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The Grandest Fourth Of July – 1976

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As a child, Fourth of July used to mean going to the drive-in to see a live-action Disney film, always something along the lines of The Apple Dumpling Gang. A foam mattress was plopped onto the roof of my parent's station wagon and we four kids followed, along with a lone bucket of popcorn and two sodas between us.

After the movie, there was a spectacular display of color and light followed by a crackly rendition of the "Star Spangled Banner" over a few hundred box-speakers dangling precariously from the windowpanes of all the cars. It was a wonderful, but relatively meaningless tradition until years later when my parents announced different plans for the holiday.

The best Fourth of July I've ever experienced was during the opening ceremonies of the Bicentennial celebration at Cessna Stadium in Wichita, Kansas in 1976. Following an unprecedented number of heartwarming, patriotic performers was an equally unprecedented fireworks display, the likes of which Wichita had never seen. The sky lit up such that one could see for miles away if one could even take their eyes off of the layers upon layers of color and light. All of this synchronized to Wichita's first ever radio music show broadcast in perfect timing with the fireworks displays both in the air and on the ground.

But that wasn't the grandest part.

Before the festivities began, the stadium was called to its feet as the color guard from nearby McConnell Air Force Base began its march across the length of the field. Everyone, including the thousands surrounding the stadium up and down Hillside and stretching for many blocks along 21st Street, was silent. The color guard had gone about 20 steps when someone in the stadium began to sing "The Star Spangled Banner." I don't mean someone had been hired to do so nor was the person anywhere near a microphone. I mean a random someone began singing.

By the fourth line of the anthem, the swell of voices had reached me and my family way up in the cheap seats. Too, there was an unseen wave of emotion that gently rocked every row as it made its way up the bleachers and into the high risers. The faint echo of those on the street could barely be heard but soon it was strong and I was completely taken aback by the scores of people who knew every word of every verse.

By the second verse, several square blocks and hundreds of thousands of people were singing in near-unison, loud but not shouting, proud but not pious. No color guard has ever been so accompanied. We had all come singularly to celebrate in this, our day. And here we all were, together, to rejoice in this, our country.

It was the single-most splendid day of my life as an American. I've since measured every patriotic event against that day, and all have fallen depressingly short with their histrionic, half-hearted, hyped-up attempts at externally prompting that which can only be internally felt.

Years later, I would send my children from by my side to greet their father upon his return from six months in Iraq and Liberia. I always made sure I was last to greet him because my hugs took the longest. Not long before that deployment, I'd sent them to greet him upon his return from the Adriatic Sea and Croatia. Before that, Turkey, Norway, and Okinawa. Before the planes would land or the busses would pull in, the Commands would have set up an area for families to gather, enjoy refreshments, and listen to patriotic music.

While parents, grandparents, and children thought little of it and in fact enjoyed it, I wasn't the only spouse who thought the playing of patriotic music was not only annoying, but also inappropriate.

The reunion of service members with their spouses is not a celebration of this country's founding and its freedoms. The reunion is the final chapter in a love story. We the spouses and service members endure indefinable hardships while we are separated. We worry for each other, writing thousands of words back and forth, trying desperately to keep it light and loving when the realities from both sides of the deployment are ever-looming. What should be played at reunions is "Nights in White Satin."

Whether it was the piercing fluorescent lights of the hospital room where a severely injured child lay or the bursts of blinding flash from roadside bombs, what we celebrate when we are finally able to be with each other is our undying love and dedication to each other. The country got what it wanted; now, it can bloody well wait while my children get to know the smell that is uniquely their father, and he and I get to hold and be held by the only person we've come to love.

This, I suddenly realize, is the unbridgeable gap between that deeply touching moment in Cessna stadium and every Fourth of July celebration I've attended since: love. The day is now dressed up in red, white, and blue, forced upon us like some sort of cough medicine. Songs that used to define and inspire have since been replaced by glorified jingles.

Flags fly and so few really know why. The Preamble is recited and so few really know what the words mean. Being American is no longer a choice made or a lifestyle second to none. It's been made out to be an unmovable solid when nothing is more fluid and mobile than those who made it all possible and the things they did to make their dreams a reality — our reality. Our homage is obligatory. What could be more loveless?

That day, that solemn moment in 1976 was not about freedom and democracy. It was not a celebration of many different things for many different people. It was about one family, the Americans, and their undying love for the family head they'd all gathered to greet: the United States. People said "Happy Birthday" to each other and rejoiced in the fact that we'd made it. I was only 14-years-old. I didn't know what they meant — made what?

We were all so happy, to be sure, for each other and ourselves, but more than that, my fellow Americans were relieved — relieved to have endured 200 years of tyranny, enslavement, wars, and disease and come out on the better side of humanity. Generations of people from all over the world had come together decade after decade, now century after century, contributing to what would one day be this moment in time, no one person left out of this history made from a stew of liberties, oppression, will, weakness, and determination.

While the "Star Spangled Banner" is primarily an acknowledgement of our flag's survival through battle, it is the essence of that which we should be celebrating — our own survival, thriving, strong backs, bravery, fortitude, and love. The flag still waves on poles across the nation because it's made out of synthetic fibers that resist flame and weather. We the people are still able to wave them because we are made from the surest stock of every country on the planet.

I read in the papers and see the stories on TV of those who are forever looking, finding, and/or providing the easiest ways out of working, providing, contributing, and being someone that would reflect accurately on the massive gene pool whence they came. I feel discouraged and not so patriotic. It is especially disheartening to see citizens pitted against each other, having chosen this or having been manipulated into it. Then I remember the days my husband and thousands of other Marines disembarked and I remember that day in Cessna Stadium.

It's good to be American. It's great to know why.


Nights in White Satin by The Moody Blues

Nights in white satin/ Never reaching the end/ Letters I've written/ Never meaning to send.
Beauty I'd always missed/ With these eyes before/ Just what the truth is/ I cant say anymore.
'Cause I love you/ Yes, I love you/ Oh, how, I love you.

Gazing at people/ Some hand in hand/ Just what I'm going thru/ They can understand.
Some try to tell me/ Thoughts they cannot defend/ Just what you want to be/ You will be in the end,
Nights in white satin/ Never reaching the end/ Letters I've written/ Never meaning to send.
Beauty I'd always missed/ With these eyes before/ Just what the truth is/ I cant say anymore.

The Star Spangled Banner by Francis Scott Key

Oh, say can you see by the dawn's early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars thru the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket's 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?
On the shore, dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:
'Tis the star-spangled banner! Oh long may it wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion,
A home and a country should leave us no more!
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps' pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war's desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heav'n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: "In God is our trust."
And the Star-Spangled Banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

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About Diana Hartman

Diana is a USMC (ret.) spouse, mother of three and a Wichita, Kansas native. She is back in the United States after 10 years in Germany. She is a contributing author to Holiday Writes. She hates liver & motivational speakers. She loves science & naps.
  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    Great piece, Diana,

    Look at it this way. If you and the United States make it to 2026, you’ll have something to be thankful for, another milestone birthday to celebrate, and a life to look back upon – and write about.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writer.php?name=diana+hartman diana hartman

    thank you ruvy!

  • dad

    I agree with your thoughts in this article. It’s also nice to know that something we felt was special is still special to your memory.

  • Clavos

    It’s good to be American. It’s great to know why.

    It certainly is, Diana. Great article.

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    In the summer of ’76 we’d just gotten back from living in the Soviet Union, and let me assure you, that contrast gave me a real appreciation of what made the US special at its bicentennial.

    Dave