Woster: Remember what's right during Independence Day

Who is there among us so jaded that bursts of display fireworks and trails of rockets streaking across the night sky fail to waken a sense of awe?

Terry Woster
Terry Woster
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Fourth of July slipped my mind through much of June, but a series of sharp explosions of fireworks near bedtime the other evening reminded me that Independence Day was near.

And that reminded me that we’re celebrating liberty and freedom as a nation this weekend. Some years ago, I read this, attributed to George Bernard Shaw: “Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it.’’ Some truth to that, for sure. It’s still a good thing to celebrate liberty, for young and old, and we do that each summer.

Fourth of July is a wonderful holiday for young people. I grew up loving everything about it. I liked the fireworks, the picnics, the parades, the cook-outs and the gatherings of friends and family for middle-of-summer parties. Who is there among us so jaded that bursts of display fireworks and trails of rockets streaking across the night sky fail to waken a sense of awe?

For years and years when we lived in Pierre, my family gathered each Fourth of July with two other families for long days on Lake Oahe during the holiday. We’d ski and swim and sail and sing and laugh and tell stories we’d all heard every Fourth of July for two or three decades. At the end of the day, we’d all gather in the Parker’s yard for fried chicken and potato salad and more types of dessert than are offered in most restaurants. We’d watch the neighbors’ fireworks until the time came for the Fort Pierre Fire Department’s display. When that started, we’d “ooh’’ and “aah’’ at the huge bursts of light that filled the sky and fluttered down toward the ground, their brilliance reflecting on the surface of the water and their reports echoing back and forth off the bluffs.

It was what we did, every Fourth of July. I have a pretty good memory for old stuff, but I can’t recall exactly when the tradition started, nor can I remember whose idea it was in the first place. I just know that having the three families together became an essential piece of Independence Day for us. Our kids, and their kids after them, grew up understanding that’s what we did. Some of the offspring traveled long distances sometimes to be part of that celebration.


Maybe we were doing it wrong all of those years. Perhaps, instead of singing old ballads and folk tunes, we should have used our time together to share patriotic, inspirational messages. Perhaps we should have had an annual reading of the Declaration of Independence, followed by a formal reflection on what that meant to us.

Perhaps. But I tend to think we did honor the nation and what it stands for as we spent that time together. We were learning to be accepting of each other. We shared what we had for our joint evening meal. I read somewhere that President Ronald Reagan once said, “All great change in American begins at the dinner table.’’ Not a July Fourth went by that my family and our friends’ families didn’t have a well-stocked dinner table, so we had that part down pat.

Another famous American, humor columnist Dave Barry, wrote, “A traditional Fourth of July picnic means a menu of hot dogs charred into cylinders of industrial-grade carbon and hamburgers so undercooked that when people try to eat them, they leap off the plate and frolic on the lawn like otters.’’ I never noticed the burgers frolicking, but you can’t share as many meals as our families did without a few cooking mistakes. Those things never dampened the spirit of the celebration.

Our families were lucky. We knew it. We were born into freedom, and while we sometimes griped about things we didn’t like, we recognized that we had it pretty good. It’s fashionable these days to focus on what’s wrong with our lives, with the country and the world. It doesn’t hurt to remember what’s right.

Or to remember these words from former South African President Nelson Mandela: “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.’’

Opinion by Terry Woster
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