Carnett: The Fourth is No. 1 from sea to shining sea

I love Independence Day.

And what better way to wax nostalgic about the holiday than read — or better yet, view — American playwright Eugene O'Neill's classic work, "Ah, Wilderness."

To me, the play reflects the essence of the Fourth of July: patriotism, freedom, family and home.

The play set in 1906 captures the coming of age of 17-year-old Richard Miller, son of a small-town Connecticut newspaper publisher. O'Neill also comments tangentially on the coming of age of this nation.

"Ah, Wilderness" was the only comedy the dour playwright wrote, but it's significant. Critics have billed it a feel-good paean to a simpler era.

The year 1933, when the play was produced, could be considered a simpler era. Yet the storm clouds of Hitler's rise in Germany had already gathered ominously on the horizon. The next 12 years would prove catastrophic for the human race.

No era is simple.

Though innocence is threatened in O'Neill's play, he sees to it that innocence is preserved. "Ah, Wilderness" ends happily with a chaste kiss and a bright outlook for the future.

I first read the play as a 17-year-old and watched a production years later. I was a fan of the Broadway musical version of the show, "Take Me Along," produced in 1959, starring Jackie Gleason, Robert Morse and Walter Pidgeon.

The play spawned the films: "Ah, Wilderness" (1935) and "Summer Holiday" (1948).

Set in New London, Conn., on Independence Day, O'Neill's narrative portrays a far different world than the Orange County we know. Yet there are shared principles.

Over the years, I've discovered that the Fourth of July is the Fourth of July everywhere you travel in this land. Americans at every outpost are proud to be Americans.

I've spent the Fourth in O.C., Georgia, Maui, Washington state, New England and North Carolina. Sentiments of pride, gratitude and enthusiasm are common everywhere.

I've also been overseas for the Fourth, in Europe and Asia. Each time I returned to the states I felt as if I'd missed out on an important collective celebration.

My first observances of the holiday were as a small boy on Balboa Island. I remember waving sparklers while standing on the seawall and marveling at the colorful fireworks displays on the beach and across the bay.

For years, I attended wonderful local fireworks displays at Newport Dunes and the Huntington Beach Pier.

Perhaps my most indelible fireworks memories were forged at LeBard Stadium on Orange Coast College's campus. From 1991-94, the Costa Mesa Rotary Club sponsored a lavish show. The 7,600-seat stadium was packed to capacity each year, and the fireworks and live music were spectacular. My kids were enthralled.

Those LeBard Stadium displays are so fondly remembered that, two decades later, the college still receives community phone calls every June asking if a Fourth of July fireworks show is in the works.

I've discovered that no one takes the Fourth more seriously than folks who reside in New England. Those stolid Yankees, of course, have direct geographical, genealogical and existential ties to the holiday.

My wife, Hedy, and I drove through Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont during Fourth of July week a few years ago. It seemed that every house proudly displayed red, white and blue bunting and flew an American flag.

Courthouses and town squares were lavishly bedecked. City streets and highways were lined with flags for miles.

I've never seen anything like it.

Three years ago, I went to a semi-pro baseball game on the Fourth of July in the small North Carolina town where my daughter, son-in-law and four grandchildren live. It was a hot, humid evening, but the entire township turned out and filled the stadium to overflowing.

The post-game fireworks show did the small community proud. It was as good as any I've seen — with the possible exception of OCC's 1990s productions.

Hedy and I will celebrate the holiday at home this year and are looking forward to it.

Here's wishing you and yours the best Independence Day ever!

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Tuesdays.

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