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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.

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