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More Than a Day Off What Independence Day Means to Me
Independence Day is upon us, and I’m sure many readers are stocking up on extra charcoal or staking out their spot to watch the fireworks above the Arkansas River. While I love a good barbecue and fireworks show as much as the next red-blooded American, I’ll admit to feeling nostalgia for the Fourth of July celebrations of my youth. You see, I grew up in Polson, Montana, a cattle-ranching town about an hour’s drive north of Missoula. Being in a small town during the Cold War, you can bet we went all-out for the Fourth of July. Polson had a parade right down the main thoroughfare, and all the school kids participated, including my brothers and me. Every year, we’d dress up in costumes and deck our bikes out in red, white, and blue streamers. I’ll admit that we skimped a few years by recycling our old Halloween get-ups, but it was still a great experience to ride with the parade. The whole thing would culminate in a big shindig down at the rodeo grounds, where kids could win prizes for their outfits. My brothers and I got pretty fixated on this costume contest but never managed to win. Thankfully, our disappointment melted as soon as it was time to watch the fireworks. Rather than jostle with the crowds at the fairgrounds, our parents would load us into the station wagon and drive out to a ridge that overlooked the whole show. My mom would even bring popcorn.
Our town coming together like that, year in and year out, made the Fourth of July feel special. There was a real sense of unity and pride in those days. But even this small-town American experience pales in comparison to the one-of-a-kind camaraderie you get when celebrating Independence Day as part of the U.S. Army. During my six years of service, I was fortunate enough to spend every Fourth of July on a military installation, from Fort Lee in Virginia to Fort Lewis, Washington, and plenty of bases between. There’s nothing like ringing in the Fourth of July with your brothers in arms, especially while you’re going through basic training. It was the summer of 1990, and my platoon had just been through the first four weeks of training. The drill sergeants had barely managed to take the pacifiers out of our mouths at that point, but to us new recruits, it’d felt like we’d already been through an ordeal. Then the Fourth came around, and let me tell you, it was like being a fat kid in a candy store. I mean that literally. We were a bunch of young guys who hadn’t been allowed soda or sweets in over a month and had just gone through some of the most rigorous physical and mental challenges we’d faced in our young lives. Then, suddenly, we were taken to the main parade field for a day of exhibits, games, food, and yes, candy. It was like getting a breath of fresh air from the outside world.
1 Berlin Law Firm • DefendingTulsa.com I’m not calling to impose patriotism on our fellow citizens or to bring military fanfare into our civilian lives. All I want is for folks on both sides of the political divide to step off their soap box for a day and recognize the common ideals that bind us together as Americans. If we do one thing on the Fourth of July, it should be to ask ourselves, “Why are we No. 1? What makes us so great?” No matter what your personal answer is, we celebrate together. - Lee Berlin More than anything, there was a sense of camaraderie I haven’t felt anywhere else. Our platoon had folks from every part of the county and every walk of life imaginable. There I was, a conservative kid from Montana, celebrating arm and arm with my battle buddy, a self-avowed liberal from Massachusetts. None of those distinctions we now see as divisions mattered within the folds of the U.S. Army, especially on the Fourth of July. From the valleys of northern Montana to the barracks of Fort McClellan, Alabama, I’ve been fortunate enough to see some truly great Independence Days. Since returning to civilian life, I can’t shake the feeling that our modern-day celebrations are missing something important. The more I turn back to these memories, the more I find myself wishing for the kind of unity the Fourth used to carry.
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