Celebrating July 4th, then and now

A Fourth of July parade in Lakeside, Ohio.

As a youngster, I remember having mixed emotions about the Fourth of July. It had nothing to do with my patriotism, and everything to do with my youth.

I joyously anticipated the fireworks displays, wherever and however we got to see them. The reality, though, was that this red, white, and blue holiday marked the halfway point of the year. More importantly, it meant in my young mind that we were already halfway through the summer. Schools would be starting before we knew it.

When my four siblings and I were young, we would gather on a starry July 4th night on the edge of the hill a block west of our brick bungalow. We would anxiously look south and wait for the sparkling pyrotechnic patterns.

On rare occasions, we talked our father into driving closer to Meyers Lake Amusement Park, where the fireworks were ignited to explode over the lake. To avoid the parking lot traffic jam, Dad chose a side street that afforded a decent view of the aerial show.

The fireworks tradition continued into my adulthood when my wife and I started our family. From our home on County Road 201, we could see fireworks from various towns north, east, and southeast.

The summer of 1988 may have been the best time for fireworks for our family of four. Flying back from a vacation in California, we left Chicago’s O’Hare airport right at dark for the last leg of our trip. We looked down from on high as multiple fireworks displays erupted until we landed an hour later at Ohio’s Akron-Canton airport.

Nature’s fireworks over Holmes Co., Ohio are just as impressive.

Years later, friends built a beautiful home high on a hill overlooking Millersburg. They had the perfect view of the fireworks shot from the safety of the former county fairgrounds location. Our friends made it a grand occasion, inviting one and all. A plate of food to share was the price of admission.

I enjoyed the fellowship of friends, former students, and some people I had only just met. We oohed and awed together once the colorful and noisy celebration began.

That’s one tradition we left behind when we moved to the heart of Virginia’s lovely Shenandoah Valley. Our city launches its fireworks display from a local park. We have enjoyed the show with our grandchildren on more than one occasion. Not this year.

A local resort, Massanutten, also holds a festival that features fireworks. However, like many locations across the nation, that won’t happen this year because of the pandemic. Officials were wisely concerned about keeping physical distances, which is much harder to do with crowds of people.

Massanutten Mountain, Harrisonburg, VA.

Some localities canceled everything, while others like Massanutten, canceled the festival. The fireworks will fly as usual.

These are the times in which we live. We need to accept that we are in the middle of the worst pandemic in a century. The viral repercussions range far beyond silent, darkened skies on the Fourth of July.

Declaration of Independence, U.S. ConstitutionOur Founding Fathers created the most daring democratic republic experiment ever attempted. It’s entirely up to each of us to make sure our democracy endures for all peoples to exercise each of their first amendment rights.

Whether watching fireworks live or on TV, let those symbolic rockets red glares and bombs bursting in the air be a rededication to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Can the sparks ignite a new fire of freedom for all the nation’s people regardless of race, color, creed, or religion? Isn’t that the intent of the First Amendment?

Only then can freedom truly ring.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Celebrating the freedom to be kind

Fort McHenry, Baltimore MD
Fort McHenry.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Long ago, someone once tried to trick me with a skewed question. “Do the English celebrate the Fourth of July?” was the query.

My answer went something like this: “Well, the English have a July 4th like the rest of the world, but I doubt that they celebrate it.”

The Fourth of July is Independence Day in the United States. It’s a day of traditions: family gatherings, picnics with hot dogs and hamburgers, baseball games, and fireworks, although the latter is often spread out over a period of days depending on planned community events.

American flags are flown, and many decorate their houses with red, white, and blue buntings. Some communities hold parades with high school bands, fire trucks, decorated floats, and troupes of children riding patriotic adorned bicycles.

In typical American fashion, fireworks on the Fourth of July began in 1777 during the Revolutionary War with England. They weren’t the only flashes and booms in the sky then. Muskets and canons were also fired as ways to increase the commotion and hopefully boost the morale of the rebelling colonists.

A few years later during the War of 1812, Baltimore, Maryland had a life or death situation louder and fiercer than any fireworks. On September 13, 1814, the British Navy opened fire on Fort McHenry, the primary protective garrison of the city’s harbor. Much like today, Baltimore was an essential Atlantic coast port. Its defense was vital against the British, who had just burned the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C.

The fort withstood a horrific 27-hour bombardment by the British fleet. Francis Scott Key, a noted attorney, witnessed the attack from a ship in the harbor. When the smoke and mist cleared in the morning, Key saw the stars and stripes still flying from the fort, and was moved to write a poem about the battle. That poem became the lyrics for the “Star Spangled Banner,” our national anthem.

My wife and I recently visited the fort with a friend. As I watched a replica of the original flag flap in the morning breeze, I thought about the importance of celebrating the Fourth of July. It’s much more vital than food, fun, and colorful pyrotechnic displays.

In these current, trying times, when everyone seems to be talking and fewer people listening, I recoiled at the unnecessary squabbles going on in families, private and public meetings, in the media and on social media. Much of it is not pretty, and too much of it is hurtful, divisive, and driven by fear, not fact.

A person I recently met gave this suggestion: Treat people kindly in the moment. It might be the only time you have with them. She was right.

This Fourth of July, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we began listening to one another without bias, without interruption, without labeling, without being dismissive or rude or worse? After all, we are one nation, made up of many peoples from many different origins, languages, races, religions, beliefs, and backgrounds. That is as the Founding Fathers envisioned in the words of the U.S. Constitution.

So let’s carry on with the usual Independence Day activities. As we join together with family, friends, neighbors, and even strangers, let’s begin again to converse with one another with civility, kindness, respect, and appreciation, whether we agree or disagree with what is said.

That’s how a community as small as a family and as large as a nation should behave in order to thrive. In accomplishing that, we really will have something to celebrate on the Fourth of July besides Independence Day.

grocery store sign
A sign for many cultures.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018