Tuesday night, thousands of folks on the banks of the Chattahoochee were in a festive mood.
I was on the Columbus side with my family, sitting in camp chairs and waiting near the splash pad for the fireworks show. Everywhere around us, people were eating and drinking and wearing red, white and blue.
We heard the booming beat from the stage across the river.
Two small boys weaved around us, shooting at each other with imaginary bullets they fired from the tips of their index fingers.
Their parents let them run and play and didn’t worry about what other people thought, which I found refreshing.
My own sons are too big for that sort of thing, so they just sat there and scanned the crowd for people they knew.
I scanned the crowd too, and noticed that the man sitting alone sipping a Bud Light Lime was the exact same fellow who sat near us last year.
The sky glowed with last light so we got up and walked around a bit to kill some time.
The boys wanted to walk across the Dillingham Street Bridge, so we headed over there but it was closed because that’s where they were launching the evening’s pyrotechnics.
So we backtracked and took the stairs down to the riverwalk.
Out on the water, a couple of guys were fishing from kayaks, and two others were paddling a flat-bottomed boat.
That’s when I remembered the day before. A soldier was swimming in the river under the 13th Street Bridge and went under and nobody saw him again.
Rescue parties including divers and boats and a helicopter searched the river that evening and found nothing. Night fell and they went home and came back the next afternoon.
Early Tuesday evening, with folks trickling onto the banks to celebrate the Fourth, they cut off the search. And now here we were.
I walked over to the rail and saw the gate open and people sitting on the steps leading down to the Chattahoochee. Little children sat right there at the edge, while the river’s mysterious currents boiled and churned in front of them.
It seemed strange to me that so many people would be sitting there as if nothing had happened, that they wouldn’t have thought of the soldier and scooted back a step or two out of respect for the river that took him.
But the fireworks went off without a hitch and everybody had a good time.
The next morning, I went back to work. The rescue crew did too, and they found the drowned soldier about five miles down river.
Later, I got an email from a reader criticizing our online photos of the fireworks celebration. She called us unpatriotic.
At first, I thought it had something to do with the death of the soldier and how thousands of people went to that same area and cheered and laughed and had a good time and how the newspaper took hundreds of party pics as if nothing had happened.
But that wasn’t it at all. The reader had attached one photo from our gallery. It was of a beautiful family of three on the river, mom and dad flashing beautiful smiles and their elementary-school-aged daughter standing with them wearing a t-shirt with an American flag on it and raising her right hand and…
What was that she was doing with her hand?
She was shooting a bird!
Surely she had no idea what she was doing, but there it was.
We deleted the photo from the gallery, of course. I sat at my desk for a few minutes, thinking what a strange long weekend it had been.
Celebrating. Mourning. Mixed signals.
That’s all I’ve got.