The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer.
In the sixth grade we studied what we smelly nose pickers called the Declaration of Underpants. Where was it signed? At the bottom! Ha and ha. My pal Chuck Muncey dubbed Independence Day “The Forge of a Lie.” None of us had any clue what that meant, but we were sure it was shrewd political satire. (“Chuckles” probably got it from his dad, a Nixon hater.)
We also thought every episode of “Gilligan’s Island” was a brilliant tour de force rich with profound insight.
Growing up in the West, the Fourth was all about fireworks and not losing a thumb to an illegal firecracker. All I knew was gunslingers and conquistadors. All that Colonial stuff happened a million years ago. Didn’t George Washington’s men fly into battle on the backs of pterodactyls? Our origin story happened too far away and too long ago to hold any allure for this 12-year-old patriot with a ringing ear and two singed thumbs.
The Master Sergeant would “post the colors” on our porch and tell us to love America because “There’s no place better, and that’s what Tommy Jefferson, Patrick Henry and John Adams and the entire Addams family fought for.” What did the old man say? Lurch was at Bull Run?
Then he’d fire up the grill and say, “Give me my hamburger well done — or give me death!”
And that was our Fourth of July. A holiday for flags, fireworks and barbecues. About something that happened long ago and far away. “A revolting development” led by men in funny hats.
It wasn’t until I took a job at the Virginian-Pilot/Ledger Star in Norfolk, Virginia, that I fell deeply in love with the story of our Revolution, plaque by plaque, monument by monument, graveyard by graveyard.
Every Fourth I am reminded of these East Coast pilgrimages. Independence Hall. The Liberty Bell. The room where a more perfect union was formed. Boston. The North Church bell tower. Old Ironsides. Bull Run. Monticello. Williamsburg. And my favorite, Yorktown.
I came to love the surprising details:
If not for the French warships blocking British reinforcements, we would not have won the day at Yorktown.
A feckless American Congress wouldn’t fund shoes for the Continental Army freezing to death at Valley Forge.
A Boston bookstore owner organized the herculean effort to drag cannons from up north to fire down on the British occupying Boston.
And how can you not love a spy named Hercules Mulligan?
Deborah Sampson concealed her identity as a revolutionary soldier named Robert Shirtliff until she was wounded in battle and a field surgeon discovered a founding mother among our Founding Fathers.
John Adams defended the British soldiers who “massacred” five unruly Americans in Boston. Thanks to the future president, the redcoats were acquitted.
Marquis de Lafayette was but 19 when he arrived in the United States in 1777, inspired by the American Revolution, asking to serve America. In 1781, Gen. Washington sent him to Virginia to lead an Army division that swarmed and trapped the redcoats at Yorktown in a crushing defeat that forced England’s surrender.
And then there is the modest plaque near Washington’s Mount Vernon crypt: “In memory of the Afro-Americans who served as slaves at Mount Vernon. This monument marking their burial ground dedicated September 21, 1983. Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.” Fifty to 75 souls who perished in bondage to our First Revolutionary lay buried there.
When I was 10, cap guns holstered, I was elated to stand on the very spot where the OK Corral shootout went down. Two decades later that moment was profoundly eclipsed when I stood in the middle of a hallowed field in Yorktown where allied American and French forces stood in two rows so the defeated redcoats of General Charles Lord Cornwallis could march in single file between them to lay down their arms. When Washington’s No. 2 man accepted the sword of Cornwallis’ deputy, our path to a constitutional democratic republic began.
It’s a marvel that our revolutionaries, in the age of monarchs, emperors and despots, said to The People, “Keep your guns. Speak freely. Enjoy a free press. Worship as you like. Petition your government. Protest as loud as you like. And if you’re so inclined, start your own revolution, and vote us all out of office.”
What revolutionary force today would struggle for years to seize power only to relinquish it to the masses?
That is the miracle of 1776. A miracle worth remembering. A magnificent revolution worth dying for. A glorious revolution worth celebrating.
And celebrate I will. We’ll post Old Glory. We’ll grill up vittles with family and friends — patriots all. And then we’ll watch our Western sky light up with dazzling fireworks, spectacular bombs bursting in air that will sound to this desert rat like the fury of the noble cannon barrages at Yorktown that forever turned this world upside down.