Few places are as patriotic as Coronado, California. Few communities have given so much to safeguard the rest of the nation. Off the town’s northern edge, the U.S. Navy first landed planes on ships, marking a major shift in American war strategy at the beginning of the twentieth century. To the south, every Navy SEAL candidate passes through a rigorous training and evaluation program on the beaches of the Naval Amphibious Base, Coronado. And more than half of the town’s land is taken up by major Navy installations. Not all the servicemen and units here are famous, but they all mean something to our town, especially when home from the long deployments.
So July 4th is “like Christmas on Coronado,” in the words of my family. The peak of summer tourist spectacle is also a time for community healing. Thousands flood onto the island.
Orange Avenue, the main stretch of this seaside town, is the hive of activity—full of shiny beach cruisers, Sharpie-labeled wine coolers, and horses on parade alongside local law enforcement. The street used to be lined with actual orange trees, but the native jackrabbit population wore those down—now, we have bigger trees, better for the hot days of July.
Wandering along the parade route, past picnic tents and beaming families, decked out in the national colors, I walk up to a local bar, where I can enter as a freshly minted 21 year-old. I celebrated that special day a few weeks before, and a few thousand miles away, where the drinking laws were more governed by height than age, so this is a new ritual in more ways than one.
A neon palm tree blinks on with light hum, like a visual welcome mat, at Danny’s Bar & Grill. Crossing the thin threshold of a doorway, I hear frenzied laughing and clinking glasses. Turning my head to look above the sagging wooden bar, I see the faces of fallen Navy SEALs, killed in the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan.
I had heard about Danny’s memorial to the fallen before, but seeing it firsthand on such a festive day grounds me. The faces of men—not much older than me, plastered above cheap beer, burgers and fries—surprise me. The other revelers continue to drink, and the faces of the fallen hold counsel amongst themselves. Faded red strips of carpet divide the area between the bar and the cluttered, empty chairs. Somber sobriety wavers as I digest a red Solo cup full of Tecate, wondering if I’m any different from the people a few barstools down from me.
The streets are empty of cars, since the police have blocked most major thoroughfares to make way for the parade and other festivities. I’m free to wander. The trombone and trumpet players reach from the Spreckels Park gazebo to the far reaches of the town, where I hear and follow the noise back to the source.
I find my brother, sitting with friends in the usual spot, near the playground.
After a concert full of patriotic solos and collaborations, the punch-drunk crowd makes its way out to the golf course and the yacht club, everyone hoping to feast their eyes on the fireworks. Many of the people who sit around me on the grass aren’t from here, and they don’t pretend to be. It’s the uncomfortable hand-in-glove fit of gawking tourism and a small town that supports itself with hotel room taxes. People come here from all over the country and world to find paradise. They escape, imagining our town is less real and more a cinematic mixture of patriotism and California quaint.
What a place this must seem from the outside, far from worry and farther from the crime, desolation and struggle known elsewhere in America. The lily-white population and picturesque seafront hotel only add to this conception. As the crowds recede, into nearby manicured homes and back across the bridge to San Diego, I wonder if our greatest sacrifices are behind us. If our communal term of service is almost up.
The fireworks impress, demanding attention and applause. Later, in the emptying of the grass, I see friends from middle school and elementary school, people I haven’t seen in years. I also find a college friend from South Africa, who found her way to this corner of the world while visiting her boyfriend. I can’t say that she looks out of place here, enjoying the spectacle as an outsider.
She tells me that she’s flying back to New Haven the next day, and the thought startles me—that one could go so quickly from this place, this moment, to the staid humidity of southern Connecticut. The two cities had never seemed farther apart and, yet closer together, in my head. And we say goodbye, she eastward bound and I headed to see my parents, just a few streets up.
The traffic barricades come down and the bars empty of patrons. As the stupor ends, this little Navy town gets ready for another day hard at work.
Josh is always on the lookout for the perfect sunset, even when he’s far from sunny Southern California and enjoying cider doughnuts in New England. Send him an email at email@example.com.