As I saunter from the East Coast to the Midwest city of St. Louis, standing on the precipice of everything wonderful I’ve imagined, both in terms os geography (the mountains, deserts, and forests of the west) and my life (about to turn 40), it’s a time of excitement, determination, and challenge.
I ponder from time to time what previous generations would say if they could see me now.
Do I complain about matters which seem trivial to them, those who fought wars on foreign continents or crossed oceans from those same continents toward what they hoped would be a better life?
Would they look upon me with approval and pride, knowing I’m doing my best to make the most of the life I’ve been given, the moment in which I exist, what writing talent I’m lucky to possess?
This week, which includes Independence Day, I’m shuffling my two boys around St. Louis, showing them as much as a 6-year-old and 4-year-old can appreciate of history, culture, recreation. We’ll eat what restaurants we choose. Fireworks will entertain us. We’ll shop where we like.
What a contrast it is, then, to know how previous Independence Days were spent.
Take Alford Pendleton, who spent four consecutive Fourth of July’s wearing the blue uniform of the Union army, marching across the South with the 13th Kentucky Infantry hauling a rifle and a belief in the United States. From battles at Shiloh to Atlanta, he survived. Then, with his wife Mary, built a family in Dunnville, a small southern Kentucky town where Goose Creek runs into the Green River.
What it must have been like to be 87-year-old Thomas Pidgeon and his sons, Benjamin, and Thomas Pidgeon Jr., in the summer of 1891 in Louisville, the first these three spent together since Junior departed County Tipperary in Ireland for America. That first Independence Day, all of them making more money working for Louisville & Nashville railroad than they ever had before, I wonder what it meant to them? They lived in a free country, but the home they left behind remained anything but.
Imagine Ethel Pierce, that Fourth of July in Dunnville, Kentucky, in 1928, the first without her oldest boy, Arthur, gunned down in a church yard during an argument with a preacher’s son.
Bud Pidgeon in 1945 spent Independence Day aboard a 523-foot steel troop transport, part of the ship’s Marine detachment, watching the west coast of Mexico drift by. The ship set a course for Europe, after spending most of the previous year shuttling troops around the Pacific, and as Bud watched sea lions and turtles swim in the peaceful waters below, his thoughts drifted to his wife in Cincinnati, pregnant for the first time.
Railroaders, soldiers, sailors, housewives, working mothers, convicts, the unlucky, the fortunate ones … all had moments on Independence Day to think about what that word “independence” means.
Here we are in the Gateway City visiting my wife’s sister and her family, grilling hot dogs, drinking wine out of a box, talking about office jobs, watching our children play with their cousins in the backyard.
I’m just the current chapter, charged now with raising the next generation so they can fulfill their own chapter in our story. I hope I’m doing a good job. The happiness of my children, the loving look of my wife, the approving nods of my parents, when life gets tough, I think of these and carry on.
The choice to carry on. That’s independence. Keep carrying on. That’s what the previous generation would want me to do.
Dave Pidgeon is a writer and photographer from Lancaster, Pa. You can reach him at email@example.com