Birth of a Nation of One

Yesterday, the 7th of July, was my 75th birthday. Nancy and I spent the day with friends in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts. Buzzard's Bay is virtually at their doorstep, nothing between the house and ocean except Cutty Hunk, the outermost of the Elizabethan Islands. You can see it from the veranda. It lies to the south-southwest just six miles away as the gull flies.


The house is over 200 years old and used to lodge the ferryman, who ran the ferry across the nearby Little River before the current and quite sturdy bridge was built. To turn a profit the ferryman outfitted the house with a small bar. He fortified as well as ferried his clients. The bar is still there.

The expression “Belly up to the bar” meaning to “drink up” is of obscure origin. I personally go for the explanation that says it stems from pressing one’s belly up against the bar to drink. Rather like other expressions that make use of parts of the anatomy; for example, having one’s “back against the wall,” meaning to “have one’s options limited” or “facing up to the truth” meaning “coming to grips with the truth.” In the latter “grips” is another reference to the anatomy though once removed from “hands.”

Not everything that looks like an anatomical reference is. For example, in “footing the bill,” the “foot” refers not to a part of the anatomy but rather to the bottom of the bill where the payer signs: hence “footing the bill” meaning to “pay the bill.” There is, oddly, some independent evidence in favor of the anatomical meaning of “belly up to the bar.” It comes from the bar in the house of my friends. If I were to belly up to that bar, the top of the bar would come somewhere between my belly and my knees. Clearly, I am too tall for it unlike the inhabitants of the area some 200 years ago. Assuming they were four inches shorter—I believe there is evidence from gravesites to support that—the bar that they bellied up to in my friends’ house was a perfect fit.

But I am already straying too far from my intended topic, my 75th birthday. After dinner we stepped out onto the veranda. My friends suggested we do so to catch the breeze before we turned in. It had been 92ยบ back in Cambridge when we left earlier in the day. The breeze was a subterfuge. No sooner had I settled into a deck chair with a glass of wine than the sky exploded. Fireworks! A beautiful if illegal display of screeching pinwheels and spidery bursts that looked like glass marigolds shattering in air.


The display went on for twenty loud and color-filled minutes. Then it stopped. A carbon scented cloud of smoke floated down around my shoulders. I sat there in silence. I had seen fireworks before. Boston on the 4th of July after all is one of the world-class venues for fireworks. But no 4th of July display compared to the twenty-minute fusillade on the edge of Buzzard's Bay that was put on just for me.


Why did it have such an effect? Fireworks celebrate beginnings. Here, at the age of 75, I was focused on the hourglass running out of sand. Then, out of the blue, came this electric blare celebrating a start, not a finish.

To my friends in South Dartmouth who had the good sense to invite me to a fireworks display in honor of me, let me say, “Thanks for the leg up on the future. I’ve got to hand it to you. I needed that.”