With the federal government in the grip of multiple investigations that may challenge the foundations of our democracy, Independence Day is more meaningful than ever, and its commemoration more sorely needed.
I was 11 when I thought I figured out the Fourth of July.
We grew up in Evergreen Park, where there was no public place to swim, where fireworks were illegal, and where the closest park for kids to play was in Chicago, several miles away.
So on July Fourth, for several consecutive years in the 1960s, the old man took all eight kids and our mother in the Pontiac station wagon to Whiting, Indiana.
Before that day, I had thought Christmas was the biggest holiday, for the gifts, the traditions, and, well, for the gifts. But by nightfall, I felt like a Yankee Doodle Dandy. Whiting Lakefront Park turned out to be the epitome of freedom and fun, where there was nothing a kid could not try.
Just east of the Illinois and Indiana border, and occupying 15 acres on Lake Michigan’s shoreline, the park was a paradise for middle class baby boomers who worked at the steel mills, the butcher shop, or the shoe store.
The heart of the park was a tree-lined, hilly picnic grove, where families spread cotton sheets over picnic tables, and sat on lawn chairs or on blankets, luxuriating in the lake’s cool breezes, and celebrating nature, life, and America’s birthday.
I remember walking along the footpath, listening to multiple languages being spoken — Polish, Spanish, Greek, Italian — and breathing in exotic, tantalizing aromas from ethnic dishes cooking on the outdoor grills.
Sun or rain, we swam at the park’s beach on Lake Michigan, playing keep-away with a tennis ball, throwing long passes with a football, diving fearlessly into the air to make show-off catches before plunging into the water.
If I close my eyes, I can still recall the cold water’s metallic, oily smell from the adjacent BP oil refinery, with a slight hint of the fish that swam in its depths, and the sweet scent of the sand bottom, stretching all the way to Canada.
After swimming, we played baseball inside the park’s major league stadium, complete with a backstop, bleachers, and home run walls. My brother Pat did his impression of Jack Brickhouse announcing the game as each of us futilely swung for the fences.
Some of the grownups played tennis on the courts just below an earthen berm from which we sat and watched them, until Dad appeared through the trees and called us for dinner.
We sat at the picnic table, devouring hot dogs, blistered black from my father’s grill, slathered with yellow mustard and slivers of red onion, along with Mom’s potato salad containing big white chunks of hard boiled eggs. We washed it down with Mr. Newport root beer, with usually a slab of watermelon for dessert, which Dad had bought off a pickup truck parked on Indianapolis Avenue.
Afterward, we dug in our pockets and counted our allowance to use at the carnival next to the baseball stadium. We bought ride tickets for the miniature boats and the Tilt-A-Whirl, and blew what we had left trying to knock down rag dolls with baseballs, in hopes of winning a stuffed animal for baby Nancy.
Whiting had it all. It was the Coney Island of the Midwest, uniting diverse families in recreation and joy.
That was 40 years ago, and Whiting Lakefront Park still stands today. The carnival may be gone, but it has been more than made up for with a cleaner lake, improved accessibility, and new infrastructure, including a fishing pier. With every sunrise, it beckons visitors from all over, like a diamond on the water.
Meanwhile, for the diverse mix of park users celebrating our country’s birth, the current immigration crackdown, the Berlin-type wall threatening to block our southern border, a proposed foreign travel ban, and a White House commitment to refill the prisons with nonviolent offenders and even journalists who won’t reveal sources — all these measures feel anathema to the Spirit of 1776: Oppressive. Un-American. Frightening.
Which is why it’s so important this year to honor and celebrate our adoption of the Declaration of Independence on the Fourth of July.
What our forefathers fought for, of course, was liberty. What inspired my youthful patriotism, was that 30-mile pilgrimage in my father’s station wagon. Anyone in the world seeking freedom, I thought, should come to America.
To Whiting, USA.
And a little humor for you — Happy July 4th!!