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July 4 is about more than fireworks — Ask Kitty

Independence Day prompts 85-year-old columnist Kitty Schindler to recall a memorable visit to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island with her coal miner father, a son of immigrants.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

This weekend, millions of Americans will celebrate our nation’s birthday by watching public fireworks spectaculars, either in person on television. We didn’t have TV when I was growing up one of 10 children in a Pennsylvania mining town, but that didn’t stop us from having fireworks displays that were pretty spectacular in my young eyes. My little town, Archbald, couldn’t afford a fireworks show, so my family made our own.

The first thing we’d do every Fourth of July is put up our flag. Then there’d be a parade (our town was small, but that didn’t stop us from seizing every possible excuse for having one) and, for dinner at midday, hot dogs.

Later in the day, we’d pile into my grandmother’s Hupmobile (it was supposed to seat five or six, but we weren’t very big yet and would squeeze in a lot more kids) and head to a nearby fireworks store. Then we’d return home to get ready for the big show.

Rockets’ red glareAs the master of ceremonies, my Uncle Pete, carefully assembled his display, we’d lay out blankets to lie on (and under — even in July, evenings were cool in the foothills of the Poconos) and sip our lemonade while we talked about just what Independence Day celebrated. For the younger kids, it was a real learning experience. Finally it would grow dark and the show would begin.

Firecrackers popped; sparklers sputtered; Roman candles fired flares high into the night sky. We’d ooh and ah as the air filled with the pungent tang of gunpowder. Pinwheels my uncle had attached to poles would turn slowly at first, scattering showers of sparks, then accelerate into madly spinning spirals of light.

Finally there were skyrockets that would whistle and shriek as they arced high overhead before bursting into fountains of color — often with a surprise boom at the end that would make us jump. Afterward we’d head to bed tired, the bangs and blasts still echoing in our ears.

Such amateur backyard shows are illegal in most of the country now — and rightly so, I’m sure, even though our elders watched us with eagle eyes to make sure we never got in harm’s way. As a nurse, I’ve seen firsthand what terrible injuries burns and exploding firecrackers make. Many towns provide free public displays today, and the fireworks spectaculars on TV are dazzling (and a lot safer!).

Lady LibertyBesides, there are other ways to observe Independence Day that don’t risk third-degree burns. This weekend, the interior of the Statue of Liberty opens to the public for the first time since the Sept. 11 attacks. And that reminds me of when I took my father to see the statue for the first time in his life, and how much it meant to him.

Pa was literally the son of immigrants — in fact, all four of my grandparents came to America from Ireland in the early 1890s or before. That means it’s likely none of them came through Ellis Island, which only became the entry point for immigrants in 1892; instead, they were probably admitted through Castle Garden Immigration Depot at the southern tip of Manhattan, which is now a national monument and a way station for visitors to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.

Ironically, I didn’t know that when I took my aging dad through Castle Garden on our way to Lady Liberty back in the late ’70s. He was standing in the very place his parents had come through — and he didn’t know it! Nonetheless, Pa was very excited as the boat took us across, and I could tell he was imagining how thrilling — and terrifying — it had to have been for his parents when they first glimpsed the statue only a generation earlier.

Pa was an avid history buff, and as we toured Ellis Island, I could see him studying the old suitcases of immigrants on display and listening intently as the guide explained how language mix-ups and other confusion led to names being changed there — our own family name, Marion, had been changed to that from the Irish name O’Marron. But I could also see that he was having some difficulty breathing; most of the buildings were unrestored then, and the dampness, the mold and all the stairs were tough on his miner’s lungs.

So I was relieved when we moved on to Lady Liberty herself. My father couldn’t get over how big the statue was; he kept leaning back until I was afraid he would topple backward. When we finally returned to my home, which was on Long Island then, he couldn’t stop talking about his family and his background.

My father had seen some tough times, but he was grateful to be an American. Now times are tough for many of us again; many towns can’t afford to have fireworks shows this year, and I can’t help wondering whether the money in the towns that are having them shouldn’t be going to the homeless instead — particularly mothers of young children.

But America has come through tough times before, and we will again. This is still the land of opportunity, where a coal miner could raise 10 children and dream of better things for them — and where a coal miner’s daughter could live a long and productive life and enjoy many Independence Days. Here’s hoping yours is enjoyable — and meaningful — too.

Kitty Schindler, 85, grew up one of 10 children of a Pennsylvania coal miner during the Depression. Now she shares her perspectives on these challenging times with readers. If you have a question or comment for Kitty, send her an e-mail! To Ask Kitty, click here.