Originally created 07/04/99

Veterans recall the meaning of independence



As a boy growing up in Chicago in the 1950s, Gil Guerrero has fond memories of his family's annual Fourth of July celebrations.

Aunts, uncles and cousins would gather at his parent's home to commemorate Independence Day. Like many other far-flung families, the holiday was a time for the Guerrero clan to catch up on news of relatives' struggles and triumphs, meet new babies and remember others who had passed away.

His aunts took charge of the meal, uncles handled the evening's fireworks display and every year his father, Salvatore, would gather everyone to hear patriotic readings to remind everyone what the day was about.

"My dad was a very patriotic person and it was a big deal in my house, the Fourth of July," said Mr. Guerrero, 58, now a Martinez business owner. "We always had to have the flag flying that day, and my dad always read us something about independence."

An immigrant from Sicily, his father had a passionate appreciation for America that made the Fourth of July his family's favorite holiday, Mr. Guerrero said.

"He would say, `We don't want to ever forget what this day means,"' said Mr. Guerrero. "My dad was patriotic, a lot more than I am now."

Coming from a home with such a strong sense of patriotic duty, Mr. Guerrero said there was no hesitation when he was called by his country to fight in Vietnam in the early 1960s.

It was a time when the nation was in turmoil over the fighting in Southeast Asia and some returning veterans were met with protests and outrage. But not Mr. Guerrero.

"I never had that problem," he said. "Everyone was very supportive of my being over there."

Three decades later, Mr. Guerrero's Independence Day celebrations are shared with fellow veterans at American Legion Post 205 on Highland Avenue.

"I still believe in it, but my family doesn't have the big get-togethers anymore," he said, lamenting how the day has lost some of its meaning to the public over the years.

Fellow legionnaire and World War II veteran Willie W. Cox, 89, agrees that the younger generation of citizens doesn't have the same sense of patriotism his did a half-century ago.

But he also recalls that in his youth, growing up on a farm in Evans, the Fourth of July meant very little.

Back then, Columbia County was a sparsely populated, rural area and people didn't come to town very often for grand parades or celebrations. And daily chores were a bigger priority than picnics, he said.

"In the country? We didn't do much of anything," he said. "We used to go a mile just to see a neighbor. Now you just walk next door."

Mr. Cox didn't see his first fireworks show until he was in his twenties. Now he looks foward to the celebration every year.

"We always have a big time," he said.

Celebration is fine, but the day has a greater significance than fireworks and brass bands, said Jim Hensley, 78, a retired Army first sergeant.

"I think we look at the Fourth of July as a time to wave a flag and have a barbecue and a picnic and we forget what it all started about," said Mr. Hensley, an infantry soldier during World War II and the Korean War.

"It's something you celebrate sure, but we should remember what it is all about. We should never forget the sacrifices involved," he said.

In the midst of all the weekend hullabaloo -- family trips to the lake, backyard barbecues and neighborhood softball games -- all Americans should pause one moment to reflect on the gift of freedom, he said.

"Just one moment of silent remembrance -- pray for peace," he said.

S.B. Crawford covers military issues for The Augusta Chronicle. He can be reached at (706) 823-3217 or scraw@augustachronicle.com.