I have vivid memories of celebrating Independence Day in my hometown of Pawleys Island, South Carolina. Each Fourth of July I rode on a parade float down Myrtle Avenue, competed in watermelon seed-spitting contests with my cousins and watched colorful fireworks burst over the beach.
But even in my grade school years, I understood that the day when we celebrate our nation’s birth was about much more than the fun associated with it. My parents taught me its significance.
My earliest lesson about why we celebrate the Fourth of July came when I first noticed my father flinching during the beautiful light shows I loved. Mom explained that the fireworks’ bursts triggered terrible memories of the ferocious three-hour battle in Vietnam that cost the lives of two of his men and in which he gave his left arm and eye.
Over the years, Daddy taught me more about his experiences – how he had joined the Marines after seeing someone burn our flag and how he had survived war because Pfc. Ralph Johnson, a selfless Marine on his recon team, threw himself on a grenade to protect his friends. And I began to fall in love with our nation, its brave veterans, and its birthday celebration because of the passion I heard in my father’s voice.
My affection for the Fourth grew as my parents taught me more about our nation’s history. We traveled to Colonial Williamsburg, where costumed re-enactors brought history to life, providing the background I needed to understand why the Declaration of Independence was such an essential and pivotal part of our nation’s history. I loved this immersion in the Revolutionary era.
We also visited Fort McHenry, near where Francis Scott Key penned “The Star-Spangled Banner” after realizing that the Americans had – amazingly – held out against British invaders overnight during the War of 1812. With this visit, our national anthem took on a new life for me.
And we studied relevant family stories together, learning that our ancestor – Jeremiah “Pappy” Vereen – fought in the Revolutionary War and hosted George Washington on the first president’s tour of the southern states. We even discovered that after his overnight stay, Washington wrote about this in his diary.
My parents instilled in me a deep love for American history – our history – that led me to become an active and proud citizen. I want the same for my three children.
President Reagan summed up well the important role parents have in helping their children learn to appreciate our great country: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be … handed on for them … or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our … children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”
It’s easy to get caught up in the swimming, shopping, and dazzling fireworks displays that accompany the Fourth. But even as we enjoy the fun, we need to take the time to remember – and to make certain the next generation knows – that it marks the day democracy was born. And that fight was costly. The baton is ours to pass along.