Happy Birthday, America

Published 7:37 am Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The watermelons were always cold. After we had finished them, the children would carve teeth out of the rind, pretending this must have been the way George Washington looked with his wooden teeth.

Later in the afternoon, the homemade ice cream would be finished. Vanilla was always the flavor of choice, with peach a distant second. It was always declared the best ever, except for the year the pinhole in the can let all the salt seep into the ice cream.

Somewhere along the way, baby back ribs became part of the menu. It took years of testing different ways of cooking ribs before everyone settled on the same method that survives in our family to this day.

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Traditions are part of the fabric that binds generations together over time. The word tradition comes from the Latin word “traditio,” which means to hand down or hand over. Traditions can be written or oral. They can involve food, places, games or events. A tradition can be celebrated by any group, people or country, including a family.

My family has been celebrating the Fourth of July at Compass Lake, Fla., for six generations now. I have only missed two since I was born. We put up flags and bunting, decorate the dock and play patriotic songs. There is a boat parade at night, followed by dozens of firework displays around the lake. Most of our family makes the pilgrimage where we tell the same stories year after year, generation after generation.

It is our way of celebrating the beginning of this wonderful country we all call home. All over America, different families will celebrate this weekend in many different ways. There will be fireworks, speeches, parades and barbecues. People will eat traditional favorites such as hamburgers and hot dogs, chicken, ribs, potato salad, chips and watermelon. There will even be political speeches around the country as if the air isn’t hot enough already.

There will be almost $150 million worth of fireworks shot from city parks, malls, and yes, the docks at Compass Lake. Almost all the fireworks will be from China. We will spend more than $8 million on new America flags; another $200 million on decorations. Interestingly enough, the overwhelming number of flags will also be produced in China.

The food we eat on Independence Day will largely come from the United States. More than 1 in 4 hot dogs will come from Iowa. One-sixth of the beef production will come from the Lone Star State. If you are grilling chicken, then the chances are pretty good that it came from our own state of Georgia.

Baked beans probably came from North Dakota, while the corn on the cob came from Florida, California or Georgia. The potato salad most likely came from Idaho or Washington, with the lettuce almost certainly from California.

And for the 74 million people that said they participated in a barbecue last year, that cold watermelon probably came from Georgia again, which leads the nation in watermelon production.

Some 2.5 million people lived in this land when the Declaration of Independence was signed, about half the population of Atlanta today. Of those, there were three Georgians that signed this historic document: Button Gwinnett, Lyman Hall and George Walton. Today, they are most famous for the three counties that were named after them.

And so will go the trivia questions peppered about as we discuss our long and glorious history. A nation of the people celebrating its beginning by the people, bound not our differences but rather by our common love of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Happy Birthday, America.

Can’t deny his impact

This isn’t a column of popular culture news, but it has been hard to ignore the outpouring from around the world at the death of Michael Jackson. You can’t deny his impact on the world of music.

He was without question the biggest pop star of the 1980s and one of the most popular recording artists of all time. Only time will tell if history will remember him for his musical work or for some of the less glamorous and less flattering parts of his life.

He left an estate hundreds of millions of dollars in debt. His parents have already filed for custody of his three children. Rumors are already swirling about his private doctor and the circumstances surrounding his death. Combined with his long history of plastic surgery and his occasional brushes with the law and you have at best a colorful life and at worst a sad life.

He lived like royalty, including a kingdom called Neverland. But he died a pauper. The talent and imagination seemed to erode until he was a shell of his former self.

I think perhaps Helen Keller had it right when she said, “Many persons have a wrong idea about what constitutes true happiness. It is attained not by self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.”