The best memories? Gwynn Oak Park, I guess. All those summers with people gathered in the darkness, with that orchestration of fireworks in the sky and the imagined echoes of some ancient battles crackling above us, and everybody saying, ''Aaah'' in a kind of collective sigh.
But it wasn't the fireworks exactly, so much as the notion of it all: It was the Fourth of July, so you belonged in a place like this. The sky was all lit up, and later a band would play patriotic songs, so this must be the America they kept telling us about.
No one questioned whether it was an America worth celebrating. That was a given. And you showed up because they told you that everybody else would be there, and you wanted to be like everybody else. You hadn't learned yet to do your own editing, to separate the truth from the myth.
Now it's a more cynical age. You hear the American pitch this weekend, and find it's attached to a commercial for used cars. Patriotism's the first refuge of the salesman. You watch the pro basketball stars, representing America in the Olympics competition, beating up teams by 60 points without even trying. We need professionals now to prove our national manhood. What do we do for an encore, declare war on Chad?
We want to believe in ourselves the way we always did, but details keep getting in the way. There's talk of our children becoming the first generation to live at lower standards than their parents. The economy remains stuck in cement, and the schools keep turning out giddy illiterates who may lead us to economic troubles that we have never imagined.
A friend from high school days calls after a 29-year absence, and we find ourselves commiserating over the dying of the written word. My old friend makes a living writing dictionaries.
''In our time,'' he says, ''the average kid had a vocabulary of about 25,000 words. Today, it's 10,000 words. You can't get them to read anymore.'' We're the first nation in history to march to the poorhouse while the television set's running.
At a high school graduation in Anne Arundel County a few weeks ago, they handed out programs with the class motto printed inside. Usually, these are words of wisdom from the likes of Plato or Walt Whitman or maybe John Kennedy.
This class motto -- I am not making this up -- was a quotation from Mario Andretti. It's not the choice of words that was so startling, just the frame of reference. Suddenly we're drawing our collected academic wisdom from race-car drivers who advertise motor oil?
That's America today: celebrating people who are famous for being famous, and never mind the quality of their achievements.
On Fourth of July weekends at Gwynn Oak Park a long time ago, we believed in an America we'd heard about in schoolrooms. Today we want to believe in ourselves in spite of ourselves.
Los Angeles burns, and we're supposed to blame it on something as simple as a single police beating. A television character has a baby but not a husband, and we're supposed to blame this for a generation of teen-age pregnancies. A president talks of family values, and seems not to understand the economic pressures that drive families apart.
Last fall, in the Municipal March on Washington, people from American cities called for an immediate $50 billion in help. So what happened? Nothing. At least, not until the Rodney King riots and the simultaneous dawning of an election campaign. And so, at this time, the president wishes to take bows for offering to spread $2.5 billion among troubled cities and rural areas.
No one is to mention the obvious: that, in the past 12 years, federal spending on cities has dropped by 60 percent, and only political nervousness prompts the latest limp gesture.
It makes me miss Reagan. Well, not Reagan exactly, but his Morning in America commercials: shots of happy, muscular steel workers, farmers with leather faces growing their crops. You never heard about the steel industry shutting down or the farmers going under.
America looked in and imagined it saw itself in those ads. Every campaign commercial was a celebration of ourselves as we wished to be, and not as we really were.
We've started to understand now: We were sold a bill of goods. The middle class gasps for air. The gap between rich and poor has grown wider than ever, yet all overtures to the poor are voiced with an edge: They're probably faking it, they're probably lazy, they're ripping us off with their welfare money.
The White House wishes us not to notice the new math: Welfare payments last year were just one-sixth the amount of money the government spent bailing out the banks and the savings and loans. Nobody talks of the savings and loans as America's biggest welfare clients.
The best Fourth of July memories? Gwynn Oak Park long ago, I guess. Standing under the blanket of fireworks, where you embraced this ideal called America and didn't question the details.
We've since learned better.
The ideals are still there, but the damned details keep getting in the way.