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|4 July 2006|
Thoughts on This DayOne birthday, when I was nine or ten, I woke with anticipation of the presents I would receive. Still in my pajamas I rushed into the kitchen where my parents were having coffee, expecting to get the loot which was rightfully mine. My father happily handed over a small, wrapped box. I opened it eagerly, to find a little American flag on a wooden stick. My father said that since my birthday was July 4th, he thought I would appreciate the gift.
Horror-struck first at not getting anything better, then a moment later at my own greed, I guiltily told my parents that I thought it was a fine gift.
After a moment, of course, my folks brought out my real presents, and there was a fair amount of good-natured teasing and laughing about the little trick they had played on me.
That was almost 40 years ago, and I can no longer tell you what presents I received that day. But the lesson in expectations and perspective my dad taught me that morning always remained with me. My dad had been a Marine, fought in Korea, and was a deeply patriotic cop who was killed while on duty a couple of years after that birthday. I have no idea what happened to that little flag on a stick, but I do still have the flag taken from my father's coffin, carefully and perfectly folded at the graveside when we buried him.
I've never looked at the American flag without remembering what a fine gift it really is and, as so many others have written, what it represents in terms of sacrifice. I love my country, as any Firecracker Baby is probably destined to do. You just can't ignore all that early training of patriotism, fireworks, and presents all tied up together.
But that doesn't mean that I am blinded by patriotism. As I've matured and gained life experience, I've learned many other lessons. Lessons about tempering expectations, living with occasional disappointment, accepting that things don't always work out the way you plan no matter how hard you work, how good your intentions, or how deserving you are. Still, you learn, grow, and do the best you can. This, it seems, is also the story of America. I believe we are an exceptional people, holding great potential, with our best years still to come. But nothing is guaranteed. We must honestly, and sometimes painfully, confront our failures, learn from them, and move on. The original founders of our country were brilliant, but flawed as all humans are flawed. Some of their errors led directly to the Civil War, that great bloody second revolution of the human spirit. That they made mistakes does not negate their greatness; rather, it shows us our potential even though we are not perfect. They knew, as we should know, that only we are responsible for our self-determination. Not a king, not a God, not a ruling political class. Us.
Today we've been gifted with a small box with a flag inside. A token of our history. Let us not take it for granted. Let us not think that the thing itself is more important than what it represents. Let us look on it and declare our own responsibility, our own self-determination.
Happy Independence Day.
all work © James T. Downey, 1993-2006
photos © Martha K. John, 1994-2006
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