In view of recent events, I can’t come up with a better column for the occasion than this one that was written nearly ten years ago. A lot has happened since then, but the message still applies.
When America was first discovered, it wasn’t wanted. It was a wilderness, an obstruction, a good many years were devoted to trying to get through it or around it and on to someplace else.
Our struggle has been so victorious that here we are, a nation that originated mostly with immigrants, so successful at self-rule and the society we have become, that people from nearly everywhere else keep trying to become a part of it. And, ironically, we are now fighting to keep them out.
Maybe it was because my father, a first generation American, was extremely patriotic, or maybe it was because my mother, whose ancestors were here before the Revolution, had a well-honed sense of being part of our history, that the the Fourth of July was celebrated by our family as Independence Day and not Fireworks Day. I remember parades with patriotic music and seas of American flags. There were speeches, mostly patriotic and sometimes political if it happened to be an election year. We decorated our bicycle wheels with strips of red, white, and blue crepe paper woven in and out of the spokes, and small American flags clamped to the handlebars. The town’s kids were always included in the parade with their colorful bikes.
If we had fireworks, they were at the end of the day, after the parade and the speeches and the acute awareness that this day was about celebrating our great good fortune in having the freedom our ancestors pursued and won for us. By evening, we had gathered with relatives or neighbors for the more social business of picnics, usually with homemade ice cream, and after dark, there might be a fireworks display at the country club which we could watch from afar if we climbed out the bathroom window onto the roof over the back porch. We were far enough away that we heard little of the accompanying bangs, crackles and screams of the “rockets red glare and bombs bursting in air,” which may be the reason why, like the family dog, I’ve never been a big fan of the noise that accompanies the light display in the dark sky.
The ice cream was made in a hand-cranked churn nestled in a washtub and shrouded with layers of burlap bags to “help keep the cold in.” Dad would have gone to the ice house at some time in the afternoon and returned with a huge block of ice. To me, it looked at least as big as a bale of hay, but it was probably much smaller. Dad would attack this giant ice cube with an ice pick and a wooden mallet to turn it into crushed ice just the right size to pack around the shiny cylinder that held the thin pudding-like mixture that mother had made. Then he would add handfuls of coarse salt which served to make the melting ice colder. We kids were allowed to turn the crank at the beginning, when the concoction of milk, eggs, sugar and vanilla was thin and easy to churn. As it began to freeze and got thicker, it was more difficult to turn the handle. It was important to keep the mixture moving for as long as possible in order to end up with ice cream that was smooth and not grainy. After all the strongest men available had turned the handle as far as it could possibly be turned, the crank was removed, the paddles pulled out of the ice cream and given to the kids to lick clean while the canister was re-closed, packed with more ice and salt, covered with the burlap bags, and allowed to “ripen” which seemed totally unnecessary to me. How “ripe” could ice cream get in an hour or so? It had tasted fine right off the paddle. Well, it was a tradition, I guess. Right up there with the parades, the speeches, the patriotic music, and the fireworks glowing in the sky.
Over the years, traditions fade, celebrations embrace new ideas, travel and technology contribute new possibilities, and I wonder if there are any kids with crepe paper laced through the spokes of their bikes and miniature flags clamped on the handlebars. However you celebrate the Fourth of July, take a few moments to remember what it is really all about and that we are celebrating our independence and a way of life that has become the ideal goal for people around the globe.