(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser July 2015)
“A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” Charles Spurgeon
The Fourth of July has always been a mixed bag for me. As a boy, I loved the barbecue and fireworks party in our neighbors’ backyard. My friends and I ran around in the dark with sparklers, ate potato salad and burgers and corn and watermelon, and a man smoking a cigarette and drinking a martini set off spectacular fireworks smuggled into California from Montana.
But my father always got especially drunk at the Fourth of July barbecue because he imbibed much more hard liquor when he drank in the company of other alcoholics, and he would become vicious, so the fun of running around with sparklers was dampened, and the hours after we got home from the barbecue were about hiding in my room.
One year after the Fourth of July party, my mean-drunk father found a sickly bat clinging to a low-hanging branch of a pine tree, and he broke the branch off and brought the bat home to torture my mother by bringing the frightened creature into the kitchen. My mother screamed at my father to take the bat out of the house, and when he refused, she got a broom and drove my father into the garage where we could hear him crashing around, shouting and cursing, and then he started hammering on the wall. A few minutes later he came into the kitchen, got a bottle of wine, and returned to the garage.
I followed my mother as she ventured into the garage armed with her broom—I was nine—and we discovered my father had nailed the branch to the wall just a few feet from the doorway into the kitchen—the sickly little animal still clinging to the bough.
“Get it out of here,” said my mother, her eyes slits of fury. “It might have rabies. You’re endangering the children. Get rid of it. Now!”
My father took a long drink from the bottle and slurred, “My new pet. Bats are very intelligent.”
And my mother said, “If you don’t get rid of it right this minute, I’m divorcing you. Don’t think I won’t.”
Then she shepherded me back into the house, closed the door to the garage, and locked it. I got up early the next day and went into the garage and the bat was gone, though the branch was still nailed to the wall and would remain there for decades, an armature for thick tapestries of cobwebs.
When I was in my late twenties and visiting my parents at Christmas, I asked my father if he remembered the incident with the bat, and I was only mildly surprised when he accused me of making up the story to fulfill my chronic need to vilify him. So I brought him into the garage and pointed out the pine branch nailed to the wall and asked him how it got there.
“I’ve often wondered about that,” he said, frowning at the branch. “I assumed you did it to spite me.”
“The truth is more important than the facts.” Frank Lloyd Wright
As you probably know, the young George Washington never chopped down his father’s cherry tree, was never confronted by his father about the destruction of the tree, and did not say, “I cannot tell a lie, Dad. I did it. I’ll take my punishment. You may beat me cruelly now. Please do.”
The story was entirely made up by an unscrupulous biographer some years after George Washington died, and this balderdash immediately became the one so-called fact every American could recite about George Washington, the mythic Father of America, with Betsy Ross the purported Mother of America because she was said to have sewn the first American flag at George Washington’s request, though there is no proof she ever did any such thing.
The subtext of the cherry tree lie is that our political leaders are profoundly honest and willing to suffer grievously for what they believe in. And it is this honesty and courage of their convictions that make them so special and worthy of our support. Indeed, so deeply ingrained in our collective psyche is this fundamental falsity that tens of millions of people who should know better, I among them, have voted for and elected heinous criminals to control our government and make our laws, many of those laws designed to rob us of our wealth and our freedoms.
And the Fourth of July always reminds me of this sad truth about our species: we are as gullible as yellow jackets flying into a death trap, the sweet smell of raw meat irresistible to our hardwired brains. We cloak the needless deaths of millions of innocent people and the ongoing ruination of the world in red, white and blue flags Betsy Ross never sewed, red the color of the cherries that never grew on the tree George Washington never chopped down and never told the truth about.
“Truth is mighty and will prevail. There is nothing the matter with this, except it ain’t so.” Mark Twain
This Fourth of July 2015 we made an East Indian potato salad to take to the barbecue at our neighbors’ house two doors down, a vegetarian feast, the earthlings there a mix of people born all over the globe, the gathering a celebration of our independence from the stultifying concept of competitive nations, what Buckminster Fuller called blood clots in the body of humanity. The current Anglo-German strangulation of Greece is a perfect example of the destructive power of the asinine notion that one nation is more important than another.
And we celebrated the harvest of the first wave of vegetables planted in early spring, our potato salad made with just-dug potatoes, the lemon juice from the first lemons grown on our young trees planted two years ago, the cilantro leaves from volunteers springing up among our lettuce—the coconut milk linking us to our fellow earthlings in more tropical climes.