romance" derive from being caught in a situation which nothing human could remedy or prevent?
Thorny philosophical points were not my concern as I sat in the church among wildflowers and dank moss where the pews full of frightened people had been charred away. I fancied I could hear the surprised, agonized screams of those instantly severed from life.
Overwhelmed, I looked up through flowering vines and tropical growth nearly obscuring a gaping wound in the walls where a stained-glass window used to be. I glimpsed the slopes of the terrible mountain, and I despised it. In that moment, I decided to climb Mount Pelée. Why? Was it "I'll get you for what you have done," or was it "You did it to them, but you won't do it to me,"? The impulse was arrogant, but I took it to heart.
When I reported my intention to the concierge at the hotel that evening, she was aghast. "Sacre bleu, m'sieur, you are too young to throw your life away! Why would you go up to meet the devil? He lives there, you know. He will destroy you as he did Saint-Pierre! You must not do this! And think of the fer-de-lance!" She had me there. All I knew of the fer-de-lance was that it was a very scary snake in Central and South America. She related in a state of excitement that the highly venomous pit viper had been the scourge of the island until mongeese (some say mongooses) were imported from India to thin them out. The most popular local wagering sport comprised grisly matches between a dozen mongeese and an equal number of fer-de-lance ("iron lance") in the bottom of drained hotel swimming pools. The impact of the ferret-size dragon killers on the native snake population had been immense. It was believed that most of the dreaded serpents had fled to the upper reaches of Mount Pelée.
Not even that could dissuade me. I rudely brushed her admonitions aside, determined that nothing or no one would stand in my way. Whereupon, the kind lady called in a Catholic priest, but as a non-Catholic, I was not constituted to recognize his authority, either secular or spiritual. I was a bit brisk even with that amiable young man, who was little older than myself. His case against the climb was predicated on the ideas that everybody on the island believed Pelée to be dangerous if not devilish and, yes, doubtless there were a lot of snakes up there, and what did I expect to find anyway? He gave up on me after an hour, but left with the promise--to me, the threat--of saying a Mass for my safety. Unreasonably, the thought made me uncomfortable and a trifle angry. My egotism was operating at full throttle against these innocent attempts to bring me to my senses.
I took a taxi to Saint-Pierre early the next day, the morning of Bastille Day, bearing a knapsack filled by the concierge with edibles which would constitute, she was sure, my last meal on earth. The cab driver almost refused to drive me when I told him what I planned to do. He stopped twice on the road, got out and walked around the car talking to himself about it until he convinced himself to go on each time. He let me out near the ruins of the church and went inside as I turned up the path leading to Pelée. I heard him call to me. I turned back.
"There is a priest here, saying a Mass for you!" he shouted, and, sure enough, when I looked in, there was my priest with a small flock of the faithful among the fallen walls. His parishioners, looking genuinely frightened, made the sign of the cross at sight of me. Had I not been in such a stubborn frame of mind, I would have been touched by their concern. With a vague harrumph, I wheeled and strode away, behaving like an arrogant ass.
The climb was much easier than it looked, being no more than a good hike. I had brought pitons and a length of rope, but there were no cliffs to scale. I was surprised to find a few small coffee fields along the middle slopes. Apparently, not everyone on the island agreed with the priest and the concierge. I saw nary a snake, and trudged right to the top, reaching there in early afternoon. That's where I struck a pocket of fog that seemed to have settled in the crater. A few steps in, and I could scarcely see a thing. I had to test the ground in front of me with my walking stick to find the way ahead. I thought it wiser to turn around and go back the way I came.
As the fog thinned while I retraced my steps, I got the shock of my life when a shadowy figure approached on the run. I thought of the concierge's warning about the devil living on Pelée. THAT would have made a believer of me except it turned out to be the young priest.
"Father, what are you doing here?"
He slumped down on a boulder, breathing heavily.
"You are a guest on my island," he gasped, "I would never forgive myself if something terrible happened. I've been behind you at a distance all the way. I did not mean to disturb you, but when you disappeared in the fog, I feared the end had come!"
My arrogance and stubbornness melted away. "With all your fear of the mountain and the fer-de-lance, you followed me here and then braved the fog, hoping to rescue an impertinent cuss like me? I climbed to conquer Pelée. You came in a trial of faith. Father, I have met a true Christian today. "
I became very solicitous and engaged him in deep conversation on the way down. Halfway to Saint-Pierre, we sat on some rocks--after a thorough search for snakes--and shared a picnic of the concierge's food.
Over a baguette of fresh bread, homemade paté, a fine goat cheese and bottled water as sparkling as champagne, we entwined our minds in mutual discovery, and enjoyed a magnificent view. We could see banana plantations below, and the broad fields of sugarcane which would be processed into the distinctive Martinican rum so unlike any other.
It was just as we finished our meal that a single fer-de-lance slithered out of the weeds to the middle of the path that lay ahead. It lifted its head and glanced around before coiling under a rocky overhang and proceeding to take a nap. The priest and I looked at each other.
"Well, we know I was right in that," he said. "There is at least one snake on the mountain."
"No, Father, there are two," I declared. "I am the other one. I behaved venomously to you and the concierge last night, not to mention how evil I was to your congregation this morning. I beg your forgiveness. I have a stubborn streak I should try to expunge. It makes me behave badly sometimes. I wanted so much to win this battle today, to bring the devil mountain to its knees."
He patted my arm. "I accept that you are a human being. If I can deal with that, you can deal with the fact that you have just confessed to a Catholic priest! I've won my battle, too!"
We laughed and shook hands. At that moment, the fer-de-lance gave us a grumpy look, uncoiled, and, I swear it, yawned before it slithered off and left the way free for our descent..
Down in Saint-Pierre, two or three of the parishioners waited outside the church. When they saw us coming, they spread the word of our return. Several people joined us when the priest graciously offered up a Mass of thanksgiving. He explained to his congregation that Mount Pelée was no bugbear after all, but you could see they now exalted him as a hero for his exploit. I, the foreigner, was merely a curiosity.
We said goodbye. I returned to the hotel. The concierge was beside herself with joy that I came back alive. I apologized for my behavior, as I had to the priest. She set a place of honor for me among the other guests when we watched the fireworks of Fort de France from the terrace that evening. After the pyrotechnics, everyone toasted me in champagne as the conqueror of 4,430-foot Mount Pelée. Sir Edmund Hillary had nothing on me when he climbed 29,028-foot Mount Everest. It was just a little bit higher, that's all.

Fred and Rita

I was a guest in Trinidad and Tobago, a pair of islands off the coast of Venezuela. At that time, the islands had not yet broken away from England, but they would, and then they, as one nation, would have an Independence Day like ours. Still, this particular day combined the ingredients I liked to think of as a perfect Fourth: friends or family, a picnic, fireworks and firecrackers, of a sort.
My English host lived on a sugar plantation in Trinidad. That morning, he and his wife flew me in their pontoon plane to neighboring Tobago. Smaller than Trinidad, Tobago floated beneath us like a green leaf on an azure sea. My friends pointed out a shoal of white sand offshore. We landed on the water and taxied over to it.
Already clad in bathing trunks, I jumped out. My friends passed me fins and a mask. As they taxied over to the onshore beach, I waded awkwardly off the sandbar into the Caribbean. The water was so clear I could see every detail of a nearby reef. I dived for a better view and found myself in a roomful of rainbows as schools of tropical fish surrounded me. Swimming as close together as sardines in a tin, they formed walls that appeared solid until I broke through with a stroke or two and returned to the surface for air. Each time, the fish scattered, but regrouped around me when I dove again.
White sand glimmered beneath me on the ocean floor, marked only by a long shadow I presumed to be my own. The bodies of the fish no more than dappled the sand. No, wait, mine was over there, cast farther by the angle of the sun. I waved my hand. My shadow did, too. The other did not. Hmm...I was not alone. I couldn't see through the curtains of swarming fish. Had my host decided to join me after all? Whoa! I realized it wasn't the shadow of a fellow human being when I came face to face with "the man in the gray suit," an Australian euphemism for a shark.
Was he as surprised to see me as I was to see him? My flailing legs and flipper-clad feet, had they become cocktail picks for this hulking brute's "happy hour" at the sand "bar"? Unnerved, I reached for the top and made a dash for the shore. I imagined him snapping at my legs. I burst on to the beach as if shot from an underwater cannon. My feet hardly touched the surf. I landed upright on the sand like an Olympic gymnast scoring ten, but there was no mistaking the outburst of laughter from my friends, who were sitting safely in the shade.
Noting my ferocious scowl, my host called out, "We forgot to tell you about Old Fred, the Toothless Shark! Oh, if you could have seen your face when you flew out of the water like Tarzan without his vine, you'd laugh, too!"
"T'ain't funny, McGee!" in the words of Marian Jordan on radio's old Fibber McGee and Molly Show--at least until my host suggested poor Fred was probably shaking like a leaf at the bottom of the reef after his encounter with me.
He hung around scaring up free lunch among the schools, the tiny fish being about the only prey the ancient predator could handle in his dotage. It did seem, however, that his presence deterred other sharks from coming in. Unlike Rodney Dangerfield, he got respect.
Once recovered, I enjoyed sitting cross-legged with my friends on a velvety carpet of red blossoms that had fallen from the tall immortelle trees lining the beach. I was told we were waiting for a friend of theirs who was bringing a picnic lunch. I had not known that our trip to Tobago had actually been made to spend awhile with her. She had managed to fit us into her busy schedule.
A handsome Jaguar sedan pulled up on the nearby road about then. The driver jumped out carrying a hamper overflowing with good old-fashioned American picnic fare. I could see fried chicken and what looked like potato salad. He carried a watermelon in the other arm. I leapt to my feet and offered a hand at laying out a tablecloth on the sand with my host and the chauffeur. We emptied the basket and arranged everything for the feast. My host's wife entered the Jag to chat in air-conditioned comfort with her friend whom I could not see through the tinted windows..
When the picnic was set up, the ladies emerged from the car. Starved after my race for the shore, I was poised to eat a deviled egg until I got my first look at the new arrival. I gaped. My heart thumped. I remembered the question attributed to Prince Aly Khan when he first laid eyes on this same heavenly creature a few years before: "Who IS that beautiful redhead?" The answer given him was the name that came to me now: Rita Hayworth, the American movie star.
She walked like the fine dancer she was, with a swing. She was dressed for the tropics in a loose cotton gown short enough to reveal spaghetti sandals wrapped around her marvelous legs. Her ravishing smile, as we were introduced, was aimed directly at me. I must have looked like a country boy from Marrowbone, Kentucky--mouth agape, red in the face and flustered as hell, standing three-quarters naked in bathing trunks before one of the premiere female stars of the world. She took me right in stride. Seeing the deviled egg in my hand, she said, "Please, don't wait for me. Our commissary cook made those just before I left. He puts chopped olives in them. They're good."
Miss Hayworth turned out to be an acquaintance of my hosts from somewhere long ago. She was on the island making a film with Robert Mitchum and Jack Lemmon called "Fire Down Below," the title referring to explosions aboard an old freighter. The ship was to be blown up as part of the action that day.
We had our picnic seated on the sand. I recalled to Miss Hayworth that we had met before, at a wedding reception in the South of France, when I had been fully clothed. She was quite honest about not remembering me, but the Frenchman who had introduced us she extolled as a friend. It formed a sort of bond between us. She insisted that I sit beside her. What a good time we had with her for a couple of hours that afternoon! Charming and funny, she regaled us with anecdotes about the hard work even a star must endure when making a major Hollywood film on location in the tropics. When she told us somewhat sadly that she had to go, my host tried to tempt her with a flight over the ship to watch the fireworks (as it were), but she refused, citing insurance problems under the terms of her contract: no trips in light planes were allowed.
Her departure set off a flurry of butterfly kisses cheek to cheek in the manner of the French. Regally ensconced in the back seat of the Jag, she smiled warmly at me as the car revved up to drive away. Then, as the dark window rolled up to conceal her lovely face, she looked me directly in the eye, and damned if she didn't give me a wink! Snap, crackle, pop! It seemed like a string of firecrackers went off in my head. Happy Fourth of July!
Half an hour later, winging far above the ship used in "Fire Down Below"--turned by demolition experts into a display of pyrotechnics so magnificent and terrifying that the explosions buffeted our small aircraft like a minor hurricane--I was still so enthralled by the magic of Rita Hayworth that I really didn't need a plane to fly.
My hosts had promised a day I would never forget, which was already true, but they were about to ice the cake.
We returned to their sprawling home set in hundreds of acres of sugar cane in the final moments of daylight. Just as night drew its drapery across the sky, they led me to the screened veranda where we relaxed on rattan sofas and chairs. They directed my attention to the fields.
"We set them ablaze following every harvest," my host explained. "It burns off the undergrowth left behind and kills snakes and rodents that would otherwise infest the island. The ash will be recycled into the soil at fertilizing time. The new crop will spring up fast and free of any obstacles to its growth."
A thunder of crackling resounded from far away. I saw a fringe of flames snapping at the darkling horizon. The noise grew louder as the flames approached. Workers hosed down the roof to drench random cinders as they exploded in the fields and shot upward only to fall back again in clusters that looked like showers of asteroids. Black clouds billowed, ominously lit from within by orangish fingers of fire.
The house sat high on stilts above the ground to avoid flooding in the rainy season and pesky critters in the dry. We seemed to be floating, buffeted slightly by hot winds blowing across the lawn, the road and the canal that separated us from the inferno on the other side. There were moments when I gasped for breath, my lungs greedily sucking in the sparse units of oxygen left us by the all-consuming fire.
I was told to drink some of the cool water given me in a glass and to pour the rest over my head. That worked fine. I breathed more easily then.

Hold the Mustard

On a Fourth-of-July afternoon in San Francisco's Chinatown, a dragon with a hundred human feet snaked along fabled Grant Avenue, weaving past an Orange Julius kiosk where two friends and I were ordering a walkabout picnic comprised of the frothy orange drink and foot-long hotdogs with mustard. Behind the dragon trotted a group of Chinese boys setting off strings of firecrackers just close enough to shock the hotdog vendor into squirting the mustard all over me instead of the twelve-inch wieners.
So solly!
In the chill of night a few hours later, I brushed my runny nose with my sleeve while watching fireworks at Crissy Airfield in the Presidio. (That's why Napoleon ordered buttons sewed on the sleeves of all uniforms - so his soldiers wouldn't do that, Brock!) It still smelled of you-know-what.
How do you say 'hold the mustard, I wondered, in Chinese?

Big Cat's Feet

On another West Coast Fourth of July, I stood on the slopes of Mount Tamalpais outside San Francisco and gaped in awe as the Crissy Field fireworks ran a losing race against a blanket of fog not "creeping" in "on little cat's feet" as once described poetically by Carl Sandburg, but rolling in with the speed of a cheetah - the BIG cat which is the fastest land animal on earth.
The first few flares were in the clear, but the later ones popped through the fog spilling color over a snowscape of swirling mist to make it resemble the spun-sugar "cotton" candy sold by vendors at Fisherman's Wharf.

Liberty Under Fire

Aboard ship on a Fourth-of-July night in New York Harbor, I sat on the afterdeck with scores of immigrants from Europe, many of whom had become my friends on the crossing from Trieste and Naples. We waited hopefully for the dawn when their processing to enter the United States would begin.
We stuffed ourselves piggishly on hunks of dark bread, thick slabs of salami, rich cheeses, buttery poppyseed cakes, dried fruits and homemade wine - all declared contraband by the captain for importation into the New World.
In the midst of our savory feast on the last reminders of belovèd Old-Country kitchens and vats, unexpected fireworks commenced to explode over the Statue of Liberty in a cacophony of tugboat whistles and steamer stacks on every side.
With one breath, we all emitted a cry of wonder followed by utter silence from the crowd until an errant crewman darted from a gangway with a string of firecrackers already lit. He tossed them over our heads into the harbor below.
They sounded enough like gunshots to scare the adults half to death, but the kids struck out for the railing and hung over it like acrobats, shouting joyous cries of excitement at the towering skyline of New York in half-a-dozen languages and dialects all translating as the same thing: "Hello, America! You're going to hear from us one of these days!"

El Dieciséis de Septiembre

I remember an Independence Day in Mexico City. No, not the Fourth, but its Mexican equivalent, the Sixteenth of September, El Dieciséis de Septiembre, celebrating the day in 1810 when Father Hidalgo led his flock from a little church in the town of Dolores to initiate battle with the army of Spain. Still, this day incorporated all the ingredients of the recipe that made for a topnotch Fourth of July: picnic, firecrackers and fireworks.
I was visiting the Mexican capital with two friends, a mother and her daughter.
Driving around Mexico City, the largest city on earth, we seemed hopelessly trapped in an area of town unknown to me. It was nothing but a hodgepodge on the map. Voilá! An uncharted entrance to a brand new freeway!
The ladies, sweetly patient with my palm-sweaty driving through the wilds of Mexican traffic, breathed audible sighs of relief. Smooth sailing! Not another car in sight as we rose well above the level of the streets. The road surface was as smooth as a baby's tush. What luck! Too good to be true?
The daughter, a real-estate whiz in the ritzy communities down the Peninsula from San Francisco, was herself a driver used to peeling on and off California freeways like a jet fighter pilot. Our smooth sailing struck her as too tame for a town like that. She suggested I slow down.
"There's something strange ahead," she observed.
Strange, indeed! Smack-dab in the middle of the freeway, a young family was enjoying a sit-down picnic! I screeched to a halt. Mom, pop and two kids waved and gave us cheerful holiday smiles. I strolled past them on foot to a point not far beyond to find myself gazing down into an abyss! The freeway was new all right. The next overpass wasn't even built yet! When I got back to the car, shaking like a leaf at thought of the disaster just averted, I made a U-turn and returned to the hotel. My frazzled nerves needed a rest before the activities of the evening began.
While I enjoyed my siesta, the ladies found their way to the hotel's beauty salon where the mother encountered a cosmetologist from Madrid. A New Yorker from head to toe, whose striking good looks turned heads in the streets even then, in her middle seventies, she knew at once she'd found the man to do her hair.
When she floated in a cloud of chiffon down the grand staircase of the lobby that evening, I could not help but bow and address her in Castilian as if she were the noble madrileña the Spaniard has made her appear to be. Our little charade amused her daughter, who made her own entrance looking fabulously slim and sleek, tailored and chic, her brand of beauty being more contemporary than her mother's, as in the difference between disco and waltz.
As ever, the daughter seemed ingenuously unaware of the intensely admiring looks men cast her way, unlike her mother, who seldom failed to parry a flirtatious glance.
What a brace of females for a mutt like me! I felt very cock-of-the-walk escorting them to the National Theater of Mexico.
The stained-glass stage curtain was famous worldwide. Made decades before by Tiffany's in New York, it fascinatingly depicted the volcano-encircled Valley of Mexico - in the very middle of which we were then taking our seats.
When the curtain rose, we fell under the spell of lively music enhanced by the movements of Mexico's justly renowned Ballet Folklórico. Suddenly, in the middle of the sensuous, exhilarating "La Bamba" number - featuring lovely young women in the white lace of Veracruz and darkly handsome young men whirling around them dressed in white from their sombreros to their boots - the orchestra stopped playing. The dancers halted as well. A loudspeaker crackled with the Mexican national anthem. The audience stood. We listened to a nationally broadcast radio address by the President of the country, glorifying Mexico's independence from Spain. Then, the show went on.
On the sidewalk outside, after the performance, we pranced away as nimbly as Folklórico dancers from strings of firecrackers scattered by ragamuffins in the streets as we made our way through holiday crowds to the tallest building in Latin America. There, we took an elevator to the top.
We looked down at the bright patch of light marking the Zócalo, the great plaza in front of the presidential palace, from which Independence Day fireworks burst upward in rainbow clusters.
Not a one dared to rise as high as our eyrie in the sky.

"Quick, Henry, the Flit!"

Once, on a sultry summer evening, I squirmed in a deck chair on a paddle steamer churning along the Mississippi River near Vicksburg, impatient for a spectacular water view of Fourth-of-July fireworks over the town renowned for withstanding a lengthy Union siege during the Civil War.
Having skipped dinner so as not to miss the show, I hungrily munched my way through a package of fried chitterlings (say "chit-lins" with a drawl) like a ravenous caterpillar on a cabbage leaf.
Mercy, they were good, but not nearly so good as the Rebel mosquitoes suddenly found me to be. I could hardly hold my Shirley Temple (my highball of choice) for slapping at the mites attacking my unprotected arms and face.
Unable to bear it any longer, I fled to my cabin in search of some insect killer and repellent - in echo of the tag line marking an old advertising campaign for same that I remembered from my youth: "Quick, Henry, the Flit!"
Flying into the stateroom, I reached behind me and slammed the door with a mighty curse at the pursuing swarm. Snatching up the repellent in a fit of pique, I sprayed the nasty brew over myself from head to toe.
Dripping with enough poison to kill off the whole armada of minuscule fighters regrouping beyond my door, I chose then to read the directions on the can. To my horror, I discovered the stuff was meant to be spayed only at THEM and not on ME.
I stepped out to face them anyway, bristling with all the steely courage of a kamikaze pilot on his last patrol. A mad chuckle wrinkled my lips as I stood with arms akimbo.
"Come and get me, you airborne swine," I challenged grimly.
Through the dense hordes descending over me at that historic moment, I briefly caught a glimpse of the fireworks I had wanted so much to see. Then the fiery liquid I had mistakenly sprayed on my brow coursed in droplets into my eyes and set the orbs on fire.
When I recovered my sight two hours later under the care of the Vicksburg doctor who was hastily summoned aboard, he chided me gently with these few words: "Must be a Yankee. Folks around here wouldn't do a thing like that."
Having missed the fireworks, my sole consolation was the fact that the crew had found me wailing in pain while standing almost to my ankles in the frazzled remains of the whole damn Confederate air force, Mosquito Squadron, First Class.

Sushi Spa

Soaking together in the backyard Jacuzzi of my erstwhile home in suburban San Francisco, a Japanese friend poured green tea for us. We picnicked from a tray of vegetarian sushi - cucumber, avocado and hot-radish spread (wasabe) wrapped in sushi rice and savory strips of seaweed (nori). A floating cassette player drifted between us, casting the spell of my favorite Japanese singer (Itsuwa Mayumi) over this hillside above Benicia Bay.

A one-street town across the water, spilling a couple of buildings on to the beach from its narrow chasm slashing the green hills of Contra Costa County, set off its Fourth-of-July fireworks on the ribbon of sand just after the sun went down.

"Ah!" sighed the Japanese. "We call them 'flowers of fire' in Japan."

Stretched out on an underwater sofa, I wriggled my toes in the hot water and watched flaming flowers in the sky.

Really, I thought, don't we Californians know how to live?

Happy Fourth of July!


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