Let me tell you a story of a benchmark 4th of July in 1933 when I was 10 years old. The celebration that planted the American flag forever in my heart.
The 4th of July “doin’s” as mother called it was an all-day picnic, fireworks, and a program held in the Civil War Memorial Park in Vernon, Illinois. It was a small park on a little piece of the prairie set aside at the edge of town years ago to honor our Civil War dead. It was bounded on two sides by cornfields. Canopies of oak trees completely shaded it. I love this little park to this day.
The park had a first-rate bandstand and band. The stand was built with six sides and always newly painted white and green for the 4th. The members of the band were splendidly dressed in colorful uniforms of blue and red with gold braid, stripes, whistles and caps with celluloid bills.
The bandleader was a veteran of World War 1. He led the band with his left hand. There was no arm in the right sleeve of his bright uniform. It was neatly folded back and pinned to an epaulet on his right shoulder. “Given in the service to his country” father never failed to point out to us children. In observation we were expected to stand in silence beside him for two minutes. And we did.
People dressed up for this occasion. Women made new clothes for their children to wear and they either made a new dress for themselves or bought one at the Dry Goods Store. The men & boys shed their overalls for the day and came in a nice shirt and pants with a new belt. How we looked was important.
So now we come to the crux of the day, the uninvited speaker .
The speeches had been given, the prepared program completed, songs sung and now the mayor of the town steps forward and asks “is there a veteran or anyone here who has a word they would like to say before we conclude with the pledge of allegiance?”
When Dutch Looie approached the podium and asked in broken English if he could speak, an astonished hush fell over the crowd. “This is America, said the mayor. Please come –take the podium. We are celebrating free speech.” He took his place on the bandstand and faced the crowd. I knew Dutch Looie. He was a German emigrant who lived in another little town near us, Shobonier, Illinois. He was a veterinarian and often came to our farm to treat a sick cow, horse, or hog. His wife Frieda came with him sometimes and brought little cinnamon cakes and said “yah”, yah” no matter what we said to her.
They always were barefoot and in worn brown coveralls. And now to my intense embarrassment for him, he was barefoot and dusty in his brown coveralls—on the 4th of July! … on the podium, barefoot and in worn but clean brown coveralls!
In my new white dress Mother made for me with it’s red cherries embroidered on the collar, I slumped down in my seat. I writhed in an agony of embarrassment for him—so much so I didn’t hear what he was saying causing mother to poke me sharply with her elbow and say “sit up straight and listen.”
He was an ox of a man—strong as an oak tree and there he stood planted on our podium in brown coveralls and barefoot. His words began to reach my ears. His sweeping handlebar mustache quivered and animated the air as he spoke. In broken but careful English, he was telling us his gratitude for America.
How good life was in America. How we could work in freedom—move in freedom – travel in perfect freedom. “One can travel the whole United States “ he said, “and never have to carry personal papers. There are no borders. You have free schools, free libraries, and a man’s worth is judged on his honesty and ability, and not where he comes from.”
Then he stopped, turned and left the stage. His ovation was thunderous. Men and boys did not whistle or shout out hurrahs. Overcome with emotions the crowd showed their hearts with continued clapping and surging forward to shake Dutch Looie’s hand.
And I? He had embarrassed my sense of propriety, but he had flooded my conscience with an awareness for others I have never lost. He stirred my 10-year-old mind. He enlarged my sense of history to a place beyond family history, beyond our farm or Vernon, Illinois. His barefoot left a giant footprint on my youthful self.
I sign off with these words to Dutch Looie. Of all the speakers I have heard since July 4, 1933 none has moved me as profoundly as yours did more than 80 years ago. That day I learned what “love my country” means.
HAPPY 239th BIRTHDAY AMERICA!!!