Friday, 8 August 2014

The Fourth

It is the fourth of July. I've woken early, fed the cats and spent an hour or so reading. My wife is still in bed, but is now awake. She has been off work for a few days, the first holiday she has taken in what seems like at least a year. Junior is staying with his father, and so we have had a relaxing time.

'I don't think George Washington has been yet,' I tell her. 'The pumpkin pie and beer we left out are still under the tree.' It's an old joke but it still raises a laugh, and seems to work for both Independence Day and Thanksgiving. If you've been good, George Washington will bring you presents.

'Was this independence from England, or was it something to do with the civil war?' I still have trouble recalling which public holiday relates to which historical occasion. I've been here just three years.

'Independence from England.' Bess then tells me that Canadians once tried to burn down the White House.

'During the war of independence?'


'What the hell did it have to do with them?'

'They sided with your lot.'


In my head, the thousands of square miles of land north of the 49th parallel transmogrify into a cartoon character, a geographical slab of orange mashed potato with legs and a face.

Ooh ooh, I'll help you, England. I'm on your side. It turns to blow a raspberry at a similarly shaped character representing the United States.

'I'll see you in a couple of hours.' I kiss my wife on the nose, pull on my boots, and head out of the kitchen door. Yesterday I bought a small United States flag in HEB. There were a load of them on sale at the checkout, one dollar each, the Stars & Stripes on a rectangle of cloth attached to a foot or so of wooden dowel. I bought one because I could think of no good reason not to and they seemed quite nicely made, and now I've mounted it on the rear of my bicycle, expecting it will catch the breeze as I cycle along. I know people who may find this ridiculous, but I'm past caring. I also wear a Stetson because I burn easily and it keeps the sun off my head, and a T-shirt which was a present from Bess's aunt which bears the message you might give some serious thought to thanking your lucky stars you're in Texas. It is exactly this sort of confrontational humour which appeals to me.

I saddle up, in a manner of speaking, and freewheel out onto the street, across Harry Wurzbach Parkway, and down past the school. It's only just gone half past seven, and although the air is warm it's still quite pleasant. I'm pleased with myself. I try to cycle fifteen miles every day, so during summer, the earlier I can get going, the better. Most of the trail I follow is through woodland, so I'm in the shade, but the heat nevertheless becomes a little too much to endure if I leave too late in the morning.

The roads are quiet and for some reason I find myself thinking of Brackenridge Park. We used to spend a few hours there every Wednesday evening. Bess's mother would collect Junior from school, and once my wife had finished work, we would all meet up at Brackenridge Park. There is a race held there on Wednesday evenings, and Sid always runs, so we go along to watch him and to lend our support. Sid is an old friend of the family to the point of more or less being one of the family. He is in his seventies and is one of the tallest men I have ever met, so it's always fairly easy to spot him, bobbing along happily at the rear of the crowd, at least a couple of feet taller than everyone else. We all wave, and he waves back.

Thirty or so minutes later he will come to find us at one of the benches where Mexican families hold their barbecues.

'Howdy, Mr. Burton.' He has the smile of someone who knows something but isn't telling, and he speaks slowly, with disconcertingly lengthy pauses occurring mid-sentence. 'Well, you know I've been reading,' - and into one of those pauses as he sits, arranges his long legs beneath the bench, then considers the rest of the sentence before at last submitting 'about your MI5 and your secret service.'

I'm English, so they're my MI5 and my secret service. I can never quite work out why Sid imagines I will have any useful information on these subjects, but I suppose it's his way of bringing some common ground to the conversation. It seems to make him happy, and so that makes me happy. He's Jewish and very, very much a Texan - a cultural mix I could not have envisioned at any point before I came to live here. I suppose we must seem quite exotic to each other in certain respects.

'So how's my silver fox?'

He is now addressing Bess's mother, who probably heard fine but isn't sure how to respond to that one. Bess and I exchange a look of amused incredulity, and even Junior seems to find it funny to hear his grandmother addressed as such.

Silver fox!

My wife's mother might be described as the strong, silent type. She doesn't give much away, and tends to speak only when she has something she feels is worth saying. I am told she once talked a gun-wielding nutcase in a diner into giving himself up, and I can well believe it. She carries herself with the sort of authority which makes the rest of us disinclined to address her in terms quite so playful as silver fox.

Junior has just called Sid bald eagle, too quiet for Sid to hear and offered as a sort of counterpoint to silver fox. My wife is silently trying  to swallow back her laughter. Sid, as Junior has clearly noted, has a certain heraldic grandeur, and so the nickname seems well chosen if a little blunt.

We haven't met up at Brackenridge Park in a while, and I wonder why I should be thinking of it right now as I turn off Corinne Drive and head down Eisenhauer Road towards the market on my bicycle. I suppose maybe that it could be the weather, or just that I feel similarly relaxed.

I cycle onto the path that is the Tobin Trail, which follows Salado Creek from the Spanish missions in the south of the city all the way up to McAllister Park in the north. There are quite a few people out this morning, running, cycling, or walking their dogs, which are mostly either chihuahuas or dachshunds for some reason - both popular breeds in San Antonio. A few people have small flags pinned to their cycle helmets or elsewhere. Everyone smiles and says good morning, and now I remember just why I picked out my one dollar Stars & Stripes from the bin next to the checkout at HEB. It's because I like living here.

A few hours later on some social networking site I see that an acquaintance has marked the occasion with a quote from Harold Pinter:

The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them. You have to hand it to America. It has exercised a quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good. It's a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis.

I respond with thin sarcasm, adding I wish someone had mentioned this before. Under the circumstances, it doesn't seem to warrant any greater effort on my part. Whilst it may well be true, it has no direct bearing on my situation, and nothing is going to piss me off today.

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