What did we win?

Occasionally one of the parents would call out to the children. One parent would warn a child to stay away from the fireworks. The next would sing out something in strange and foreign words that gave our American ears no clue to their meaning. If it had been French or Spanish, perhaps even German, at least one of us could have picked out some of the words or phrases that had crossed between the languages. But when our neighbors spoke all we could recognize was the tone of tentative concern parents have when they want their children to be careful but still have fun.

It was half an hour past dark and we were all gathered at the end of our driveway in a backyard where several properties come together. We had two bags of flashing, sparkling, sizzling, occasionally banging fireworks to set off. I wasnt quite sure how many adults were gathered in the loose circle at what looked like a safe diameter from my launch site. I was even further from being able to count the number of children.

Finally the store of small explosives was exhausted, and I got an idea how large an audience we really had when we broke out the sparklers. Swarms of children and not a few adults waved the sparklers in a haze of sulfurous smoke and fiery glitter. Now the warnings were loud enough and frequent enough to almost drown out the constant sizzle of the sparklers. We warned the children to keep a safe distance and to point the fireworks away from their faces, repeating the caveats until voices that had started out stern took on a singsong rote. The other parents repeated the warnings in their strange but beautiful language, although their children probably understood the English versions better than they did.

Finally I could ignore the irony no longer. Were lighting sparklers for Russian children on the Fourth of July, I said to the other American father. I guess we won.

He laughed appreciatively, both of us chuckling without malice as we went on lighting sparklers.

I had tried to say it quietly. I wanted to share the thought with someone, but I didnt want to say it loudly enough for any of our neighbors to think we viewed them as vanquished enemies, nor did I want to have to try explaining to the children just what it was wed won.

The oldest children there were fairly close in age to our nine-year-old, and I wasnt sure theyd understand about the Cold War. A war? Awesome, dude, did many people get shot? Well, no, just a guy named Francis Gary Powers. Who was he? He flew a U2. You mean the band?

Nor did it seem like a profitable use of holiday time to spend it lecturing third-graders about a 45-year face-off that began falling apart the year they were born. It wouldnt mean a lot to them to hear that when I was their age I always knew where the nearest fallout shelter was. Then Id have to explain what a fallout shelter was, and why we had regular drills to see how quickly we could get to the false security of the school basement. 

I didnt really believe many of the children could stay with me if I explained that our countries spent trillions and change on weapons, an effort that bankrupted one country and left the other in hock for a century or so. Then theyd want to know what happened to the weapons and Id explain that we still had them. Are we going to use them? No, we never intended to use them. Then why did we build them?

Light your sparkler and be quiet, kid.

Of course none of the children had heard my comment or was it commentary? so none of them wondered what I meant. Not that they would have cared anyway. They were too busy waving sparklers, lighting new ones off the old ones, following the trails in the air, writing their names in lights, paying nominal attention to the constant, bi-lingual parental warnings to be careful. Their laughter and excitement made a single language.

The Russian and Ukrainian parents had come to our Virginia farm community as religious refugees, sponsored by a local Evangelical church. I wasnt sure when theyd come, or whether any of the children had been born in this country, but I knew they had more in common than not with the Fitzgeralds whod came over in steerage a century before. Three families lived in one house, and all the parents worked hard so they could eventually get something better. The children all went to the same elementary school as our son. In the evenings the parents all worked their gardens, giving their American neighbors vegetables wed sometimes have to tell them the English names for. Our conversation could cut through even the thickest accents because we shared enough to find common language. We spoke of children, and gardens, and houses, and of the community we shared. They were intelligent and energetic and hard-working, and too polite to laugh at our dilettantish attempts at gardening (great job on the flowers and herbs, pitiful on the vegetables).

In return, I was too polite to speak loudly when I said, I guess we won. Id probably have to explain to the Russian parents what it was I thought wed won. Did they even call it the Cold War? Did it end for them when the Berlin Wall crumbled or when they came to America? Did they still think of themselves as Russian, or as Americans? Had they ever thought of themselves as Soviets, or as our enemies?

And the children. They swirled around with their sparklers, caring little if their companions were named Marina or Mary, Nikolai or Nick, Tatania or Terry. If Id suddenly sent up one more screaming rocket and announced that it was Independence Day and that wed won the Cold War, hands down, not one of the children would have had the slightest idea what I was talking about.

Thats what we won. 

Last Revised: 02.10.03    Publisher: Joseph Gus Fitzgerald