Dianne and I spent Independence Day in Tupelo, Mississippi with her side of the family. About 8:15 PM we made our way to Ballard Park and waited for nightfall.
The fireworks were scheduled to begin at 9:00 accompanied by the North Mississippi Orchestra. The band—it was more concert band than orchestra in my opinion, although no one asked—was already belting out some great music when we assumed position at the end of a pond spouting a very nice fountain. I know I sound surprised, and in retrospect I’m embarrassed to admit it. Why should the birthplace of Elvis not have a duck pond with a grand fountain?
Folks milled around. Couples held hands. There were lots and lots of baby strollers. Only two dogs that I saw, and judging from the reaction of the ducks on the pond when the explosions started, it was best that all but two left their canines at home.
My brother-in-law declared that the fireworks are notoriously late starting. They are coordinated with the music and the music is notoriously late, he explained. That makes sense. Music is not regulated until it starts, so by the time the band’s been playing for half an hour, no telling where they might be on the face of the clock.
But last night was different. About 8:55 a DJ from W-something-something radio station announced that there were storms in the area and lightening within five miles. Therefore, the band had to quit by law and anyone with any sense should take cover. From where I stood, no one moved.
Who takes cover on the Fourth of July?
If Will Smith and Bill Pullman courageously to save us from aliens two decades ago, what red-blooded American would dare take cover just because some lawyer, told some DJ, who was told by some suit, to tell a bunch of folks at a duck pond to duck and run?
Making a liar out of my brother-in-law, the fireworks started within seconds after they shut the power off to the DJ’s microphone. They were nice fireworks, especially with the reflections in the duck pond.
But the poor ducks. Of all the flapping, paddling, flying then landing, and running across the pond you have never seen the like. They wound up in a bunch, or more accurately, a flock, right in front of us. It was the farthest they could be from the explosions and still be in the water.
Until the water came to them. To us. To us all wherever we were last night, both great and small, young and old alike.
The heavens had portended what was to unfold with lightening more spectacular than the commemorative fireworks and thunder that drowned out the explosions. It was a gamble, but all of Tupelo and the surrounding area wagered that the weather would hold.
I don’t remember when I first realized that all of the United States doesn’t enjoy the storms we have in the South. Someone from Seattle told me once that half an inch of rain was a big storm for them. That was strange to me, but it occurred to me that even though it rains up there all the time, it must never break loose and get after it.
With this realization, let me tell you that last night’s rain during the fireworks was not a gentle drizzle. It was a frog strangler, a toad floater. It rained cats and dogs all at once and with no introduction. It just started. Right now.
And we were all wet, all at once. Every one of us in Lee county who were in the vicinity of Ballard Park. When it commenced, the man beside us turned and said to his children, “Well, the man tolt us. We don’t got nobody to blame but ourselves.”
I only saw one person running. I figured he was late for something. He certainly wasn’t running to keep from getting wet. He was as wet as he would ever be again within a few seconds.
Sometimes these rains in the South happen all at once and then abate to a more reasonable shower. Not last night. This rain lasted, and lasted, and lasted until we got to the car. Then it slowed to a sane falling. How it knew, I’m not sure. But it did.
There wasn’t anything to be done differently, so there was no reason to not enjoy the adventure. If the mobile phones and purses, and my mama-in-law’s hearing aide, and the things in our pockets were ruined, they were long-ruined by the time we would find shelter.
So I held Dianne’s arm as we walked in the rain, and for whatever reason, my mind turned to adjacent things that support Independence Day. I thought of the scene in Forest Gump where Forest encounters a monsoon. I thought of the withering rains endured by westward explorers. I thought of what it feels like to wear heavy wool in a persistent and drenching rain. All of these thoughts, and a few more, crossed the screen of my mind as I walked to the car in the rain.
It's a simple thought. But alongside my simple thought was the realization that I would soon be in a weathertight vehicle that would carry me to a roof and dry clothes. Not so for those who endured drenching—among other things—so I could enjoy Independence Day.
I awoke this morning on my left side and recalled at once the rain at Ballard Park. I thought about staying in bed, but my back was ready to get up and do something different than lie down. Once up and mobile, I checked the news to see what additional mania, to that already unspooling, had unwound while I was asleep.
Jim Dennison had this thought for the fifth of July:
On this day in 1776, America's future was uncertain, to say the least. We had declared our independence from the world's greatest superpower and now faced the British Empire's wrath. Of the fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence, twelve fought in battle, five were captured and imprisoned, seventeen lost property to British raids, and five lost their fortunes. All risked their lives for the sake of their country and the cause of freedom.
It's daunting to consider the cost of freedom. If you are a thinking person, and will stay with your thought long enough to consider it rather than deny it for something easier, then digesting freedom’s price quickly takes on more than can be grasped by statistics. Preachers attempt this for us while describing Christ’s sacrifice to make freedom possible. Historians offer perspective from prior years in hopes of helping us comprehend freedom’s price.
Earlier in the week the world turned its attention to the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of the Somme that occurred during World War I. The battle began on July 1st and lasted—sort of—until February. Hostility ceased, more or less, on November 18th. The fact that specific dates are hard to come by convey a bit of the desperation in the trenches along the River Somme in 1916. Depending on how you count, a million men were casualties of this battle. On July 1st, the British lost in a single day more men than America lost in the entire Vietnam Conflict.
A hundred years ago, just like it was for multiplied centuries before, and just like it is today, mankind was struggling to gain independence from oppression and threat. War and conflict and freedom can be reduced to concepts, ideals, and aspirations—and I suppose they have to be to grasp them and subdue them into structures we can live by. Freedom is also measurable—like the sobering numbers from the Somme, or Gettysburg, or D-Day, or Iraq.
But statistics, other than by implication, can’t measure incremental sacrifice. I can’t conceptualize a million dead—at least, I can’t conceptualize such a number and be confident I truly grasp it. But increments of sacrifice, I can turn over in my soul and believe I have managed them justly.
As I walked in the rain last night, I stared off into the undergrowth alongside the highway and wondered about Civil War soldiers in their heavy wool uniforms enduring such a storm while contending with poison ivy, ticks, and chiggers. Never mind, pervasive hunger. All of this was endured for ideals associated with freedom.
Whether your sympathies side with the Comanche or the Cavalry, one smeared himself with buffalo grease to stay dry while the other relied upon the propensity of wool to insulate even when wet. Both warriors were in search of freedom.
I’ve camped enough in rainy weather to know that four months of rain while slogging along in the jungles of Vietnam would get mighty, mighty old. But a cause associated with freedom compelled thousands to contend with discomfort in search of a higher ideal they could seize for themselves and those they cared about.
In a different type of battle, a spiritual one, I have contended with sacrifices necessary to gain what I was seeking: Realization of a call on my life and the transfer of what I believe about God to others who are searching. Whether a professional in this endeavor, or a lay person, the sacrifice of self so that others can live is an essential aspect of freedom.
As is true for the entire history of mankind on the planet, our hearts long for freedom, certainly for ourselves, but for those whom we love first and foremost. That is sacrifice. This is why the quote attributed to William Wallace as he faces death for Scotland's independence inspires us: “Every man dies. Not every man really lives.”
No matter how you measure it, someone sacrificed greatly on an independence day somewhere on this planet so you could consider these thoughts today. Quite literally, you live today because someone sacrificed yesterday.
When I try to capture my thoughts on this fifth day of July, I think today my thoughts are best summarized as a gratefulness that renders the humility of knowing I’m not my own. First by Jesus Christ, but also by others, I’ve been bought with a price.
Simply stated: As hard as I labor in this life to live free, I am endowed with the unalienable right to aspire to this ideal because of those who went before me.
In short: The fifth is possible because of the fourth.