Averyell A. Kessler
My father never heard the words Big Green Egg. He did not believe dinosaurs still roamed the earth, and Dr. Seuss’s famous book hadn’t yet been published. If anyone had mentioned a gas grill, he would have asked how to attach it to the pump at a filing station. Our grill, made from the left half of a steel drum, was the result of his innovation. It teetered on four uneven legs fashioned from cast iron pipes as it waited to be dusted off and wheeled out of the garage. There was no lid. Hamburgers were his specialty.
On the morning of the Fourth of July, Daddy was up before the sun cleared a line of cedar trees edging our backyard and the temperature eased above 93. He lifted six identical wooden frame lawn chairs from a rack in the garage and sprayed the cobwebs away with a garden hose. Also, a few aluminum folding chairs with seats made of multicolored vinyl straps. My family avoided metal lawn chairs because they could be lethal on a hot day when sun was merciless. Perhaps this is how the term “hot seat” originated. Next our tin tub, which he’d fill with ice, hose water, and the large striped watermelon resting on our kitchen counter. Last to appear was a pair of rickety card tables he’d cover with yesterday’s Clarion Ledger, as well as paper plates and napkins.
The party began at six, when the heat was still brutal, but nobody cared. Our friends arrived with baked beans, cold slaw, Lays Potato Chips, and an unopened bottle of Jim Beam. It was a simple and glorious night, full of laughter, fireflies, sparklers and as many cokes as I could drink. If Mama had not plunged me into a cold bath after the party, I would have stayed awake all night, reeling in a caffeine overdose.
As a child, I wasn’t sure what the Declaration of Independence was or why we celebrated on the fourth. Finally, Daddy explained.
“It’s America birthday,” he said simply. “So, we have a party.”
That I understood. “With a birthday cake?” I asked. I envisioned a three-layered monster decorated with pink icing roses and twinning green tendrils.
“No,” he answered. “Primos Brownies.”
Good enough, I thought. Maybe a gingerbread man or two.
I learned the basics of American history at Power School. It solidified in the 8th grade because of one man, history teacher extraordinaire, Mr. Moore. (I’ve had no luck in finding his first name.) I don’t know how he had the strength to teach five periods every day, but he did with unfailing enthusiasm. He was a stickler for dates – Magna Carta in 1215, Mayflower Compact 1620, Give me Liberty or Five Me Death, Patrick Henry 1775. He was expressive and vibrant, no one fell asleep in his class. Somehow, we made it through WWII and Iwo Jima before the year ended. Along the way, I learned that George Washington didn’t really chop down a cherry tree, but telling the truth was important. I also shouldered through 391 pages of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, finishing it with tears streaming down my cheeks.
As a sophomore at LSU, I had the good luck to sit in the classroom of T. Harry Williams, an acclaimed historian, Pulitzer Prize winner, and prolific writer of American military history. It was an incredible experience in the hands of a supreme educator with a steel trap brain and the language to match.
Funny thing, I don’t remember many of the specifics I learned from these master teachers. Over the years Mr. Moore’s dates dissolved, as have Dr. Williams’ colorful descriptions. What I’ve retained from each was their overwhelming love of the American story. Neither man dealt in myth or aggrandizements of glory. Neither held back when describing America’s hard times or tough challenges. But their optimism was always present and inherently contagious. For me, the contagious part took root early and I am still an optimistic American. Always will be.
E Pluribus Unum. Out of many, one. That’s our motto and has been since 1782. Thankfully, I’ve lived long enough to see us work through an abundance of hard times, often too many to count and too heavy to lift. Each time, we’ve beaten back trouble and marched ahead. Coming together is the beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.*
Now, some people are trying to rip us apart at the seams. What a fruitless task. You’ve picked the wrong path, folks, because our seams are strong, hand stitched by our history and heritage, as well as heroes of every race, religion, and political persuasion. In Mississippi speak, you’re following the tail of a smelly pole cat instead of a redbone hound chasing a scent. As many of us know, an encounter with a pole cat never ends well. Neither does mob violence, destruction, or the myth that problems can’t be solved, and the baby must be thrown out with the bathwater. I hope ex post facto thinking will dissolve faster than sugar in a pitcher of sweet tea. Just as I hope all Americans will seek the best for our country, not it’s ruin.
So, it’s birthday party time. Get ready for watermelon, flags, sparklers, and anything else that lights up the night. Roll out the grill, no matter how rusty or bedraggled, and gather around as the tantalizing aroma of sizzling burgers into the air. We are 245 years old and it’s been a heck of a run. For an implausible experiment in “We the People” government, I think we’ve done a good job. Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.** Happy birthday sweet land of liberty. Long my you shine.