Several years before I was born, almost two years before my parents actually met, President John F. Kennedy began a tradition about which I never knew. He proclaimed, according to a few articles and a recent Dear Abby letter, “Let’s ring freedom bells!”
At that exclamation, on July 4, 1963, bells rang out across the country in celebration of our nation’s freedom and in memory and honor of all those who selflessly fought for it. What a great tradition. I’m glad folks are working to revive it.
The only Independence Day traditions with which I was familiar until I read about the bells involved gluttony and explosives.
When I was growing up, every year we gathered at my grandparents’ home in New Jersey. They were living the American Dream. They had a big backyard in a nice neighborhood. The backyard included a pool installed when my dad and his older siblings were grown. Pop Pop even built a brick charcoal grill, perfect for burgers, dogs, chicken and kielbasa.
We played lots of yard games during our traditional backyard cookouts. It was my English and German grandparents who introduced us to the Italian lawn game of bocci. The adults would get into passionate horseshoe tournaments, as well.
As children, we were not permitted to play horseshoes. It was too dangerous. We could get clocked on the head and crack our skulls open. Mom Mom, therefore, bought us a Jarts set to keep us occupied and safe. It would come out years later that the Jarts were, in fact, more dangerous than the horseshoes.
The adults would also play volleyball and badminton while the kids played dress up, lit sparklers and punks, or polished off entire trays of cookies.
I wasn’t one of the cookie thieves. I adored the pool too much. Had I stolen cookies and then received permission to go swimming before the requisite 30 minutes was up, I could have cramped up and drowned. I was too young to die a tragic cookie-related swimming death.
Not that I didn’t eat. We all ate. We ate and ate and ate. There were chips and dips and fruits and nuts. Then they’d bring out salads of every sort. Next came the grilled meats with all the fixings. When you were stuffed beyond the ability to move, they’d throw the traditional German kielbasa on the grill and start simmering the sour kraut.
When the paper plates from the initial engorgement were collected and tossed in the trash cans, they’d start bringing out the desserts. We had everything from Jello molds to pies to red, white and blue cupcakes. Meanwhile, an old-fashioned machine was churning up something delicious like blueberry-peach ice cream.
We celebrated the independence of our beautiful country by eating, playing yard games for at least 30 minutes, cannon-balling ourselves into the pool, then repeating the whole process excessively all day long.
Then the sun went down.
Dad’s side of the family has always been extremely taken with the explosive excitement of Far East celebratory traditions. To this day, they still feel compelled to vivaciously reenact, “And the rocket’s red glare; the bombs bursting in air.” As patriotic as this part of our July 4 family tradition sounds, it tends to be a bit scary to the younger ones in the crowd.
The patriotic pyromaniac gene that runs in our family has sent a person or two to the emergency room and most likely served as inspiration to at least one episode of stupid, dangerous reality television. I was afraid to be within 20 feet of a bottle rocket until I was 30. My children still get nervous when we start decorating in red, white and blue.
Maybe that’s why I really like the idea of resurrecting President Kennedy’s bell tradition. It’s much more patriotic than eating a blue cheese stuffed, bloody-red burger with a side of grilled ears of white corn. It is more festive than a game of pool volleyball. And you don’t have to wait until dark — or keep a fire extinguisher and first aid kits on hand — for the reminder of why we’re all together in the first place.
This year, I’m starting a new family tradition by embracing the grassroots efforts to revive an old tradition. At 2:00 p.m. on Thursday, July 4, I’m passing out bells. We will take a break from the pool, food and croquet, and we will ring bells.
We will ring in celebration of our freedoms. We will ring in honor and memory of our armed forces, past, present and future. We will ring happy birthday to our beloved country.
For a few minutes in the light of day in the middle of the big family cookout, we will let freedom ring and remember how great our country is and how fortunate we are to be citizens.
Micki Bare is a columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau and the Courier-Tribune in Asheboro, N.C., and the author of Thurston T. Turtle children’s books. She and her family live in North Carolina. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.