Outdoors North: Peaceful reflection on the Fourth of July

John Pepin

“I can remember the Fourth of July, runnin’ through the backwood bare; and I can still hear my old hound dog barkin’, chasin’ down a hoodoo there,” – John Fogerty

In the back of my head somewhere, there are a thousand or so Norman Rockwell scenes, painted on my memory, depicting days of pleasures simple and free.

Among them is an image of me, then a young kid, with my brother and sisters sitting on the curb waiting for the Fourth of July parade to start.

Every few minutes, one of us would walk out into the street and look up past the crowds packing the downtown to see if the police car leading the parade was rounding the corner yet.

We’d have little American flags to wave and the promise of hot dogs on the grill, potato chips, and fireworks and sparklers to come. The day was warm and humid, with at least a few tumbling storm clouds overhead, threatening the procession.

Our high anticipation was wrapped all up around Tootsie Rolls and other candy tossed by smiling and waving men, sometimes in strange-looking hats, riding in shiny cars.

We also wanted to see fire engines and police cars with their lights and sirens, clowns in their tiny cars and big shoes, spraying seltzer bottles and tossing confetti, pretty ladies on horseback, and the Little Leaguers with their blanket spread, hoping to catch some coins tossed in the air from the crowd.

Best of all were the marching bands, with their baton twirlers and talented drum and bugle corps musicians playing all those shiny chrome horns — with the military drum beat that would go right through your heart.

Those were the days of the Vietnam War and there were a lot of American flags around. One day, on the way home from swimming at a friend of my mom’s camp near Gwinn, I remember seeing B-52 bombers banking in the sky along the highway that ran along the K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base.

It was an amazing sight. Years later, I would recall my childhood look at the B-52s when I saw an SR-71 Blackbird flying against the blue skies of the Mojave Desert in California.

I didn’t understand much of what was going on with the war, being just a young kid. I do remember the death toll and war footage in color on television, and people arguing about the American flag and long hair.

I was too young to be drafted. I wanted the news, and anything else on television, to be over so I could watch “Batman,” which was also broadcast in glorious color. In those days, kids didn’t decide how they were going to get their hair cut, and we were all taught to love and respect old glory.

Hands on our hearts, we’d recite in unison the Pledge of Allegiance. We were taught a bunch of patriotic songs and old standards like Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.”

My family used to pick blueberries out on the Sands Plains by the air base. More hot days of summertime, sitting among the bright green bracken ferns and reindeer moss, listening to the berries clang as they hit the bottom of my coffee can or plastic Cool-Whip container.

I don’t know if the kid boredom I felt would have been worth it if it weren’t for mom’s homemade blueberry pie and jelly that were sure to follow in the days ahead.

Though I didn’t care much for berry picking as a kid, I now feel if given the chance, I’d love to take my granddaughter — who is now learning to crawl and talk — along with her mom and dad, out to the blueberry patch.

I’d love to get her close enough to nature to smell the plants and the leaves, to feel the dew in the grass, the sandy dirt beneath her and the cool shade under the bristly jack pine trees.

She could lie on my chest and we could look up at the sky, watching the clouds move past and listen to the hermit thrushes singing from the trees. That’s another Rockwell-like image I’m painting, which includes me chewing on a piece of yellow, late summer grass and her all sunshine, smiles and hands reaching and grasping at the sky.

I’d also love to take her to a Fourth of July parade and sit her up on my shoulders, like I used to do with her dad and his brother. I saw an online video recently of a whole classroom of school kids singing “You’re a Grand Old Flag.”

I remember we sang that song in school when I was a kid, part of our teaching to love America and respect our flag. I also heard it performed a week or so ago by a young pianist at a lovely afternoon flute and piano recital.

Though the tune, crafted by George M. Cohan for the 1906 stage musical George Washington, Jr., was considered mawkish by some, it remains a patriotic favorite and has always been one of those songs that is both inspirational and aspirational to me.

The chorus is as familiar as a robin’s song:

You’re a grand old flag

You’re a high flyin’ flag

And forever in peace may you wave

You’re the emblem of

The land I love

The home of the free and the brave

Every heart beats true

Under red, white and blue

Where there’s never a boast or a brag

But should auld acquaintance be forgot

Keep your eye on the grand old flag

The song was the first piece of sheet music from a musical to sell more than a million copies. The Library of Congress said the tune was originally called, “You’re a Grand Old Rag,” but was changed after outcry from groups and individuals who believed the name disrespected the flag.

Cohan said the original lyric came from a chance meeting he had with a Civil War veteran who fought at Gettysburg.

“The two men found themselves next to each other and Cohan noticed the vet held a carefully folded, but ragged, old flag,” the Library of Congress website said. “The man reportedly then turned to Cohan and said, ‘She’s a grand old rag.’ Cohan thought it was a great line.”

These days, I often prefer to avoid the big crowds of the Fourth of July, passing on the fireworks and the parades, in favor of some peaceful reflection in a quiet setting — like Bewabic State Park.

There, among the beautiful grounds, stone walls and structures built in the 1930s, may be some of our bravest men and women.

These are soldiers traumatized by the wages of war, who have fought for our country and now withdraw from the rocket’s red glare and bombs bursting in air. There are a handful of Michigan state parks offering places fireworks-free in respect for our veterans and others.

I still hope for a hot dog or two on the grill, a shady spot to hear the wind in the trees and maybe even a piece of blueberry pie. I’d like to watch the sun go down, the light turning gold and dropping across the face of Fortune Lake.

In a little while, the nighttime will belong to the barking barred owls, twittering bats, that one damned mosquito in my tent and the cool night air dropping down over the quiet campground, enveloping us all.

Editor’s note: John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula. Send correspondence to pepinj@michigan.gov or 1990 U.S. 41 South, Marquette, MI 49855.