Thursday, July 8, 2010
The Preacher’s Corner
Wonderful childhood memories of the Fourth of July
The Fourth of July is forever fixed in my memory according to celebrations I enjoyed at my aunt and uncle’s home in Charleston, Illinois. Summertime always found us up there, and I really have no childhood memories of a Mississippi Fourth. This lacuna may arise from the fact that it just gets so hot down here by July 4 that we just sort of shut down, or because of memories by some in that bygone day of the fall of Vicksburg on Independence Day 1863 — a fact that prejudiced some against celebrating the birthday of the United States.
Whatever the reason may have been, we had wonderful times in Charleston on that holiday. There would always be a parade that circled the town square, with the high school band and perhaps a band or two from neighboring towns. There would be floats from various civic organizations, antique cars carrying public officials brightened with the sight of a pretty girl waving atop the rumble seat, and the colorful squadrons of soldiers with flags and always horses, beautiful prancing horses, fascinating above all else to little boys.
Fourth of July evenings were the best of all. There would be a great display of fireworks, and the whole town would gather with lawn chairs and blankets to spread on the ground at the athletic fields of Eastern Illinois University, where my uncle taught, and there would be an hour-long show. For a small boy from Mississippi it was a great spectacle indeed.
Every Illinois town would mount as great a fireworks performance as it could muster. Years later when I lived in Chicago, I heard on the evening news about the misfortune of the community of Kankakee where, several nights before the exhibition, a carelessly thrown match ignited the entire stash of fireworks, causing some bystanders to dive into the nearby river for protection, so that the town did not have a Fourth of July fireworks festival that year.
Back in Charleston, on Independence Day afternoon, we would usually take a picnic to the little Lincoln Log Cabin State Historic Site, near the adjacent community of Lerna, Illinois, that preserves the site of the 1840s farm of Thomas and Sarah Bush Lincoln, father and stepmother of our 16th president.
Abraham Lincoln was a lawyer living in Springfield by the time his parents moved here in 1837, but he visited them periodically. Nearby, at the little Shiloh Presbyterian Church cemetery, we would visit the graves of the president’s father and stepmother.
Trips out to the Lincoln sites were part of every summer visit, whether Fourth of July or not. Often we would take a picnic. In one particular year, when my cousin was along for the visit, my aunt had made a huge pot of Italian spaghetti for a church picnic.
That year it rained on the Fourth and the picnic had to be cancelled. Not one to waste anything, my aunt insisted that we consume this spaghetti, and it became a family joke, the way the spaghetti kept turning up on the plates, meal after meal. It was, I must say, a very good recipe.
My uncle was a great admirer of Abraham Lincoln, and was particularly interested in the questions surrounding Lincoln’s religious beliefs — which were not entirely conventional, and which have been exploited with claims and counterclaims by fundamentalists and free-thinkers alike. Through my uncle, I have inherited the interest and have recently found Ronald White’s book, “A. Lincoln: A Biography,” recently published to mark the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, to be a source of solid scholarship and great reading pleasure.
I marked a particular passage. On July 7, 1863, upon receiving word of the end of battle at Vicksburg, Lincoln asked a question of a group who gathered at the White House to hear a word from him, “How long ago is it? — eighty odd years — since on the Fourth of July for the first time in the history of the world a nation by its representatives, assembled and declared as a self-evident truth that ‘all men are created equal?’” It is worth pondering for our own day, what those words mean in our time.
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