TERRE HAUTE —
A spatula in one hand, a cool beverage in the other, and a stash of bottle rockets in a plastic sack in the garage.
The July heat triggers sweat, and the grill temperature singes your eyebrows. Motorists gaze as they pass by in their air-conditioned SUVs, almost pitying your steamy predicament. But, rest assured, they want your burgers. That’s your reward — envied meat.
Man. Fire. Food. It all adds up inside to a feeling of independence on a holiday built around that very concept.
The observance commemorates the United States’ bold break from British monarchy. Today, most folks call it the Fourth of July, but its official label is Independence Day, because on July 4, 1776 — 235 years ago, Monday — the nation’s founding fathers issued their Declaration of Independence. (Actually, delegates to the Continental Congress passed it on July 2, 1776, and signed it a month later on Aug. 2. The delegates only dated the document July 4. Let’s not wallow in minutiae, though.)
Independence girds the American psyche, not just in patriotic, national terms, but also individually. Our coming-of-age passages are all about personal independence, and we relish them. The horizon outside the windshield looks unlimited and so inviting on the day you get your first driver’s license. You captain your own ship — “I can do this alone.” Soon, your self-reliance surges more with that first apartment away from your childhood home, and your first purchase of a car. Later, usually decades, some folks revisit that feeling of liberation when they burn their mortgage (after paying it off, not in protest).
It’s funny, though, that I also remember feeling quite alone when that first car I bought — a massive 1965 Plymouth Fury — died on a remote stretch of U.S. 41. Twenty miles from my first apartment. In the rain. I had a driver’s license, but no umbrella. The road ahead looked unlimited, and very, very wet.
Instead, I had to rely on my feet, and on the goodwill of passers-by. Fortunately, a familiar face stopped and gave me a ride back to Terre Haute.
Things happen that way more often than we realize and want to admit. On Independence Day, it’s healthy to remember how much we depend on family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, complete strangers, fellow church members, fellow Americans and, yes, even people we’ll never meet in foreign countries. Unless you’re living as a Montana separatist or a pure survivalist, almost all of us get help from others.
Albert Einstein, a fairly smart guy, confessed, “A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life depends on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving.”
Interesting — the greatest free-thinking, independent mind of the 20th century acknowledged a dependence on others.
Our situations haven’t changed greatly since Einstein’s day.
We all eat, and most of us plan on consuming three meals a day. Well, 2 million American farmers produce the majority of the crops and livestock for the other 309 million folks living in this country. But farmers in other countries grow stuff we like, too. Last year, Americans imported and consumed 1.9 million metric tons of coffee, 7.9 million tons of vegetables, 8.4 million tons of cereals and bakery goods, and 10.7 million tons of fruits, according to USDA statistics. We also drank 5.2 kiloliters of foreign beverages (which might include that Corona or Heineken you’re swilling while you grill the burgers). Even the independently wealthy (except for those rugged individualists who hunt their own meat, churn their own butter, and brew their own beer) depend on farmers.
The airlines in the U.S. transport 182.5 million passengers a month. Ahh, soaring above the clouds — a feeling of utter freedom. “You’re free to move about the country,” as Southwest Airlines puts it. Yet, every time we fasten our seatbelts and fly, each of us — and about a hundred other passengers — rely on the skills of a pilot, the crew, air-traffic controllers, mechanics, TSA inspectors and Homeland Security agents to get us to and from our destination safely.
More than 200 million Americans hold that all-important driver’s license. We depend on foreign countries — primarily Canada, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Nigeria — for 60 percent of the petroleum used to fuel our vehicles.
When we get sick, we depend on doctors, nurses, technicians, orderlies to care for us in clinics and hospitals. Nearly 1 of every 2 Americans relies on at least one prescription medicine daily, and 1 in 6 of us take three or more prescriptions a day.
Even Thomas Jefferson, the founding father who wrote the Declaration of Independence, counted on a lesser-known contemporary — George Mason — for the structure of that landmark document. Jefferson drew inspiration from the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which Mason wrote and was adopted on June 12, 1776. Do the following words sound familiar?
“… that all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any impact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”
That was written by Mason — a fellow Virginian who also pushed for a Bill of Rights and wanted the original Constitution to abolish slavery — before Jefferson began working on the Declaration of Independence in mid-June 1776, according to the National Archives.
Perhaps folks unafraid to depend, such as Jefferson and Einstein, feel more free, more independent.
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@