Saturday, July 04, 2009
Tinney Talk: Reflections on The Fourth of July
Not until my seven-year sojourn in Philadelphia, during the turbulent 1960s, did I completely come to terms with the deeper meaning of a day that had previously been known to me as “The Fourth”.
It’s true that certain events occasionally prompted me to call it “The Fourth Of July,” but none of those events were steeped in history or puffed with patriotism.
We hoped, maybe even prayed, that our East Texas corn crop would be knee-high by the Fourth Of July, for instance, and our most ambitious fishing trip of the year was traditionally reserved for that Special Day. But, in the East Texas of my youth, on the Fourth of July, we did absolutely none of the following: shoot firecrackers, march in parades or bask in patriotic oratory.
We knew it was the birthday of Our Country, and we observed it in the manner that was then common to our time and place: We rested from our labors, and thanked The Good Lord for our blessings--the same way we observed a Sunday Sabbath.
As Texans, we may have considered General Sam Houston a tad more heroic than General Washington, and tales of The Alamo may have stirred our souls to greater heights than did strains of Yankee Doodle. We learned in school that Texas had been annexed as a sovereign republic, and that the Lone Star State flag could be legally hoisted beside Old Glory at exactly the same level.
Our current Governor of Texas, Rick Perry, much younger than I, recently gained a few minutes of TV coverage when he spoke of similar attitudes, possibly gained from his own rural Texas background. Having done several interviews with Rick Perry, I know that he and I also share an abiding national patriotism: We have each served four years as Texas Aggie Cadets, have each served in the military and we have each shed unashamed tears at the Vietnam Memorial Wall.
But it is to a unique work experience that I am indebted for the growth of my historical perspective, and for a sense of personal devotion to those who risked, and in some cases, sacrificed life, fortune and sacred honor to assure the birth and beneficence of our Good Ole USA.
Working, just out of the Army, at the National Future Farmer in Alexandria, Virginia, the FFA building was located on land that had once belonged to the Father Of Our Country. George Washington’s gristmill was still there, and at that time, was still operated by the FFA, which milled, packaged and sold small bags of flour to visitors. An elderly Comanche Chief, William Sawpitty, visiting from Oklahoma during the late 1950s, once insisted that I photograph him near a tree said to have been planted by George Washington.
Later, upon joining Farm Journal, I was interviewed by Wheeler McMillen, who introduced me in the July 1960 issue, telling readers that each of us—-Wheeler and I--considered George Washington the greatest American who ever lived and, by far, our greatest president. To illustrate that column, Wheeler had a photographer picture us in front of Independence Hall, only a two-block walk from the Farm Journal building on Washington Square in Philadelphia.
Independence Hall was a place I visited many times during my seven-year tenure at Farm Journal’s Philadelphia office, but the first visit was truly memorable. Upon entering, an overwhelming sight commanded full attention: It was the Liberty Bell, then on permanent display there, and protected only by a single strand of rope, perhaps three feet from the historic bell. One could literally touch the Liberty Bell with a slight stretch of the arm, although a security guard discouraged the practice.
Suddenly, without preamble, a recorded voice broke the respectful silence of an awed group of visitors standing near the protective rope: “This is the Liberty Bell.” It was the voice of Edward R. Murrow, then so deeply distinctive, so instantly recognizable, that no introduction was necessary as the legendary broadcaster described the background of this priceless piece of history.
Both the Liberty Bell and I were later transferred to new locations, and the Farm Journal office was itself moved from Washington Square, which served as hallowed ground, a mass grave for unknown soldiers of the Revolutionary War. I walked to work across that hallowed ground every day for those seven years, sometimes stopping to meditate, pray or salute.
Located at the north end of Washington Square, appearing almost as a headstone for that mass grave of long-ago soldiers, stood a massive bronze statue of George Washington, fronting a marble wall, on which were inscribed words that stir my soul to this very day:
“Freedom is a light for which many men have died in darkness.”