Tuesday, July 1, 2014

And the Rockets' Red Glare ....

This Friday the Fourth of July is back, and with it will come parades, barbecues, gatherings and fireworks. I loved the Fourth when I was a kid back in the 60s. We had a couple of great parades (both netted us loads of candy), and a huge, double-propped military helicopter roared in and touched down in the park down the street. It joined a cool lineup of police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances. The Fourth was a big carnival with snow cones, Belgian waffles, and cotton candy. It was a good time.

Of course, the thing we were really all waiting for was the fireworks. After the sun finally set, we'd spend an eternity swatting mosquitoes and watching the sky slowly transform from light blue to a black velvet canvas. Then we'd strain our eyes, scanning the roped-off section of the park trying to be the first to spot that faint, red glow. If you looked really close you could make out our neighbor with the glowing punk, bending down over the table for an instant. He'd then spin around and bolt out of there as fast as he could. One by one the shells blasted off into the sky and burst into brilliant colors -- or my favorite -- the blinding, white flash. Smiles would break over our faces as we searched each other's eyes. "Wait for it!" Suddenly, the shock wave came crashing through your body like a freight train. I couldn't wipe the stupid grin off my face.

A few decades have gone by since then. Now when I watch those flashes of color and feel my body shaking I find my thoughts turn to Uncle Roland. He grew up in Marysville, Ohio, and went off to fight with the U.S. Marines in World War II. He served as a private first class in the 4th Pioneer Battalion, in the 14th Regiment, of the 4th Marine Division. The Pioneers were engineers who operated bulldozers and other heavy equipment to prepare or repair roads, clear mine fields -- basically do whatever it took to assist the movements of our troops or disrupt the movement of our enemies.

His Pioneer Battalion was right in the middle of the fray during Iwo Jima. He wasn't sitting on a blanket on the grass watching fireworks way up in the sky. He was right there in the middle of the firework display, blinded by the intense flashes of light, hearing the whirr of shrapnel flying by, breathing in the stinging sulfur fumes, bombarded by the constant concussion of shells going off all around.

Three days into the invasion, on Wednesday, February 21, Roland's Pioneer Battalion was clearing a minefield, so his Division could go capture the assigned airstrip. Roland was hit. They evacuated him on a DUKW: the same amphibious vehicles I've ridden on duck tours in the Wisconsin Dells and in Washington, D.C.; he took that agonizingly slow and loud ride to a waiting hospital ship where he died several hours later.

I wouldn't be born for another 15 years.

This Fourth I'll sit in the dark, seeing, smelling, hearing and feeling the fireworks. And I'll think of my uncle -- and the countless other American men and women from the very first Fourth of July in 1776 to this day: living, fighting, bleeding and dying so we can live free. It makes the holiday more somber, but so much richer.

What is the most memorable or meaningful part of the Fourth of July celebration for you?

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