Tomorrow, we celebrate the 231st anniversary of the signing of the American Declaration of independence.
My childhood memories of this holiday center around the City Park in Lyons, Nebraska. My memories of this begin in grade school, sometime after we moved to town in the 60s. I loved sleeping late on a summer morning and the 4th of July was no different. With what was left of the morning, I lit some firecrackers in our front yard, terrorizing all the dogs and cats in the neighborhood, no doubt. I loved lighting the “snakes” and watching the smoke billow out as they seemed to slither up out of the sidewalk. For the rest of the summer, there was a stain of black soot on the sidewalk where ever I had lit a “snake.”
The afternoon was spent at the swimming pool. I was usually there during all its hours of operation: from 1-5 and 7-9. Then, I’d join some friends for fireworks at the ballfield (there was only one back then). We sat on blankets, if we remembered to bring them, and stood at the end for a scratchy recording of The Star Spangled Banner blared over a loudspeaker during the finale. Then home for a few bottle rockets and maybe a Roman candle or two.
The day passed pretty much the same way year after year. The festivities were what held my attention and I didn’t really give much thought to the event the date commemorated until I became an adult and two things happened: I enlisted in the Army and later, I earned a B.A. in History.
In Basic Training camp at Ft. Jackson, South Carolina, one of the first things you learn is RESPECT for the flag. Each day at Reveille when the Post Flag was raised, where ever you were, you stopped what you were doing, faced the flag (or its direction, if you were too far away to see it), stood at attention and saluted. At dusk, they played Taps and you did the same thing. Heaven help the Recruit who failed to assume Attention during Reveille or Taps. No one in my unit got caught at that, so I don’t even know what the punishment was – probably a few hundred push-ups and KP for the rest of your stay.
In my studies of American History, I learned exactly what it cost the men who signed the Declaration of Independence. All of them immediately had their property seized by the British Army. Most of them were hanged for Treason. The survivors went on to “ordain and establish” the Constitution, but not a single one of them ever recovered their property or financial losses. I gained a whole new perspective on the meaning of Independence Day.
Here is one of my favorite pages from History:
It was in August of 1812 that a young Lawyer living in Geogretown, Pennsylvania watched as the British army invaded and captured Washington DC, setting fire to the capitol and the White House. President Madison and his wife Dolley barely escaped with their lives. A thunderstorm quenched the flames before the whole city became engulfed. (Coincidence?) The following day, the invading army returned to light more fires and, again, thunderstorms developed, extinguishing the flames before they spread.
Baltimore was the next target and during that invasion, the British arrested a beloved physician, Dr. Beanes and took him to a ship in the harbor to be held as a prisoner of war. The help of the lawyer from Georgetown was enlisted to negotiate a prisoner exchange for the Dr. Beanes. Accompnaied by Col. John Skinner, the lawyer was taken to the British ship, where he produced letters of testimonials from British prisoners who had been treated by Dr. Beanes. They testified to his compassion and to the excellent medical care they had received at his hands. The British agreed to release Dr. Beanes, but the lawyer, Col. Skinner and the doctor were not allowed to leave. It was feared they had seen and heard too much of the preparations for the next attack on Baltimore.
The next morning, at 7 AM, the British launched their attack. The assault began with the firing of 1500 220 pound bombshells that often exploded in midair before reaching their target. Congreve rockets were fired almost continuously, leaving a contrail of red smoke arcing across the sky. When dusk fell, the firing stopped (due to another thunderstorm – another coincidence?) until about 1 AM, when the British fleet roared to life again. The three Americans watched helplessly, fearing the worst. But a few hours later, the firing stopped. As the sun rose in the east, the three men stood and gazed toward the shoreline and saw the Stars and Stripes still flying over Ft. McHenry. It was then that the lawyer, Francis Scott Key, wrote these words:
Oh, say can you see
by the dawn’s early light
What so proudly we hailed
at the twilights’ last gleaming
Whose broad stripes and bright stars
through the perilous fight
O’er the ramparts we watched,
were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets’ red glare,
the bombs bursting in air
Gave proof through the night
that our flag was still there.
Oh, say does that star spangled banner
yet wave o’er the land of the free
And the home of the brave?
I believe that this is the land of the free BECAUSE it is the home of the brave.
Happy Independence Day!