Tuesday, July 3

Above the Clouds

I have two Fourth of July stories. One is 25 years old, the other 30.

For the first we head to the top of the World Trade Center in New York, operated by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Every year (at least back then) the Port Authority put on a bash for journalists on the Fourth. One year the decision was made to throw a floating cocktail party on one of the State Island ferryboats. Terrific Idea! You see, the fireworks in the harbor are shot off from several huge floating barges anchored offshore in the East River. Billed as the biggest Fourth of July fireworks in the country, the thought was that it would make quite a show from a boat circling underneath.

I wasn't there, you understand. But the best laid plans, etc. etc. etc. What could go awry? Well, if you're circling underneath you can only see the fireworks from one side of the boat. I'm told (again, I wasn't there) that what went awry was that everyone rushed from one side of the ferry to the other, making for a rocky ride!

In 1982, a different plan. Fireworks as seen from the observation deck at the World Trade Center—above the fireworks!

Anyone who ever spent time on top of the WTC knows how odd it was to see seaplanes taking off and landing in the river below you. So just imagine "the rockets red glare" as seen from above!

Come July 4th, that's just what we did—we imagined it. It was a rainy, foggy night and the towers were socked in: we couldn't see the ground, much less the fireworks. Hundreds of us made our way down in the elevators to street level and slogged as far as we could into Battery Park, where people had been staking out the best viewing sites since early morning. My friend and I got soaked, and didn't get much of a view, but we did see fireworks shot off around the Statue of Liberty.

On 9/11, my first thoughts were of overwhelming sadness mixed, I'll admit it, with a little fear. And then I thought, "They can't do that to my building!" Before we even had as clue as to who "they" were, I was calling the WTC twin towers "my building." Hadn't set foot in the Word Trade Center in over 15years, but it was my building in my town. Anyone else have the same thought?


My most memorable Fourth, however, was five years earlier: July 4th, 1977. You'd think it would be 1976, the nation's bicentennial, but no. In 1977 I really did see fireworks from above the clouds.

It was dusk, and I was returning to Peoria from a New York business trip on a flight from Chicago. I was absently staring out the window minutes after leaving O'Hare when I saw tiny little chrysanthemums of colored light far, far below: fireworks! And then I realized they were everywhere! Every little town and village was celebrating the Fourth, and there was a town every five miles, or six, or ten for as far as you could see from up on high. At any given moment I could see eight or nine towns outlined not by street lights or car headlights, but easily spotted because of the fireworks.

Each of those towns grew up as a center of commerce for the farmers in the surrounding area. Each had stores, and a consolidated high school, and a volunteer fire department, several churches and one or two doctors (known as "Doc" I'm sure). There was a Main Street in each one, and maybe an Elm Street. Some had a courthouse. This being Illinois, there might have been a statue of Lincoln in the square. With a little luck there was a municipal swimming pool. If not, there were ponds nearby and a bend in the river somewhere, and a tire swing hung by a rope from a tree branch.

And I pictured Mom and Dad in their folding chairs, the ones with the plastic webbing, sitting in the city park watching the fireworks. They were probably a little sunburned from spending the day cooking out in the backyard. The 5-year-old was there covering his ears against the boom-boom-boom. But who knew where the 12-year-old was. He and his best friend were running around somewhere. They were Tom and Huck, 1977-style.

I was flying south-west. If I had flown almost due north from O'Hare I'd have flown over Horicon, Wisconsin, home of my father's people. Dairy farmers, they were, emigrated from Germany before the turn of the last century. My brother has a picture of our grandfather, Carl, with the rest of the Horicon High football team taken in a snowy field in nineteen-ought-something. There are still dairy farmers in Horicon a hundred years later. The family farm is still there, although another family owns it. Anymore a lot of the locals work in the big John Deere plant in town—the one that makes lawn tractors and the like. Lots of German names still in the Horicon phone book.

They came here looking for a better life. My father's father's father found it, just like so many others. They cared enough about their new homeland that some of them went back overseas and died for it in "The War to End All Wars." Some are buried "over there," some here. Men my Dad's age went off to WWII. Men my age fought in Vietnam. Now young Americans are half a world away fighting and dying again.

A summer night in July, a little warm out, watching the fireworks with the kids running around waving sparklers, drinking fruit punch from a big jug. It's a good time to think of them all.

I remember my boyhood in a Cleveland suburb that hugs the edge of Lake Erie. I remember being a Cub Scout on July Fourth, when they would close down Route 6 for the morning so we could march in a big parade to the little graveyard on a bluff overlooking the lake. There were soldiers among the dead there: one or two of the headstones dating back to the Revolutionary War.

As scouts it was our job to solemnly place little flags at each of the soldiers' markers. There was a 21-gun salute. Back then World War II had been over for little more than a decade: the honor guard was made up of veterans still young enough to fit into their uniforms and to handle their rifles with ease. Then, when the only sound was the wind high in the trees, a bugler played Taps. A moment's pause—and another—and then from down on the beach far, far below, came an answering bugle calling Taps.

"Day is done, gone the sun: from the lakes, from the hills, from the sky. All is well. Safely rest. God is nigh."

I remember that day, when I was eight or nine, as if it were yesterday. When I think of it, and of the men in that little graveyard, it makes me sad.

When I think now of 9/11, I get sad, too. Sad more than angry.

Sean Hannity uses a Martina McBride song as his theme:

"Let freedom ring
"Let the white dove sing
"Let the whole world know that today is the day of a reckoning
"Let the weak be strong
"Let the right be wrong
"Roll the stone away
"Let the guilty pay
"It's Independence Day"

Now that makes me angry. "The day of reckoning?" "Let the right be wrong?" Is that what the "white dove" is singing about? I worry that around the world we're thought of as a powerful, vengeful, evil force, the "My Way or the Highway" of superpowers, the world's bully.

That's not who we are, is it? "Let the right be wrong?" What's that supposed to mean?

I know, I know, I'm sappy and simplistic. So be it. But when I think of New York, and Horicon, Wisconsin and Bay Village, Ohio I know we're a good nation, a good people. Do you think maybe we haven't done enough to show our goodness around the globe? From the "Sappy and Simplistic" desk here at News Central, it seems easy to be angry with politicians. Maybe if we showed the world fewer of our elected officials and more of our people in a city park waiting for the fireworks to start we might be better off. Maybe we should show what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature."

On September 12th the entire world was behind this country—every man, woman and child, with the exception of some fringe lunatics. We had a chance to go after Osama, and the world--the world--stood ready to help us. What has happened in the last six years? Maybe we haven't done enough to demonstrate our goodness, the purity of our purpose. I'm willing to sing "Let the guilty pay," but only if we're going after the guilty--instead of just going after the handy. Is our purpose pure?

I don't have answers, only questions. Hell, if I had answers I'd run for President; but it seems to me freedom should be the ultimate gift we offer the citizens of the world, not a club we beat them to death with.

You and yours have a happy and safe Fourth. Watch the kids when they're playing with sparklers: those things get white-hot. If you can, spend some time thinking about our country, and about who we are--how we got here--and where we're going.