A Good Place to Live

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Kate Will

I learned to love the Fourth of July long before I could comprehend the date’s true significance. As a youngster in North Dakota, I knew the holiday meant that my sister, cousins and I would gather beneath gigantic cottonwood trees, along with hundreds of other folks, in a park on the Missouri River, south of Bismarck. Plenty of adults were on hand to tend to skinned knees and settle minor altercations, but for one sweet summer day, the Will children got to run around unsupervised, until long after dark.

These annual events generally included parades, pony rides, pie-eating contests, three-legged sack races, barbecue and more. I enjoyed the parades because my dad sometimes marched with a band, and there were horses and plenty of interesting pieces of equipment to look at. The sack races were always fun, and so was the egg toss. Pie eating was too messy for me – I loved pie, but not putting my face in it. Wonderful as those activities were, they really just helped us fidget our way through the day and tempered our anticipation of fireworks.

The older children always had fireworks in their pockets, and when I was in that group I did, too. A bottle rocket here, a ladyfinger there, and sparklers now and then did wonders for our collective adrenaline levels. As we got older, we discovered Roman candles, mortars and M-80s. Half the fun was setting them off, but the real thrill was in the freedom to possess them and the means to ignite them. We never really told our parents, and they never really asked, but for one glorious day, there was this understanding. And thankfully, in my family, no one lost an eye.

I can remember when I asked my dad about the tradition of fireworks on the Fourth of July. It was about the same time that I wondered what the phrase “rocket’s red glare” meant in the Star Spangled Banner. By then, I had experienced several Memorial Day parades and had some vague ideas on the Revolution, all gathered from a lavishly illustrated American Heritage coffee table book. But his reply came as a real childhood shock – it hadn’t occurred to me that the way of life I took for granted wasn’t available in many places around the world.

Now that our own children are grown, my wife, Kate, and I no longer seek out the small-town July Fourth celebrations the way we used to. Puttering in the garden has replaced the sack races, and obsessing over some beautiful gift of meat, slow-cooking in the smoker, substitutes nicely for grilling in the park. As evening approaches, ever too quickly now, the only fireworks we anticipate are displayed through a spectacular sunset and a star-spangled sky.

Imperfect as some think this land might be, I can’t imagine any other place where I would choose to live. Thanks to all the folks, past and present, responsible for making it possible to celebrate Independence Day again this year.

Whether it’s small-town parades or pie-eating contests we’d love to know what you’re up to. Post digital photos on cu.Grit.com. Submit articles electronically as an email message or an attached word-processing document. We also like handwritten notes, typed or printed documents and photographic slides or prints. Include an SASE if you want submissions returned. We’ll publish some contributions in the magazine, some on the Web site, and some in our biweekly electronic newsletter, GRIT eNews.
See you in September.

Former Editorial Director and current Editor at Large for Ogden Publications, Hank Will is a business leader, academic, and agricultural practitioner devoted to conservation and small scale, sustainable agriculture. His current project, Prairie Turnip Farm in rural Osage County, Kansas, is home to direct-market Highland beef, landrace lamb, soap, feral bee, hay, and metal-working businesses.