Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Independence Day

by Anna Arnett

As soon as she heard the first firecracker, Mother ran to open the screen door. Within seconds, Uncle Orris’s big dog Poon careened in, ears flat, tail between his legs, seeking safety under the bed where he lay trembling. A bullet once creased his head, and last year he’d gone right through the screen.

This is the first Fourth of July I remember. I was five, almost six. We lived on a farm about a dozen miles south of Rexburg, Idaho. I tagged along when Mother went to town, but my brother Don, three years older, elected to stay home and light firecrackers under tin cans.

Up on the Rexburg Bench (a flat area overlooking the rooftops of Ricks College and purported to be formed by the shores of prehistoric Lake Bonneville) a lone cabin plane landed on a graded dirt runway and taxied right up to where we were standing. I hid behind Mother’s skirts. Before I knew what to expect, Mother lifted me up into the airplane, and two of my uncles assisted Grandma Wilcox and climbed in behind me. Somebody sat up front with the pilot, and a seat belt held me tightly between Mother and Grandma.

The engine roared, and we bumped along about the same as we did in our Model A Ford. As we gained speed, I thought we bumped less. Soon Mother unfastened my seatbelt. “Do you want to stand up and look out?” I did, but there was nothing to see except sky. Mother nudged me closer to the window. Pressing my forehead against it I looked down, and gasped in amazement. The cars looked like little beetles parading in lines, and people hardly seemed larger than dots. The plane banked, and I could see even better. Then it turned the other way, and Mother tugged me back to my seat and fastened me in. I have no idea how long the flight lasted, but when we got out, everybody congratulated my jubilant grandmother.

Grandma was born in Winter Quarters in February 1847, and arrived in Salt Lake City by covered wagon in September. Now, at eighty-two, she’d flown in an airplane! I, her youngest grandchild, got to ride with her.

The fireworks that night were the first I remember. We lay on quilts on the grass in the city park to watch the dark sky light up with umbrellas of sparkling color.

My husband says when he was a boy on a farm near Duncan, Arizona, somebody went up onto the clay bluffs and detonated a charge of dynamite to wake up the valley on the Fourth of July.
But his real Independence Day, he claims, was not in July. It was April 29, 1945, when he and about a hundred thousand other American and British prisoners of war were liberated from a camp in Mooseburg, Germany, with a tumult that far exceeded one dynamite blast.

Just before sunset on April 28, an American Major, dressed in combat uniform, with his 42 still strapped to his hip, presented himself at the gate and gained entrance. He brought welcome news.

“The American forces are near, and tomorrow you’ll hear shelling on both sides. I’d advise those of you in tents or in the open to hit the slit trenches to avoid any stray bullets. Sometime tomorrow, you should be free!”

The hoped-for word spread quickly as the sun went down. The Major stayed the night. Next morning the boom of mortar shelling woke them. American troops approached from the east, and the flash of tracer bullets and overhead mortar fire filled the air. A stray bullet hit the brick chimney of the latrine. Another hit the dust a dozen feet away from 2nd Lt. Charles Arnett, erstwhile B-24 bomber pilot. He jumped into the nearest trench, but watched as the forces split and charged on either side of the camp.. Every man eagerly watched the American forces converge on the village just down the hill, while the defending Germans retreated.
A hush fell over the camp and collective breaths came short as they watched the Nazi flag with its hated swastika tumble swiftly down the flagpole, and the Stars and Stripes of America rose triumphantly to the top. A hundred thousand prisoners cheered as one, giving a shout of joy that Lt. Arnett felt sure should be heard as far away as Berlin.

Tears streamed from the eyes of these weary, tough, hungry, unwashed, lice infested, courageous men. They could see, taste and smell freedom. This became forever their Independence Day.

That afternoon, General Patton himself arrived. He took one look around, asked a few questions, then stood in his Jeep, not ten feet away from Lt. Arnett, and addressed the men. He promised them white bread for supper. How an army on the march could come up with that much bread is another amazing facet of the ingenuity jewel created by Americans working together. Within a couple of hours the bread trucks rolled in, and every man ate white bread with his K-rations.

The war for freedom began long before the earth was formed, and is still going on. Freedom is precious. And it comes only by obedience to correct principles. Whenever we disobey, we give up just a little more of our rights – even if it’s only the right to a free conscience. Think about it.

This morning, at our Ward Independence Day breakfast, Charles has been asked to tell this experience. Excuse me, while I go with him.

Anna

6 comments:

  1. Anna, thank you so much for sharing that on our Independence Day. I'm going to share it with my family when they come. What price freedom, indeed. My father was a Captain in Patton's army and refurbished burned out tanks. He said it was really hard to get men to go out in them,that they felt they were unlucky. The men would often injure themselves so they wouldn't have to. I thought this morning as I sat at my desk, free to do whatever I wanted, about those who paid such an enormous price for my right and ability to do so. Thank you again. It meant a lot to read that story. Rene

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  2. I did share your story with my family. My husband said you are now on his must read list. Congrats! Rene

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  3. Wonderfully touching story. Too bad these memories are getting the two-step from the media. My dad is a Vietnam vet and his stories along with all the others do humble me. As Rene said, here I sat freedom almost unlimited because of others. A welcome but daunting privilege to honor their service.

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  4. Anna,
    You weave words so beautifully. Thank you for your tribute and wonderful history lesson. Both of my dads served during "peace time." (If there is such a thing...)

    I admire the courage of the families of those who serve and have served. I have two cousins in Afghanistan and Iraq. I know my Aunt has a lot of sleepless nights...and calluses on her knees.

    My hubby was born on July 4th. My kids describe the Fourth of July as being like Christmas...only without all the gifts.

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  5. I loved your July 4th comments, Anna. The story of your grandmother's flight resonated with me, for my grandmother came west in a covered wagon, too. She died in 1965. I don't think she ever got a chance to fly.

    And your story about your husband's Independence day put a lump in my throat.

    It was a great finish to a super 4th for me, to come home and read your essay.

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  6. Anna, you always were on my "must read list", but your finishing comments will propel you into my family home evening closing remarks and my wall-posted "must remember quotes".

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