Under the lilac, a lasting lesson in patriotism
I like to distinguish the Fourth of July and Independence Day. The former is a holiday which generates a day off; the latter is a commemoration which has profound political overtones.
When Congress in its wisdom decided to change the federal holiday calendar to create three-day weekends, it did the nation a disservice by undermining the historical reasons for the holidays in the first place.
The one exception to the three-day weekends created by the Uniform Holidays Bill of 1968 was Independence Day, which kept its historical, and historic, day of July 4. However, this year, because Independence Day was on a Sunday, the employee holiday was given on Monday, July 5, making Independence Day a three-day weekend.
As a child, my Fourth of July’s Independence Days were spent in the Catskills in a kuchelein owned by my great-aunts and -uncles. The kuchelein was beautifully situated in the tiny hamlet of Thompsonville, between Monticello and South Fallsburg in Sullivan County, on top of a hill, off a red clay road with a farm and cow pasture on the other side.
There would be certain rituals associated with the Fourth. The day would start with me, sometime by myself and sometimes with other children, walking close to a mile down the hill to Jack’s (Yonkel) Corner, the general store on the road between Route 17 and South Fallsburg.
Jack’s was a great place for kids. It had a pinball machine, a soda fountain, and was a source of children’s amusements of the day, like crayons, coloring books, comic books, Fly-Back paddles, kites, gliders, and rubber balls.
My Fourth of July errand to Jack’s was to pick up a copy of The New York Times. After my return with the paper, my father and I would play handball, as we would every day he was there. After handball, my father would gather my sister and me and sit with us on the ground, in the shade of an enormous lilac bush, so big that it was a hiding place for “hide and seek.” He would then take out the Times and open it to a replica of the Declaration of Independence and read it in its entirety, starting with “In Congress” through the last signature.
This was serious business for my father, an Army veteran of the Pacific Theater in World War II. He was trying to instill in his children some of the reasons he enlisted, although he was over 30 years old when he did. Patriotism. Love of country. Belief in, and the willingness to die for, the ideals represented by the Declaration of Independence.
The last ritual came late in the afternoon depending on whether he was leaving that day for the city, or at night. The kuchelein was situated on over 100 acres of land, much of it wooded, much of it planted with blueberry, blackberry, and raspberry bushes. It was my job to go to the wooded section to get dry wood and kindling for a fire. The grill was constructed out of cinder blocks and steel reinforcing rods.
Once the fire was roaring (no charcoal briquettes here), my father would cook one or two large steaks while baking potatoes in the ash and flame. This was some of the best steak I have ever eaten. And the potatoes, which were charcoal-encrusted because they were not wrapped in aluminum foil, were not bad either.
I am proud to be an American. Part of that pride comes from sitting under a humongous lilac bush with my father, a devoted, gung-ho veteran, listening to him give his annual lesson in American history and patriotism. From the perspective of a child, those sessions were long, tedious, and repetitive. As an adult, I wonder if I would have the love of country and the respect for its history and institutions without my father’s annual instruction on Independence Day and at other times.
My kids will not have these memories. Unlike my father, I have not repeatedly exposed them to the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. In my opinion, neither has the educational system, at least to the extent I would have liked.
However, I hope that in my own way, I have done at least half as well as my father in instructing my children what makes the United States exceptional and worth defending: that our organic documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, are not just words to which to pay lip service. The ideals expressed in these documents, and the institutions created as a result, are deserving of pride, protection, and persistent instruction unto the next generations, and are not to be commemorated by just another three-day weekend.