Fourth of July parades and fireworks drew record crowds in many places. But I commemorated the Fourth by celebrating my own Independence Day at home. I stayed indoors most of the day, catching up on assorted chores, and listening to American music ranging from marches and patriotic fare to the LP version of Bonnie Pointer’s 1970’s disco hit, “Heaven Must Have Sent You.” And I took a pre-sundown boat tour of a half dozen of Mille Lacs’ many mud flats, working to keep my navigational skills somewhat intact.
I watched some daytime TV too, including an energetic discussion about “what the Fourth means” to several prominent Americans of differing backgrounds and political persuasions. While their definitions of patriotism and their critiques of the country varied widely, they seemed to agree that the Fourth is worth celebrating.
Even Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the ultra-liberal historian and Kennedy wag, could muster a sizable dose of pride in nation. He observed that most counties with ethnic and racial mixes have histories of brutal suppression and sanctioned discrimination toward those of other groups. He spoke of repeated strife, civil wars and changing borders. He cited present conflicts in the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and other coming-apart places.
Schlesinger noted that while the United States has its discrimination's and division, we work (albeit too slowly sometimes, and with some difficulty) and minimizing barriers, de-emphasizing differences, and staying together.
Professor Schlesinger cited our great diversity of peoples and called the United States “the most successful experience in history of a multi-ethnic society.” He said that despite our freedoms and differences, we have a “common core” of goals and values and share a “common American culture.”
Also during my isolation on the Fourth, I watched a Channel 2 documentary on our country’s immigrant experience ... men and women who left their native countries with few possessions, midst hopes and apprehensions, not knowing what they’d encounter in America beyond the Statue of Liberty and the clearing stop at Ellis Island. The interviews were gems.
“All I had with me was my basket, my little basket,” one woman recalled. “I can’t explain the feelings I had, going into a free land.”
While most people were cleared for admission to the United States, a few were turned back because of physical and mental disorders, and for other reasons. Consequently, some families endured the nightmare of separation. A third of the immigrants stayed in New York City, while others went by rail to all kinds of places, like Hoboken and Gary, where they found their way to an address, a friend, or a relative. There were stories of crowded apartments, language barriers, night school, searches for jobs, and simply being frightened and lost.
And there were adventures and novelties, big and small. “I had never seen a banana before,” one man remembered of his first days in his new country. “And to us the white bread was like cake.”
Another man told of getting his first paycheck. I said, ‘This is wonderful. Nobody’s gonna chase me from here! Had they sent me back, I’d have jumped into the water. I didn’t want to go back to Russia, didn’t want to see it again.”
At first the presence of policemen and references to “the government” unnerved those from other countries where government and police were viewed as major threats. One old man said he was ready to run as soon as he landed here. “There were policeman everywhere, guiding people around. I was scared to death. Where I came from ‘police’ meant oppression. They might cut off your head. We had no experience with democracy where policemen are there to protect people and to help people.”
Meanwhile, the noble experiment continues as we experience the benefits and the abuses of freedom.