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July 4th, Independence Day commenced when 13 fractious colonies decided to sunder the greatest empire on earth... challenging every verity of governance in order to raise up a pristine nation where "all men are created equal."

From this signal phrase, Godlike in its ringing clarity and unanswerable in its adamantine proposition, everything else has flowed... making Columbia truly the gem of the ocean and Independence Day an event calling for the full attention and participation of all.

For on July 4, 1776 a handful of righteous people, fortified by the mightiest ideas on Earth, changed everything... as every monarch and potentate everywhere soon came to know, to their eternal detriment... and as millions worldwide thrilled to discover and bless America as much as any Citizen of the Great Republic. Oh, yes, Columbia was the "shrine of each patriot's devotion" from the very moment of each new patriot's birth, when they became Citizens and as such those who had the responsibility for fostering their great creation, even unto death itself.

For such a grand event a grand sound is needed. And so I give you one of the greatest of our national anthems, "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean." Lyrics and melody were written by Thomas a Becket, a fact his colleague David T. Shaw disputed, claiming the work as his own. Becket proved his authorship by means of his original handwritten composition. Shaw's skullduggery did, however, prove one thing: that its tune, its lyrics, and the effect it had on people everywhere (starting with covetous Shaw) proved that it was one of America's treasures, eminently suitable for "The home of the brave and the free."

Go now to any search engine and find this stirring melody and its sharply etched words, a paean not merely to a geographical entity, but, far more important, to what these bountiful acres stand for in the affairs of men and their human destiny. Listen to the lyrics for they cut deep, incised in each Citizen, never to be forgotten, always to be cherished from sea to shining sea. I like the version orchestrated and sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. It makes me proud to be an American. Go find it now and let the stupendous rhythms flow over you as heaven's balm. For they are surely that.

Independence Day, July 4, 1962, Illinois.

Right from its first celebration Independence Day was meant to be the most important civic event of the year, the day when business stopped and the great events of the Great Republic were regarded, remembered, revered, recalled in every detail because each detail was a significant and honored part of the monumental event. Each counted. Every person associated with them counted. Even the smallest act deserved recognition and on July 4th such recognition was freely given. No more so than in Downers Grove, Illinois.

A village in Downers Grove and Lisle Townships, a model of post war homogeneity and life.

Picture for a moment a metropolis of some 12,000 souls (since grown to nearly 50,000) where the objective was unity, not divisiveness. Where there would be no titans of industry and plutuocrats of unimaginable wealth; neither would there be poverty whether blatant or hidden. Instead its residents would strive for similarity of income and of lifestyle, all men truly equal, the Declaration of Independence wrought in ranch homes and acres of grass for young Citizens like me to cut on a hot summer day.

Downers Grove (the lack of the expected apostrophe a quirk the town fathers were certain gave panache to their enterprise and refused to alter) was founded in 1832 by Pierce Downer. He was a religious evangelist from New York. Other early settlers included the Blodgett, Curtiss, and Carpenter families, names given to the main streets, for townspeople liked their history, even though (or perhaps because) there was not so very much of it to learn and that quickly and proudly told.

How abolitionists had found zealous adherents in its free soil.

How there were houses still extant that served as stops on the Underground Railroad moving runaway slaves in dead of night to a new life, a free life.

How 119 soldiers served in the Union Army during the American Civil War.

How the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad was extended from Aurora to Chicago through Downers Grove in 1862, boosting its population as newcomers came to claim their portions of the leafy lanes, the quiet prosperity, neighbors who were neighborly and where local boys and girls grew up together, married each other and did not just pursue happiness, but found it.

It was these people who were now busily at work on what was to be not only my last Illinois Independence Day but the last such day we were all united, Citizens and world, offering "homage to thee", Columbia, and our confident mission of freedom, liberty, progress, and brotherhood. It is achingly clear in my mind's eye....

... the civic worthies (including my grandfather) gathered on the reviewing stand on Main Street, swapping stories and flasks of aged favorites. They were not merely the solons of our village but each a veteran who had helped America when America needed help. Behind them in the shade in hats and gloves sat their ladies, the women, however frail they may have looked, who had demonstrated grit and fortitude while their men were away on the nation's far-flung battlefields. In those worrisome days they knew secret despair, but their genius kept it from the children who were their unceasing focus.

Then the bandmaster, resplendent in Ruritanian uniform, raised his baton to signify America and the great State of Illinois were on fete... and the band marched smartly ahead, down flag festooned Main Street and into the recesses of my mind. That day I watched them in high glee, happy... today I know that this was the last unclouded tableau before the President was killed... before the war sundered the nation and made acrimony, not amity, our daily portion. I know this, but all the patriotic residents of Dowers Grove, so many of whom celebrated the day by marching in the town's parade, did not. They were marching, as we all march, into a future they must live to know, a future that challenged, threatened, and changed everything they believed in and to which they renewed their allegiance this day of remembrance, rededication, and high resolve.

One era ends, another begins, this is the way of people and the nations which reflect them.

Just days after Independence Day, my father removed his family from Downers Grove to accept a better job in Los Angeles. There, just a few months later on the school's basketball court, I learned of the President's assassination. This was the beginning of a train of epochal events. One of its many casualties was the scene so reminiscent of Currier & Ives I saw in all its beauty my last prairie Independence Day. Now gone forever. Columbia, the gem of the ocean, "The boast of the red, white and blue" sailed on to triumphs and tragedies but its great unities, unities that forged glorious destiny, were no longer present but merely aspects of history.

We need them so today. And cannot be truly great again, a cynosure for a world that needs it, until we are united again.


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