Memories of a West Side Fourth of July have lessons for us today
Memories are curious things. They reside unnoticed in dark recesses of our mind, flickering like a pilot light. Then, fueled by a familiar sound or vision, they ignite with an intensity that transports us across time to some past event that we thought was long ago forgotten.
My four-year old daughter marches across my backyard in cut-off shorts and a yellow T-shirt, waving a small American flag in her hand. The red, white, and blue colors flutter against her blond hair, sun-tanned skin, and mischievous smile. In the heat of this summer evening, I laugh at her antics and remember the Fourth of July celebrations that marked my boyhood on Manhattan Avenue.
I came from a neighborhood that was filled with working class people, descendants of immigrants who searched for a better way of life. I could still recite by name the families that lined both sides of our street, names that traveled great distances before finding hope and a chance to start anew on the West Side of Youngstown. Names like Nagy, Olsavsky, Bozanich, Sinchak, and Rosa filled my vocabulary and community. We all lived together, worked together, prayed together, hung our wash out to dry together, and tried to make the best of whatever life provided in the city block that made our home.
The Fourth of July evening brought these same neighbors to front porches to enjoy cool breezes, and friendly conversation. Our front porch offered my mother's homemade cherry pie as well. No invitation was necessary, and there was never a shortage of visitors to our holiday celebration. An old metal glider with worn and taped floral cushions provided a front row view to our world. Its rusted hinges squeaked in rhythm to the patter of voices. As darkness fell, a corner streetlight hummed to life, and a choir of chirping crickets competed with the laughter that filled the confines of our summer night. Thin and gangly, I sat balanced on our porch banister like a daddy long-legged spider, alternately monitoring such talk, and the cherry bombs that little Johnny Stelter was preparing to explode directly across the street.
Firecrackers were forbidden at our house, but my father always had a few boxes of sparklers that he would present to my siblings and me at the appropriate time for our enjoyment. We would dance across the yard as if in some primitive tribal ritual, tracing figure eights across the black night with spattering yellow sparks and yelps of glee. At 10 p.m., great booms sounded across the West Side, as a festival celebration of some local church announced its merriment with a fireworks show. Bright streaks of violet, orange, red, yellow, and green stretched outward, and then dripped slowly down from the black and smoky sky. Even though the actual fireworks show was taking place many blocks away, each eruption of sound and color drew gasps of awe and delight from our assembly. Distance may have deprived us of the full impact of the event, but we enjoyed it just the same.
Looking back, I find that our Fourth of July celebrations were simple, like the ways of the people in our community. But in the tired and worn faces of these laborers living recognition of what it meant to be free. There was no pretense in their patriotism, they were sharing the American dream and were truly thankful for what this county had given them. In their hearts was an understanding that concern for each other was a necessary part of their patriotism and of living in our American democracy. They knew that freedom without concern for a neighbor's well being was illusory, and a short stepping stone away from greed.
Somehow, I sense that we've forgotten those lessons learned long ago by the previous generation. We've allowed ourselves to be divided by men who seek not the welfare of neighbors, but the pursuit of power and wealth. We are herded like cattle into camps of conservatism and liberalism, straights and gays, Christians and Muslims, and our differences are endlessly defined by such men until we no longer question their conclusions. In the end, our freedom and independence is reduced to little more than a right to dislike others.
But in watching my daughter, and in remembrances of times past, I attribute a greater meaning to our freedom -- a meaning that carries a concern for each other's welfare. This independence day, let's celebrate our common experience as Americans with an understanding that freedom brings with it responsibilities and concern for each other. For it is in that commonality and concern that our country finds its best moments.