I'll admit it right up front: Except for Easter Sunday, this is my favorite day of the year. When I was a kid, the 4th of July was the highlight of every summer.
I grew up in a church in Pease, Minnesota, which back then was a town of about 95 people, and I think it's grown to something like 200 now. But in the center of Pease was the Pease Christian Reformed Church, (pictured below) and attached to the church is a large picnic grounds with swings, a softball field and a nice little natural amphitheater. Back then the church - in a town of just 95 people - had an average Sunday attendance of 300-350 people. It seemed like every Dutch farm family in a 20-mile radius belonged to the Pease church.
And every year on the 4th, we went to Pease, because these folks knew how to celebrate Independence Day. It usually began just after dawn, when some locals would blow off a little dynamite, just to wake people up. Then there was a service at the church, in which the younger kids would come up front and perform a well-rehearsed song-and-dance routine with patriotic music. A guest speaker would give a talk. Around noon, all the families would start setting up in their usual part of the picnic area. Every clan knew their spot: The Kiels over here, the Droogsmas over there, the Tellinghuisens by that tree.
After a potluck lunch, the games would begin. Running races for the kids, a greased-pole-climbing contest that went on all day. A dunk tank. Volleyball. And because fast-pitch softball was all the rage, the two Pease teams - imaginatively named "Pease 1" and "Pease 2" - would face off at 2 p.m. The kids ran around all day, while the adults rested, visited, maybe took a walk in the adjacent cemetery to look at grandparents' graves.
Around 4:30, things would come to a halt. There were lots of dairy farmers in the crowd, and it was milking time. But they all starting filtering back around 7 p.m. for the evening program. We'd all sit on blankets on the hillside and listen to performers who led us in "God Bless America" and "America the Beautiful" until it was time to move to the other side of the grounds and watch the fireworks.
It was like being in a real-life Norman Rockwell painting, and every year I spent May and June just waiting for those fireworks. I'd sit on the grass and be thrilled by every single one, and I hated having it end. Pease, I later learned, has held a fireworks display every 4th of July since 1915, but when that last shell went off, I was afraid I might never see fireworks again.
And what I soaked in from this great day every year was that these people loved America. I grew up in the '60s and '70s, when the fight for civil rights, political assassinations and Vietnam were huge stories, but every 4th of July in Pease I was reminded all over again that America was good. Almost everyone in the crowd had an ancestor that came here from Holland or some other part of Europe to find a better life, and that lesson just seeped into all of us. America was where you came to find freedom and opportunity, and no one was embarrassed to celebrate it.
I took my kids back there a few years ago, hoping they would feel some of that same magic, but like everything from our childhoods, it's changed. The church is smaller now, and while there is still a morning program at the church, the picnic grounds don't fill up with as many people. Folks still show up for the fireworks, but there wasn't much left of the day-long celebration. The kids had a bit of a laugh at the old man, but that's okay; the 4th of July is still my day.
And over the years, it just keeps meaning more and more to me. The story of the Declaration is as compelling today as the first time I heard it, and my admiration for the vision and courage of the men in Philadelphia continues to grow. They challenged the mightiest country in the world because of their belief in freedom and self-governance, and they pledged - as the last line says - their lives, fortunes and sacred honor.
So enjoy the day. Have fun at the cabin, enjoy a round of golf, watch the Twins game, see some fireworks. But take a moment to remember the genius of Jefferson's writing - "We hold these truths to be self evident..." - and appreciate the fact that all of us today are still reaping the benefits of what they did.