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The old-timers up here (all of them walked barefoot to school going uphill both directions all winter) had not a few quips about northern summers and winters. Some were firm in the conviction that the Fourth of July WAS summer, as everyone knew, because that was the day the fishermen on the big lake had their annual baseball game. I’ve often wondered at the connection between Scandinavians who choked herring for a livelihood and Abner Doubleday’s game, but I suspect it is simple as a baseball game being a great way to express their feeling and love for their new home, America.
As immigrants (as were members of my family, from a different part of Europe), the newcomers were eager to join in the spirit of the nation they gladly called home. This did not mean they held any less regard for their native soil or language. They still loved and respected their roots and traditions. But they had a firm and lively commitment to their new homeland. This passion for the country they adopted was so strong in some that I had an uncle back in Chicago who adamantly and bluntly refused to discuss where he’d come from. What mattered to him was that he was now an American. He remained to the day he died an American with a Polish accent, and he stayed steadfast in heartfelt appreciation for the country that welcomed him and that he served as a very young man during WW I. Whatever it was he left behind was not important enough for him to ever think it more important than loyalty and devotion to the home of his choice.
Many times, I fear, we are less than appreciative of our complex and unique history. As a nation of free people, we are free to be critical, and so we are. If you listen to people talk politics, you will hear considerable complaint and fault finding. Focus on failings and shortcomings can make us ungrateful, or at the very least less aware of the very many good things that are part of the society and nation we are free to criticize in public and not be called traitors or strung up as blasphemers. The value of the freedom to be critical is one we should not overlook or forget about. Without such freedom, people are forced into slavish obedience to creeds and systems serving the ends of masters who turn not killing those slaves into acts of high kindness and moral superiority. It’s true. There are nations, cultures, and creeds that treat people exactly as slaves who exist solely to serve whatever dogma best pleases their particular brand of fat cat, who benefits from and enjoys the worshipful slavery of the masses.
Quite recently I wrote about Colonel Colvill from my area because it was this time of year on the second day of Gettysburg that he did his duty leading his First Minnesota Brigade (their numbers down to under 300) against a force three times their number. Colvill accepted an order as close to suicide as you can find. He received three wounds, and 80 percent of the First Minnesota was lost. But they held the line they had to keep long enough for reinforcements to come up and prevent a rout.
Did they do this—did they risk and sacrifice life—for high pay or future benefits? They did not. The First Minnesota was a brigade of ordinary young men who’d been farmers and laborers. But they so loved the concept of freedom and the value of a united nation that they were willing to die in order to ensure its preservation. I am incapable of writing that line without wanting to weep for the beauty of their courage and sacrifice and feel great shame that in my day and age it is too easy to scoff at or turn away from such nobility because we fear paying the price. But there is a far worse price to pay in a society that loses its ideals and favors easygoing security to the dangers of living to one’s ideals and principles.
I’m reminded of being a Boy Scout and seeing people snicker at our attempts at patriotism. We likely were a sorry and pathetic sight, but not so what we hoped to stand for and keep alive. No single boy in the troop was capable of living up to all the ideals presented to us, but not a single one of us was harmed or made lesser by exposure to ideals far beyond our grasp and ken. A line of Scouts is no comparison to the First Minnesota, but they share a common dream and a mutual hope for a free and better future. Not a man in the First Minnesota surrendered his life because he had to. He did so for love of a national ideal. Not a one in the First Minnesota died as a slave fighting for freedom. They gave their lives, to which they were as attached as you and I are to ours. They gave them for the future. They gave them for us and for many that we would enjoy a free union where the individual is not a slave owned by another or controlled by an ideology of any source.
So here we are entering another Fourth where I’m free to make quips about the celebration and enjoy a good life without fear that some pack of human bounty hunters will snatch me up for a life of servitude, or that a nest of zealots will descend demanding allegiance and obedience to a cockamamie creed they believe is sacred and holy. We get to say phooey and live our lives as we wish because others have sacrificed their most precious lives. Some will tell you it is just as noble to die or kill others for the sake of a creed. Don’t believe it. True nobility (the Godhead, so to speak) is found only from sacrifice made for the freedom and future of others. THAT defines the true meaning behind the Fourth.