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THE SOLAR ECLIPSE

August 13, 2017

I was driving east on I-26 one morning last week. The rising sun was shining brightly. Suddenly, things became dark. A large eighteen-wheel truck passed me, moving between my vehicle and the glaring light. The big rig momentarily obscured my view of the yellow orb.

This is exactly what happens in a solar eclipse. The moon’s orbit takes it between the earth and the sun, blocking most of the solar rays for a brief time. It is an unusual occurrence; one that most people experience only a few times in their lives.

The total solar eclipse will be best seen in what is known as the totality path. That is the area from which the eclipse will be complete. This seventy-mile-wide path stretches across the United States from Salem, Oregon, to Charleston, South Carolina. Those in the path will be able to see a total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017.  Many in the United States will be able to see a partially blocked sun. Some in the Upstate are directly in the path. Most of us will see only a partial eclipse. The last total solar eclipse visible in the United States was in 1979. The next will be in 2024.

Folks have anticipated this rare cosmic phenomenon. Local schools have even given school children the day off to witness the event. Clare and I are looking forward to having children and grandchildren with us for the spectacle.

A note of caution is important. It is dangerous to look at the sun with unprotected eyes. The intense radiation can damage our retinae. To watch the eclipse, get a pair of special glasses. They can be purchased online. Make sure the glasses are up to the right standard. They should be marked ISO 12312-2. Don’t look at the sun through binoculars, telescopes, or your camera’s viewfinder. Read more…

THE DOG DAYS OF SUMMER

August 6, 2017

I was saddened to hear the story of a dog that was found by a police officer in a hot car at a shopping mall last week. The officer shattered the car window to rescue the bulldog from the sweltering car. The animal was lying on the passenger seat, panting, wheezing, and unable to move. The officer took the dog to an emergency veterinary clinic before transporting him to the Humane Society. The shelter reported that the dog died due to complications from heat stroke after he was left in the car. The dog’s owner was arrested and charged with animal cruelty,

Earlier this summer, I read the story about a woman who left her miniature schnauzer inside her automobile in a hot parking lot while she spent more than hour in an air-conditioned beauty salon. Though she left the windows partially opened so her pet would have fresh air, the well-coiffed lady returned, only to find that her dog had died. She, too, was charged with animal cruelty.

It makes you wonder why we call these hot, humid days the Dog Days of summer. Read more…

THE RED CABOOSE

July 30, 2017

As I enjoyed breakfast at the Skillet, a fellow sat next to me on one of the spinning stools at the counter.

“Are you Kirk Neely?” he inquired.

“Yes,” I responded, shaking his hand.

He commented on this column, saying he was a regular reader, and admitted that he was a little older than I am. It was then that our conversation turned to the many changes that have occurred during our lifetime. We listed a number of things that have vanished. Some things are best relegated to the past, such as water fountains identified as white and colored, for example.

Other things had probably made life better. I asked him if he, as a child, had ever caught a crawfish on a chicken gizzard or kicked a tin can down a country road. A bunch of kids playing baseball until they wanted to do something else was better than having to wear a uniform and play for a certain number of innings surrounded by eager adults more interested in who wins and who loses the game.

After I left the Skillet, I stopped by the public library. While there, I began thinking of the parts of my life as a boy that I really miss now.  In a journal that I usually have with me, I began making a list.  Of course, the most important entries were the people who have left this life for the next. But I also listed such simple memories as a slice of Mammy’s warm apple pie topped with vanilla ice cream, fishing in a farm pond with Pappy, swapping yarns with my uncles, listening to my dad whistle, and hearing my mother sing. I miss the lumberyard and the fragrance of pinesap mingled with cigar smoke. At the bottom of my list I jotted the words red caboose. And then Bill Drake; I still miss Bill Drake.

Several years ago Bill and I were invited to hold a book signing at Magnolia Station. Nearby was the Hub City Farmer’s Market, crowded with shoppers, purchasing freshly baked bread and homegrown produce.  Local vendors offered squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, and sweet corn.

Bill and I were positioned under a canopy near the newly-restored Southern Railway bright red caboose. It is a thing of beauty.  Those who worked on its restoration gave great attention to detail. It is well worth a trip to Magnolia Station to view the caboose. Take you children or your grandchildren with you. They might not ever see another caboose.

Later that day I watched a Norfolk Southern freight, having two engines and perhaps eighty cars, rumble past my house. Now that there is an inland port in Greer, that train is just one of eighteen or so that travel along the tracks located at the rear of our property every day. Not a single one of those trains has a caboose at the end.

A train without a caboose is like a good breakfast without a cup of coffee. A train with no caboose is incomplete; it is an unfinished symphony, a mystery novel with the last page ripped out. What happened to the familiar red caboose that signaled the end of every train?

It is generally thought that the name caboose came from the Dutch word for a ship’s galley, kabuis, indicating that a primary function was to provide a place where food for the crew was prepared.

The first cabooses in the early 1800s, merely wooden shacks built on an empty flatcar, protected the train crew from the weather. Railroad companies realized that it offered a good vantage point to observe the tail end of the train. A cupola was added to provide a lookout post atop the caboose. The caboose’s role as a form of shelter was transformed  into being an essential safety feature.

During the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, the caboose carried a conductor, brakeman, and flagman. Before the era of automatic air brakes, the engineer signaled by whistle the need to slow down or stop. The rear brakeman’s job was to climb over the moving train and make his way forward, turning brake wheels on each car. When the train stopped, the flagman signaled approaching trains to halt. The crew sitting in the cupola of the moving train watched for smoke from overheated wheels called hotboxes or other signs of trouble.

By the 1970s the caboose had become a thing of the past. Railroad crews call the new technology that has replaced the caboose FRED (Flashing Rear End Device). A FRED is attached to the last car’s rear coupler and connected to the train’s air brake line. The device radios telemetry to the engineer, including brake pressure at the rear of the train, the movement of the last car, and the working condition of the flashing red light during darkness.

The disappointing side of the new technology is that FRED cannot wave to children watching the passing train.

So why should I care about the end of the caboose?

Allow me to share a story from my family history.

—–

“Is that pie ready yet?” were his last words.

The aroma of an apple pie baking in a wood stove wafted up to the cupola of the caboose, located at the end of the moving freight train. Tantalized by the aroma, the brakeman, posted on top, leaned over the railing, shouting above the clatter of the rumbling train to the cook below.

Somewhere near Tullahoma, Tennessee, at a bend on the mountain grade, a jolt from his perch hurled him to the double tracks below. Unconscious and unnoticed, the brakeman was struck and killed by a speeding train traveling from Murfreesboro on the opposing tracks.

William Morgan Neely, a tall man with dark eyes and a full moustache, was my great-grandfather. His death is somewhat mysterious. Presumably, the motion of the train dislodged him from the roof of the caboose. Some speculated that a hobo robbed him and threw him from the moving train. Whatever the reason for his demise, by the time his body was located, he had been robbed of everything except his gold railroad pocket watch.

Tullahoma, Tennessee, was usually as far south as my great-grandfather traveled on his job as a brakeman for the Nashville, Chattanooga, and St. Louis Railroad. Another man would take his position atop the caboose as the train continued to Chattanooga. Billy Neely would work the freight back to Murfreesboro.

Tullahoma was not only his turnaround place; it was also the area famous for Tennessee sipping whiskey. George Dickel and Jack Daniel established their distilleries eleven miles apart between Tullahoma and Lynchburg. Frequently, Billy Neely took a bottle with him on the return trip to Murfreesboro. Maybe that’s why he fell off the train. Maybe it was apple pie and whiskey. He had a weakness for both.

William Morgan Neely was buried in the family plot on his father’s farm on Short Creek near Fosterville, Tennessee. His grave is within two hundred yards of the main line of the Nashville, Chattanooga, and St. Louis Railroad. For years, a caboose was attached to every train that passed. No more. The caboose is a thing of the past, an interesting exhibit at railroad museum like the one at Magnolia Station. The red caboose is one of the things I miss.

THE LEGEND OF SKYUKA

July 23, 2017

Three weeks ago I attended the Wednesday night campfire program at Boy Scout Camp Bob Hardin in Saluda, North Carolina. Ideally situated in the Blue Ridge Mountains the camp is located in the native land of the Cherokee Nation and covers 250 acres of rugged terrain. With two lakes and beautiful vistas, the camp provides mountain adventures for scouts and their leaders. On this occasion our oldest grandson was to be tapped out for membership in the Order of the Arrow.

Within the Boy Scouts of America, the Order of the Arrow is an organization for honor campers.  In the Palmetto Council, the Order of the Arrow lodge is named Skyuka.  In 1980s the Boy Scout camp was closed for renovation and then reopened.  Previously known as Camp Palmetto, the new name given was Camp Bob Hardin.  Having served as a volunteer in various capacities, I was asked by the Scout executive to become the advisor for Skyuka Lodge.

During the first season in the refurbished camp, the program director asked me to write the script for a pageant to be performed by the camp staff on Family Night each week.  After extensive research in the Polk County library, I wrote “The Legend of Skyuka.”  It is a mixture of fact and fiction. It is essentially the same story that was used at the campfire earlier this summer now twenty-two years after I first wrote it. So, I repeat the Legend of Skyuka here.

*****

Read more…

HOMEGROWN TOMATOES

July 15, 2017

Before I retired I was often asked, “Preacher, do you have a vegetable garden?”

“No, I don’t,” I explained. “I have more fresh vegetables without a garden than I ever had when I planted a garden of my own.”

Church members kindly shared the bounty of their gardens with our household.  Sometimes we would know who to thank.  At other times, these gifts were left anonymously on our doorstep.

Though I am usually not a vegetable gardener, this year I did plant three tomato plants. I sank them deep in a mixture of good soil, compost, and cow manure. The plants have thrived in these hot humid days of summer. On July 4 we picked our first ripe red tomato. I gave it to my friend Dave Sikma. Dave is an Illinois farmer who plants two dozen or more tomato plants in his garden. Dave is our daughter Betsy’s father-in-law. He told me that the first time Betsy visited their farm she plucked several bright green tomatoes from his plants and prepared fried green tomatoes for the family. Dave was not so impressed with this Southern delicacy. His opinion was that the fruit is best when left on the vine to ripen as the good Lord intended. He did report that the first fruit from my small patch was delicious.

When Clare and I travel to our family vacation at Pawleys Island, we often stop for lunch at Thomas Café, one of our favorite eateries in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. Clare usually orders shrimp and grits while I select flounder. Both plates are served with a side of fried green tomatoes.

A lifelong devotee of this distinctly Southern fare, I search high and low for unripe tomatoes during the week at Pawleys. At roadside stands in the summertime green tomatoes are as scarce as hen’s teeth. In hot weather, even tomatoes that are picked green in the early morning soon start turning pink. Good fried tomatoes require the use of bright green fruit that is as firm as a potato. Absolutely no pink!

Here is my recipe for fried green tomatoes. Caution: these have a kick and the preparation is messy. The flavor is worth it!

Kirk’s Spicy Fried Green Tomatoes is a classic Southern recipe. There are many variations. This is our favorite.

4 large green tomatoes, (all green, no pink, hard as a rock)

2 eggs

1 cup buttermilk

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup cornmeal

Crushed red pepper flakes

Garlic powder

Coarsely ground salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Red pepper hummus

Jalapeño pimento cheese

Sour cream or goat cheese

Vegetable oil for frying

 

Dredging:

  • Slice tomatoes 1/2 inch thick. Discard the ends.
  • You need to use four bowls.
  • Into the first bowl pour only half of the buttermilk, and dip tomato slices.
  • Into the second bowl put the flour only, and lightly dip tomato slices covering both sides.
  • Into the third bowl whisk eggs and the rest of the buttermilk together, and dip tomato slices covering both sides.
  • In the fourth bowl mix cornmeal with red pepper flakes, garlic powder, coarsely ground salt, and freshly ground pepper, and thoroughly coat tomato slices on both sides.

Cooking:

  • In a large skillet, pour vegetable oil (enough so that there is 1/2 inch of oil in the pan) and bring to medium heat.
  • Place tomato slices, coated in batter, into the frying pan in small batches, depending on the size of your skillet. Fry a few at a time.
  • Do not crowd the tomatoes. Give them plenty of room. They should not touch each other.
  • When the tomatoes are lightly brown, flip and fry them on the other side.
  • Drain them on paper towels.

Serving:

  • On individual plates, spoon a heaping tablespoon of roasted red pepper hummus.
  • Place the first fried green tomato in the hummus.
  • Stack the fried green tomatoes three or four high with a spoonful of jalapeño pimento cheese between slices.
  • Top with a dollop of sour cream. Goat cheese is also good on top.

We always enjoy delicious red tomatoes, however, served in various ways. Some folks swear by tomato pie. Others prefer the summer delight in salads of many varieties.

My specialty is Neely Soggy Tomato Sandwiches. In years past this was the sandwich of choice at the annual Neely Family Fourth of July Picnic. In our home we always enjoy this favorite kitchen sink sandwich while tomatoes are in season.

2 vine-ripe tomatoes

Duke’s Real Mayonnaise

6 slices of white bread

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

  • Take six slices of white bread. Don’t use anything that is good for you – just plain ole white sandwich bread.
  • Slather Duke’s Real Mayonnaise heavily on all six slices. Only use Duke’s. Use about twice as much mayonnaise as you ordinarily would.
  • Grind fresh black pepper on all six pieces of bread.
  • Stack thinly-sliced, vine-ripe tomatoes three layers deep on three pieces of the bread.
  • Salt the tomato slices.
  • Mash – not lightly press – the remaining three pieces of bread, mayonnaise side down, on top of the tomatoes.
  • Turn the sandwiches over and mash again.
  • Cut the three sandwiches in half. Let them come to room temperature.
  • Stand over the kitchen sink to enjoy these juicy sandwiches.

Until a hundred years ago some people thought the tasty red treat was poisonous. Long before it was considered fit to eat, it was grown exclusively as an ornamental garden plant. The mistaken idea that tomatoes were poisonous probably arose because they belong to a strange plant family. A nightshade plant, from the Latin word solanum, it includes the matura, mandrake, and belladonna, all considered poisonous.

Close relatives are paprika, chili pepper, potato, tobacco, and petunia. The unpleasant odor of tomato leaves and stems contributed to the idea that the fruits were unfit for human consumption.

Tomatoes originated as wild plants in the tropical foothills of the Andes Mountains of Peru. Gradually, they were carried north into Central America. Because of the highly perishable nature of the fruit, the tomato was slow to be adopted as a cultivated plant by Native Americans. Mayans used the fruit in their cooking. Tomatoes were grown in Mexico by the sixteenth century. The Pueblo people believed that those who ate tomato seeds were blessed with powers of divination.

Spanish explorers in the sixteenth century introduced the tomato to Europe. Italians were the first Europeans to grow and eat tomatoes. Later the tomato was grown in English and Spanish gardens, not as food, but as a curiosity. The French gave it the name pomme d’amour, translated as love apple in English.

The earliest reference to tomatoes being grown in North America is from 1710, when herbalist William Salmon reported seeing them in South Carolina. They may have been introduced to our area from the Caribbean. By the mid-eighteenth century, tomatoes were grown on numerous Carolina plantations. Even then, they may have only been of ornamental interest.

Tomatoes were grown as food in New Orleans as early as 1812, no doubt because of French influence. Thomas Jefferson learned of tomatoes in France. The progressive Virginia farmer grew them at Monticello as early as 1781.

Tomatoes are now the most common garden vegetable in our country.  Along with zucchini squash, tomatoes have a reputation for out-producing the needs of the grower encouraging the sharing of garden bounty.

Tomatoes are regarded as one of the healthiest foods in our diet.  Rich in vitamins A and C, tomatoes contain lycopene, a chemical that gives them, as well as watermelons and red grapefruit, their color. Lycopene, an antioxidant, helps reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer.

Although the tomato is technically a fruit, a member of the berry group, it is also considered a vegetable. In fact, it is the state vegetable of New Jersey and Arkansas. Health experts claim that we need five to ten servings of vegetables and fruits every day. At this time of year, we should all take advantage of local homegrown tomatoes to meet our daily quota.

Tomatoes are my special favorite.  Several years ago I wrote these lines an expression of my gratitude.

 

God is great, God is good.

Let us thank Him for our food.

By His hand we all are fed.

Give us, Lord, our daily bread.

 

Wholegrain bread, rye, or lite,

A sourdough loaf, or just plain white.

And please, dear Lord, some Duke’s mayonnaise.

And homegrown tomatoes for these summer days.

 

Add lettuce, and bacon, or maybe cheese,

But especially, Lord, I ask You please,

For vine-ripe tomatoes, sliced thick and round

To make the best sandwich I’ve ever found.

 

On days that grow weary with muggy heat,

A soggy tomato sandwich just can’t be beat.

With a tall glass of something cold to drink,

I’ll eat my lunch over the kitchen sink.

 

I’m grateful for corn, that good Silver Queen,

For cantaloupe, peaches, and fresh green beans,

For squash, and okra, and small red potatoes,

But nothing is better than homegrown tomatoes.

 

God is great, and God is good.

Let us thank Him for our food.

I know His kindness never ends

When given tomatoes by special friends.

POSSUM TALES

July 8, 2017

Clare and I look forward to receiving our Garden and Gun magazine. We subscribed ten years ago in 2007 when the publication was first announced. It is a welcomed guest in our mail box. I try to get to the latest issue before my wife does. I read the magazine, leaving it intact. Clare reads Garden and Gun the same way she reads Time magazine or the Herald-Journal or the New York Times. She rips out pages and trashes them as she reads. So, I was surprised and delighted to find the remnants of the April/May 2017 issue, because I had not yet seen it.

My favorite sections are Roy Blount’s column, always on the back page of the magazine, and Julia Reed’s piece. Both are excellent writers who display a keen wit and genuine southern charm. In this particular installment, the tenth anniversary issue, Julia Reed wrote “The Awesome Opossum.”

I thoroughly enjoyed reading her take on an animal most of us know only as road kill. Julia Reed and I beg to differ with that assessment. In this article I combine a few of her possum tales with some of mine.

Few of us welcome untamed creatures in or around our homes. In the course of fifty-one years of wedded bliss, Clare and I have had a number of close encounters of the wild kind at our house. While our exterminator faithfully deals with the usual roaches, ants, wasps, and mice, we have also hosted squirrels, snakes, bats, and owls as uninvited visitors. Possums also occasionally pay a visit to our place.

Our sweet daughter-in-law, Patrice, phoned me some time ago with concern in her voice. “Papa Kirk, can you please tell me how I can get rid of a possum!”

“Why do you want to get rid of him?” I inquired.

“Because he’s ugly and scary, and I don’t like for him to be under my deck!”

Patrice is right. A possum is an undesirable houseguest.

Most of us consider possums to be annoying varmints.  Opossums, to use the proper name, are our only native North American marsupials. According to Julia Reed, the animal was named by Captain John Smith of the Jamestown Colony. The name was derived from the Algonquian word which means white animal.  They are first cousins to the Australian kangaroo. Females have a pouch on their belly where the young, up to 13 in number, are carried and nourished for about two months after birth.

Adult possums can be three feet long including the prehensile tail. They cannot hang from a tree limb, a posture immortalized by the character in the comic strip Pogo.

They weigh as much as fourteen pounds depending on how well fed they are. Possums are omnivores. That means they will eat anything. Their diet includes insects, snails, rodents, berries, fruit, grasses, and leaves. Possum favorites seem to be pet food, garbage, and other roadkill. Yum! They are nocturnal animals, prowling around at night and sleeping during the day.

Playing possum is a defensive tactic the critter employs when frightened. Playing possum is feigning death. If you see one lying in the middle of the road, he is probably not pretending. Chances are he is really dead.

When I was a boy, my family lived on a dirt road until the area across the road from us was developed and homes were built. Early one morning, construction workers across the way found a possum scuffling around inside a nail keg where garbage had been thrown the day before. They trapped the possum by putting a scrap of hardware cloth over the keg holding it in place with a brick.

I wandered across the road to see what was going on. The workmen said I could have the possum for a pet. Wow! That afternoon, my dad and I built a cage that looked something like a rabbit pen. My pet possum had a home, or so I thought. The next morning I found the cage empty. The possum had chewed through the wood. Blood was everywhere, and the possum was gone. Possums don’t make good pets.

Possums are not clean animals. They eat dead animals as small as a slug or as big as a horse. They are sometimes referred to as the sanitation workers of the wild. These critters can carry parasites and rabies, although rabies incidents are less frequent than in other animals, such as raccoons. Possums have a strong immune system, so strong they can devour venomous snakes with no ill effect. Possums also have a strong offensive odor, except to other possums. That is the reason they have so many little possums.

Some folks eat possums. As Reed points out, a recipe for cooked possum was to be found in the Joy of Cooking as late as the 1960s. Clare had a copy of that edition of the cookbook given to us as a wedding gift. I’m not sure the recipe is in our copy. One of our dogs partially devoured the cookbook.

President William Howard Taft considered the possum a delicacy. Julia Reed reports that when the rotund president was the honored quest at a banquet in Atlanta, Georgia, he requested that possum be the main fare. One hundred quests were served boiled, baked, and basted possum with a side of sweet potatoes.

Julia tells the story of a special cocktail named Possum Drop. At a place called Snake and Jake’s Christmas Club Lounge, a New Orleans establishment lit only by Christmas lights, a customer was seated at the bar enjoying a shot of Jägermeister. Suddenly a possum fell through the tiled ceiling startling the customer and spilling his drink into a pint of Schlitz.

Voilà! The Possum Drop cocktail was born!

You really should find the April/May issue of Garden and Gun. Julia Reed’s article begins on page 103.

Because possums are prolific, they have to find new places to live. They will live in a variety of habitats. They will make themselves right at home when they move into the neighborhood. Undersides of porches, decks, and tool sheds provide an ideal home. That puts them within striking distance to raid garbage cans and steal pet food. They are excellent climbers. Possums can be found living in attics, where they make a terrible mess and a lot of noise. It is a very good idea to get rid of possums if they are hanging out around your house.

Have you ever wondered how to get rid of a possum? There is no magic spray or device to make them go away. Some people have tried predator urine, such as coyote or fox urine, to get rid of possums. Not only does it not keep possums away, it makes the odor problem worse, and it is hard to come by. Coyote and fox are not necessarily interested in cooperating.

Some have recommended mothballs or ammonia-soaked rags to make possums leave, but that doesn’t always work either. One way to take care of the possum problem is by trapping and removing them.

My sister-in-law tells about a time when a couple in her church in rural North Carolina paid a visit to her home. The woman had long gray hair. It was pulled up into a large beehive hairdo, in the style of the 1970s, held in place by maximum-strength hair spray. In the course of the conversation, my sister-in-law thought she saw something moving in the woman’s hair. Struggling to maintain eye contact with her guest, my sister-in-law caught a glimpse of a small face peeking out from the beehive. She politely asked about the critter in the hairdo. The woman pulled three baby possums out of her elaborate coiffure, and, turning to her husband, said, “Show ’er the ones you’ve got, Earl.” Earl reached into his shirt and brought from his considerable chest hair another two baby possums.

“Ain’t they cute? Their mama got killed in the road in front of our place, so we took  ‘em in,” the woman explained.

My sister-in-law was speechless for a moment, and then recovered, “What are you going to do with them?”

“We’re gonna keep  ‘em and fatten  ‘em up. Then we’re gonna eat  ‘em.”

That’s one way to get rid of a possum.

CELEBRATE THE FOURTH OF JULY

June 30, 2017

My mother, Louise Hudson Neely, was born July 4, 1922. When I was a little boy, I was impressed that on her birthday, everybody took the day off. The entire Neely family, as many as fifty-six of us, gathered at the farm near Walnut Grove 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 bit 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 were not in her honor. Instead, we were celebrating the birth of our nation.

On Tuesday, July 4, 2017, Americans will observe Independence Day. The reason we celebrate is that in 1776, the Second Continental Congress unanimously adopted the Declaration of Independence. The American colonies officially separated themselves from the authority of England.

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 on July fourth, we pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. My grandfather led us all in a blessing, not only for the good food and our family, but also for our country. Those of us who had memorized the selection from the Declaration of Independence 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.

Independence Day celebrations were observed soon after the nation’s birth. The Moravians of Salem, North Carolina, were among the first to mark the day with a torchlight procession around the village square singing “Now Thank We All Our God.” When Clare and I lived in Winston-Salem, we took our children to Old Salem to experience the reenactment of that simple celebration.

On a trip out West, I learned that explorers Lewis and Clark were the first to observe Independence Day west of the Mississippi. On July 4, 1804, traveling along the Missouri River through what is now Kansas, the expedition stopped for the night at the mouth of a stream. To celebrate, they fired a cannon at sunset and distributed an extra ration of whiskey to their men. Independence Creek was named in honor of the day.

It was not until after the War of 1812 that the holiday became a nation-wide celebration. Parades were part of the festivities. Politicians used the occasions to give rousing speeches. Events like groundbreaking ceremonies for the Erie Canal and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroads were scheduled to coincide with July Fourth celebrations.

Several years ago, Clare, our children, and I celebrated Independence Day at Pawley’s Island. Residents and summer guests put on one of the most interesting parades I have ever seen. The route included two causeways and a stretch of road along the ocean front. All were invited to participate. Vintage cars, convertibles, pickup trucks including some towing boats, bicycles pulling red wagons, costumed people on rollerblades, senior citizens walking their grandchildren or their dogs, and one old codger leading a Billy goat all joined in. Music was provided by a sound system on the back of a rollback wrecker. Everything and everybody was decorated in red, white, and blue. The entire procession was accompanied by vigorous flag waving.

The most unusual feature of the Pawley’s Parade was the water battles all along the route. Onlookers armed with water guns, water balloons, and water hoses doused the marchers. Those in the parade were equally well prepared for counterattack. In good-natured fun, everyone got soaked. On a hot July day on the coast of South Carolina, a cool refreshing drenching was welcomed. Even the goat seemed to enjoy it.

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the second and third presidents of the United States, both died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson wrote the Declaration, and John Adams was its strongest supporter in the Continental Congress. They were political opponents after the Revolutionary War and ran against each other for president. John Adams’s last words were, “Thomas Jefferson still survives.” In fact, Jefferson had died a few hours before.

Five years later, July 4, 1831, James Monroe, our fifth president, died.

On July 4, 1845, Henry David Thoreau declared his personal independence and moved into his cabin on Walden Pond. Thoreau built the small dwelling himself. It cost twenty-eight dollars and twelve cents to build. Thoreau left Walden Pond in September 1847.

On July 4, 1855, the first edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was printed. It included twelve poems.

Independence Day was not only Mama’s birthday. The first great American novelist, Nathaniel Hawthorne, was born in Salem, Massachusetts on July 4, 1804. Other notables who have an Independence Day birthday are President Calvin Coolidge (1872), bandleader Mitch Miller (1911), twin sisters and advice columnists Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren (1918), and actress Gina Lollobrigida and playwright Neil Simon (1927).

On the fourth of July 2010, a little girl was born. Allie Louise Neely was named after the great-grandmother with whom she shares a birthday. Just like her great-grandmother before her, Allie is a firecracker! Now our family has a new reason to celebrate the day. We will dress in red, white, and blue. There will be good food and, of course, flag waving. Some of the family may go to Barnet Park to attend the Red, White, and Boom event and enjoy the fireworks display. Allie may think the festivities are all about her, but, in time, she will realize as I did that this celebration is much bigger than any one person. This is the birthday of the United States of America.

Many Americans view the holiday as an opportunity to pursue happiness. As always, alcohol does not mix with automobiles, boats, fireworks, and water sports. Hazards are not the way to happiness.

My grandfather said, “He who has a fifth on the fourth, will not come forth on the fifth.”

The fourth of July is a special day for many reasons. Whatever your celebration includes, please be careful.

We don’t want to lose a single one of you.