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REMEMBERING INDEPENDENCE DAY

July 4, 2020

My mother was born on July 4, 1922.

When I was a boy, I was impressed that, on Mama’s birthday, everybody took the day off. The entire Neely family, as many as fifty-six of us, gathered at the family farm for the afternoon. We enjoyed a picnic featuring fried chicken, soggy tomato sandwiches, coleslaw, potato salad, deviled eggs, and blackberry cobbler. We went swimming in the pond. Some tried fishing, but the mosquitoes were biting more than the fish. After a supper of leftovers, we watched as our uncles put on a fireworks display.

Because it was Mama’s birthday, it took me a while to realize that all of the festivities within our family and across the United States were not just in her honor. Also, we were celebrating the birth of our nation.   

In 1776, the Second Continental Congress unanimously adopted the Declaration of Independence. The American colonies officially separated themselves from the authority of England, and a new country was born.

When I was a student at Cooperative School, one of my teachers required the class to memorize a brief passage from the Declaration. At the family picnic, those who knew the selection repeated it by heart. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

The importance of the Declaration can be underestimated even by the most loyal Americans. Students in a sociology class designed a research project. They printed out the words of the Declaration of Independence and placed copies of the document on clipboards. Without identifying the document as the Declaration, the students invited people at a shopping mall, to read and sign the petition. Most people refused to sign their names. They thought the document was too radical and would incite too much conflict.

The fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence were committing an act of treason against King George III. Though the names Franklin, Adams, Hancock, and Jefferson are familiar, few residents of the Palmetto State can name the four South Carolinians who placed their signatures on this document. They were Edward Rutledge, Thomas Heyward, Jr., Thomas Lynch, Jr., and Arthur Middleton.

In 1956, Paul Harvey, in “The Rest of the Story” radio broadcast, presented a moving editorial about the signers of the Declaration of Independence. The following is my summary.

On July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was adopted.

 Ben Franklin, seventy years old, was the oldest among the fifty-six signers. Eighteen were under forty; three were in their twenties. Almost half were judges and lawyers. Eleven were merchants, nine were landowners and farmers, and twelve were doctors, ministers, and politicians.

With few exceptions, such as Samuel Adams of Massachusetts, these were men of wealth.  All but two had families. They were educated and well respected.

Each had more to lose from revolution than he had to gain by it. John Hancock, one of the richest men in America, already had a price on his head. He signed his name in enormous letters so “that his Majesty could now read his name without glasses and could now double the reward.”

These men knew what they risked. The penalty for treason was death by hanging. It was principle, not property, that had brought these men to Philadelphia. Ben Franklin wryly noted: “Indeed we must all hang together; otherwise, we shall most assuredly hang separately.”

 All of them became the objects of British manhunts. Some were captured. Some had narrow escapes. All suffered who had property or families near British strongholds.

Francis Lewis, New York delegate, saw his home plundered and his estate completely destroyed. His wife was treated with brutality and died from abuse.

William Floyd, another New York delegate, was able to escape with his wife and children across Long Island Sound to Connecticut. They lived as refugees without income for seven years. When they came home, they found a devastated ruin.

Phillips Livingstone saw all of his extensive holdings in New York confiscated, and his family driven out of their home.

Louis Morris, the fourth New York delegate, saw all his timber, crops, and livestock taken. For seven years, he was barred from his home and family.

John Hart of Trenton, New Jersey, risked his life to return home to see his dying wife. While his wife lay on her deathbed, Hessian soldiers ruined his farm. Hart slept in caves and woods as he was hunted across the countryside. When at long last, emaciated by hardship, he was able to sneak home, he found his wife had already been buried, and his thirteen children taken away. He never saw any of them again.

Dr. John Witherspoon was president of the College of New Jersey, later called Princeton. The British occupied the town of Princeton, billeted troops in the college, and burned the finest library in the country.

Judge Richard Stockton, another New Jersey delegate, had rushed back to his estate in an effort to evacuate his wife and children. The family found refuge with friends, but a Loyalist sympathizer betrayed them. Stockton was pulled from bed in the night and cruelly beaten by the arresting soldiers. Thrown into a common jail, he was nearly starved. The judge was released as an invalid. He returned home to find his estate looted and did not live to see the triumph of the Revolution. His family was forced to live off of charity.

Robert Morris of Philadelphia met Washington’s appeals and pleas for money time and again. He sacrificed one hundred and fifty merchant ships, depleting his own fortune.

Dr. Benjamin Rush from Pennsylvania was forced to flee to Maryland. As a heroic surgeon with the army, Rush had several narrow escapes from the British.

John Morton lived in a strongly Loyalist area of Pennsylvania. When he came out for independence, most of his neighbors and even some of his relatives ostracized him.

William Ellery, Rhode Island delegate, saw his property and home burned to the ground.

South Carolina delegate, Thomas Lynch, Jr., served as a company commander in the Patriot army. His health was broken from deprivation and exposure. His doctors ordered him to seek a cure in the West Indies. On the voyage, he and his young bride were drowned at sea.

In the siege of Charleston, the British captured Edward Rutledge, Arthur Middleton, and Thomas Heyward, Jr., the other three South Carolina signers. They were exchanged at the end of the war. The British completely devastated their plantations.

Thomas Nelson of Virginia was in command of the Virginia militia at Yorktown. When British General Charles Cornwallis moved his headquarters into Nelson’s palatial house, Nelson cried, “Give me the cannon!” and fired on his own magnificent home himself, smashing it to bits. He had raised two million dollars for the Revolutionary cause by pledging his own estates. When the loans came due, a newer peacetime Congress refused to honor them, and Nelson’s property was forfeited. He died, impoverished at the age of 50.

Of the fifty-six who signed the Declaration of Independence, nine died of wounds. Five were captured, imprisoned, and treated with brutality. Several lost their wives; others lost their entire families. Twelve signers saw their homes burned to the ground. Seventeen lost everything they owned. Yet not one defected or went back on his pledged word.

Independence Day, July 4, 1776, was not a day off and certainly not a vacation. It was not about fireworks and picnics. It was the beginning of a war for independence marked with musket and cannon fire, death, and destruction. The freedoms we enjoy were hard-won.

Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence, composed a magnificent closing line. These Patriots took a great risk when they signed, “And for the support of this Declaration with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”

For the signers of the Declaration, that was no idle boast. It was a solemn vow, one that cost them dearly and secured our liberty.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor.  He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

THE MAGIC OF FIREFLIES

June 27, 2020

Five years ago, on the first day of summer, a Sunday evening, right at dusk, the power went out at our house. Clare and I were sitting on our back porch, enjoying the ceiling fans and ice-cold beverages. When the fans stopped, and the lights went dark, we experienced something that is rare in our area of the county. Without artificial lights, there might have been total darkness.

The sky was clear blue darkening to indigo. Stars were coming out. The backyard lawn, a mix of Kentucky fescue, South Carolina Bermuda grass, and patches of white clover, grew darker by the minute. Then there were lights, hundreds of tiny flickering specks of light, hovering above the lawn. Lightning bugs put on a silent show in our backyard.

“They seem to be synchronized,” Clare said.

I agreed. It was as if Christmas lights had been strung across the open expanse and arranged so that they flashed off and on in some magical way.

An hour or so later, Duke Energy crews had the power restored. The fans were turning, the air conditioner was back in business, the refrigerator was again humming, and the lights were back on. I am grateful for those folks who work on a muggy Sunday night to keep the rest of us comfortable. But I must confess, I was also thankful for an hour of darkness that allowed me to see magical lights of stars in the sky and fireflies in the garden.  

Granny was my maternal grandmother.  She lived on South Converse Street in Spartanburg. From the time I was ten years old, I cut her fescue grass with an old-fashioned push reel lawnmower. Granny’s yard was so small that I could mow her lawn in about a half an hour.

In the summertime, I went to Granny’s house after supper, cut her grass, drank a glass of lemonade, and sat on the porch until dark watching the fireflies come out.

Running barefooted through Granny’s bluegrass as I tried to catch lightning bugs remains one of my favorite summertime memories.

When is the last time you saw a lightning bug?

Some folks have seen increasing numbers of these night visitors. Other people believe the twinkling flying lights are vanishing.  I posed the question last month to a book club that I lead. The responses were mixed.

“Growing up, I saw fireflies all the time, now I don’t see them anymore,” answered one fellow.

“I’ve got plenty of them at my place down near the river,” responded another.

Firefly Watch, based at the Museum of Science in Boston, has researched the question. They provide good information and possible solutions for revitalizing the firefly population.

 Lightning bugs are actually beetles. Fireflies are winged, distinguishing them from other luminescent insects commonly known as glowworms. They are surprisingly long-lived, but they spend most of their lifespan, two years or more, as grubs underground. The night lights that we see represent only about the last two weeks of their existence.

That magical display is all about producing more fireflies. They use those tiny lights to attract a mate. The males are the ones flying around flashing. Females are perched in tall grass, blinking subtly, waiting for a rendezvous with one of the show-offs.

This is where the plot thickens. There are more than 2000 species, each with a distinctive blinking pattern. Females hiding in the grass use these flash patterns, not only to attract a mate but also to fool others. Some mimic the patterns of another species and then eat the hopeful mate. Call them plural femmes fatales.

Where firefly populations have dwindled, researchers offer several remedies.

  • Remember that lightning bugs are not flies; they are beetles. So, if you want these flying nightlights to grace your garden, avoid using pesticides that target beetles.
  • Since these delightful guests spend most of their lives underground, anything that disturbs the soil or kills grubs will diminish the firefly population.
  • Mature fireflies prefer tall grass and moist soil. Frequent mowing of the grass too short contributes to drier, packed earth, and negatively affects grub habitat.
  • Outside artificial lighting affects the ability of lightning bugs to find mates.

Because these insects are a rather nondescript beetle by day and wait until dark to put on their dazzling display, they have a secret life. They are a flying chemical reaction that produces the sparkling light that we see. Their family name is Lampyridae from the Greek word meaning to shine. The light of these creatures varies in color from pale yellow to light red, from subtle green to muted orange. Firefly seems more poetic than fire beetle.

Some people vow and declare that lightning bugs do not inhabit the Western United States. Of the more than 2000 species of fireflies, only some actually light up. The ones that do don’t live west of the Rocky Mountains. California has fireflies, but they are not the kind equipped to twinkle. 

Some species synchronize their flashes in a light show that seems to be choreographed and well-rehearsed. Perhaps this is because flashing the species pattern in unison will ensure that females of the same species notice the males. Photinus carolinus is the only species in America that flash simultaneously; one place to see them is at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which features firefly tours directed by park rangers.

            I have never tasted a firefly, but my cat, Stormy, has. Her experiment didn’t last long. Firefly blood contains lucibufagin, a defensive steroid that tastes terrible. On the other hand, underground-dwelling larvae of the lightning bug are carnivorous. They feast on slugs, worms, and snails. Some resort to cannibalism and devour other fireflies. Once they become adults, they may not eat anything during their short lives.

            Oddly, lightning bug larvae develop their glow underground, perhaps leading to the concept of a glow worm. Among some species, even the eggs glow.

            Some species are aquatic. They lay their eggs, and their larvae live in the water. They have gills and dine on marine snails before climbing their way up a stalk of vegetation to take wing as an adult.

If you’re seeing fewer fireflies each summer, you’re not alone. Firefly populations may be on the decline due to a combination of light pollution, pesticide use, and habitat destruction.

I have tried to be intentional in being certain that my garden is firefly friendly. There are specific steps we can take to attract fireflies to our backyard. These suggestions are adapted from an article by Melissa Breyer published online on May 29, 2014. I take it that Melissa is a firefly enthusiast. 

            “Few things in nature are as magical as a backyard coruscating with the glow of fireflies. With that in mind, making a firefly-friendly garden can serve two purposes: it can help the fireflies, and it can fill your summer dusk with the beguiling beauty of bioluminescence! Don’t you want to see more fireflies in your backyard? Here’s how to make it happen.”  

  • Skip the chemicals. Most chemicals used outdoors to kill or deter certain bugs aren’t that selective; they will likely kill or deter fireflies as well. And since larvae are born underground, lawn chemicals in the soil will be detrimental as well.
  • Don’t disrupt the slimy things. As magical as fireflies may be, the larvae have a less-than-enchanting secret: they’re small carnivores that feast on worms, grubs, slugs, and snails. They do so by immobilizing their prey with toxic enzymes before sucking out the liquefied body contents. Sweet! Leave their slimy victims alone! Keep the zombie bug babies happy so that they can grow up to become pretty fireflies.
  • Provide good cover. During the day, nocturnal adult fireflies hide in the grass and low-profile plants. A nice variety of shrubs, high grass, and low-growing plants will provide shelter.
  • Give them what they like. Fireflies like moist areas, especially wet meadows, forest edges, farm fields, and wild bog, marsh, stream, and lake edges.
  • Plant flowers. With 2,000 species of fireflies — and many of them having different diets — it may be hard to pinpoint what your local variety likes to eat. Many adult fireflies eat very little, but regardless, many eat a mixture of pollen and nectar, so having a lot of flowers around should prove enticing. That approach is right for other pollinators, too!
  • Dim the lights. Since fireflies are so reliant on their light, confusing them with artificial light can cause problems. Street lamps, garden lights, and porch lights can all make fireflies a little shy.

When Clare’s mother died, we were cleaning out her home. Under her kitchen sink, she had a stash of Duke’s mayonnaise jars.

“Why did she save all those jars?” I asked.

“So we could catch lightning bugs!” chorused our children.

Times have changed, so the last suggestion is based on conservation concerns.

  • Resist the urge to put them in a jar. Yes, it may be one of the joys of childhood, but if you and your children and grandchildren collect fireflies in a container, do not take them indoors. Watch them. Enjoy them. Release them as you would a caught fish that you do not intend to eat. It is best to enjoy them as they flit about freely outside.

The first day of summer this year again fell on a Sunday night. We did not have a power outage. But after supper, Clare and I sat on the backporch and witnessed the joy of two of our granddaughters as they chased fireflies.

It is one of the simple pleasures of summertime.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

A STORY FOR FATHER’S DAY

June 21, 2020

A historical marker in front of the Holiday Inn in Newport, Tennessee, gives a brief synopsis of the life of Ben Hooper. A compelling part of the story comes from Dr. Fred Craddock, an outstanding preacher. I have heard and told this story many times. It is one of my favorites. Like most good stories, there are numerous variations.

Dr. Craddock was a professor of preaching at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta.  He and his wife needed a vacation.  They went to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, where they rented a quaint cabin beside a mountain stream. 

On the first night of their getaway, the Craddocks visited a mom-and-pop restaurant.  It was not a fancy place.  It featured wooden chairs and tables, plaid tablecloths, and excellent down-home cooking.

As they waited for their meal to be served, they noticed an old man enter the restaurant.  Wearing overalls, he looked the part of a mountaineer.  He went around the room, moving from one table to another, greeting the guests at each table. 

Fred Craddock thought, “We’ve come to Gatlinburg to get away from people!  I’ll bet this old man is going to bother us!” 

Sure enough, the old man made his way around the room and came over to their table. “Hi, where are you folks from?” 

“We’re from Atlanta.” 

“What do you do in Atlanta?” 

Hoping to put him off, Craddock said, “I am a professor of homiletics.” 

“Oh, you teach preachers how to preach!” 

Dr. Craddock was confounded. The old man knew what the word homiletics meant. 

With that, the old man pulled up a chair and sat down at the table with Dr. and Mrs. Craddock.  He said, “I have a preacher story to tell you.” 

Craddock thought, “I’ll bet I have heard this story fifty times.” 

The old man started spinning his tale: “I was born and raised right here in the mountains of East Tennessee.  I never knew who my father was.  My mother gave me her name, not my father’s name because she did not want me to hold a grudge against him.  I was born out of wedlock, an illegitimate child.  Back in those days, that was quite a stigma to live with. 

“I always felt bad about myself.  When I was growing up, my classmates at school said some very unkind things about me.  When I went to town on Saturday, I had the feeling that people were talking about me behind my back.  After I was born, my mother did not go to church anymore.  She did not feel welcome. 

“My grandmother knew how important it was for me to attend worship.  Every Sunday, she took me to a little Methodist church nestled against the hillside.  We would arrive just as the service started so we could avoid speaking to anyone.  We would sit on the back pew.  When the service was over, we would leave immediately after the benediction and scoot right out the door.  We didn’t want to talk to anybody!

“I would listen to the preacher, but I did not like him very much.  He was a large man with a big booming voice. He had bushy eyebrows that jumped up and down when he preached.  He shook his finger a lot. I always had the feeling he was pointing right at me.  That booming voice and that pointing finger were quite intimidating.  I was afraid of the preacher.  For fourteen years, we had been going to that little church. 

“One Sunday, as we started to leave, the usher stopped us at our usual exit. ‘You can’t go out this way.  We’ve had a winter storm, and ice and snow have covered the steps.  It isn’t safe.  You’ll need to leave by the side door.’

For the first time, I found myself caught up in the line of people headed down front to speak to the preacher.  I did not want to talk to that preacher.  He frightened me so much!  I was walking down the aisle, glancing to the left and to the right.  I saw the side door and saw my opportunity to make an escape.  As I started for the exit, I felt an enormous hand on my shoulder.  I whirled around, and I was staring straight into the face of the preacher.

The preacher asked me the question that I had dreaded for fourteen years, ‘Boy, who is your daddy?’

The silence of that moment was deafening.  

Then the preacher looked at me and said, ‘Oh, now I see the resemblance.  You are a child of God.  Go and claim your inheritance.’”

Fred Craddock said he felt cold chills going up and down his spine.  He looked at that old mountaineer and said, “Please tell me your name.”

The old man said, “My name is Ben Hooper.” 

Then Dr. Craddock remembered his own grandfather telling him the story of an illegitimate boy who grew up in the mountains of East Tennessee, a boy who became an attorney, a boy whom the people of Tennessee later elected to two terms as their governor.

That boy was Ben Hooper.

On Father’s Day, those of us who have been blessed with a great dad have reason to celebrate. If our dad is still with us, we can enjoy the opportunity to be with him. If our father is no longer with us, we have cherished memories and favorite stories to recall.

The truth is that there are many children like young Ben Hooper who have not had the benefit of a loving father. For some children, dad has been absent, negligent, or abusive. For those children, someone else needs to bridge the gap. That person may be an uncle, a grandfather, a teacher, a coach, or, as in the case of Ben Hooper, a pastor.

People of faith affirm that every child has two fathers. We have an earthly father who may be a treasure or a bitter disappointment. We have a Father in heaven who never fails to be faithful and loving.

That is a reason to celebrate Father’s Day.