Whatever happened to the Fourth of July?

Carl Bode

July 02, 1992|By Carl Bode

MISS TATUM! Remember me, Miss Tatum? I was the skinny kid with the thick glasses in your fourth-grade class. I remember you because you gave me one of the memorable days of my childhood. I can recollect the entire day.

You asked for a volunteer to lead the class in the public-school Fourth of July parade to Lincoln Park. Out of the weaving thicket of raised hands, mine was the most frantic -- not only because I was a show-off but because my mother had made me an Uncle Sam suit for a kids' costume party. So you chose me.

In my red and white striped pants and star-studded blouse I stepped along, perspiring but proud, in the steamy sunshine. When we reached the archway at Lincoln Park and dispersed, my responsibilities ended. I headed for the nearest confectionery booth, ready to eat my way through the afternoon.

I bought my first installment of cotton candy and meandered over to the bandstand to listen to the music. I took a printed program from the pile on a bench and saw that speeches were to be sandwiched in among the musical selections. As any normal boy would, I proposed to close the valves of my attention whenever talking took place and concentrate on my candy.

However, one speech early in the program managed to capture my attention, partly because Congressman Cagle, who made it, knew my father. A little rooster of a man in a white summer suit, he had what we now call charisma.

Standing on the bandstand steps, head back, chin high, he orated about how glad we should be that we were Americans. There was doubtless nothing novel in what he said, but he looked at me every now and then in my Uncle Sam suit, and his words began to have some meaning. I stood listening, with wisps of cotton candy on my face, and I didn't even wiggle.

Congressman Cagle spoke about our wars and the sacrifices for our country, even of life itself, made by earlier Americans. He started with Nathan Hale and ended with the Unknown Soldier. He praised the pair of veterans in American Legion uniform who held themselves more or less at attention at either side of the steps; they looked both gratified and sheepish. He spoke about the great patriotic tradition of our state and urged us to keep it alive. He spoke about the American eagle, that fearless bird, and Old Glory, that peerless banner. He spoke about brotherhood.

Suddenly, he pointed at me. "This little fellow," he announced, "must grow up to be a brother to all our people. Irish, Polish and Eyetalian; Catholic, Protestant and Jewish; black, white and yellow; rich and poor." Despite my embarrassment when the crowd stared at me, I recognized that this was strong stuff.

Stepping up the decibels, he finished his speech. Then he did something extraordinary. He cleared his throat and began to sing "America the Beautiful." For a small man, he had a voice so large that it startled me, but he sang well. On reaching the final stanza, he flung out his arms to us and many of us joined in. I knew the words of all four stanzas because we sang them at school. Now the last lines of the first and fourth stanzas came alive for me: "And crown thy good with brotherhood/From sea to shining sea." At the end we burst into applause, for Congressman Cagle and for the sterling quality of our own singing.

Let me conclude, like Congressman Cagle, by singing a bit from "America the Beautiful." As poetry, the stanza is dreadful, but the sentiment in the final lines is appealing:

O beautiful for pilgrim feet,

Whose stern, impassioned stress

A thoroughfare for freedom beat

Across the wilderness!

America! America!

God mend thine every flaw,

Confine thy soul in self-control

Thy liberty in law!

Carl Bode, professor emeritus of the University of Maryland College Park, writes from Chestertown.

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