Posted by: As I See It by Arnie | July 3, 2007

Independence Day. Have you experienced yours?

Yes, you all know that tomorrow is the fourth of July, traditionally a day of fireworks and family bar-b-ques and days off work. But, I’ve been getting the ill feeling that most Americans are disconnected from what independence means, what it has meant to these United States, and therefore to all Americans as citizens of this great land. Many reports indicate that over the past several decades, the public educational system has watered down the story of our founding fathers and their stand for independence from the British and the Church of England, so that this present adult government educated generation of Americans, do not understand what is at stake. Dependence or independence.

Education is not a substitute for experience, and along with experience comes the knowledge that independence and freedom are not free. A heavy price was paid by our founders to declare their freedom. A heavy price in lives and fortunes lost, was paid by those early Americans fighting off the British during those tumultuous years following the signing of the declaration of Independence in 1776. It cost a bunch. It took time. It took fortitude. It took determination and courage, and the deep understanding within their very souls that all of the personal sacrifices were going to be worth it. Freedom. But these are just words. Experience is what makes the difference.

Unless you have personally been involved or have witnessed an event of someone or yourself having gone through a stage of freedom to bondage and back to freedom again, you will not know, nor understand. You can be a teacher of American history and know the stories backwards, but the time may come when you will have to stand against the enemies of our freedoms. What will you do?

I have been blessed with such an experience.

During the early 60’s I was stationed in Germany, near Nurnberg as part of the Fourth Armored Calvary. It was the cold war. Soon after arriving JFK was elected president, and I remember the excitement of his youthfulness, his ability to paint pictures with his words and he had a political charm that won over many of those opposed to his election. It was an exciting time to be an American. I felt that the country came together during his short term. Although he was certainly not free of faults, he was a sign of youth, of a new age. Watching the films of his touch football romps on the huge Kennedy estate with Bobby and all was exciting. Jacqueline was glamorous. Nixon always appeared to be a politician. Kennedy was a human being.

But, soon after his taking office, the communists started building that wall between East Germany and the West, separating the German people in two parts. Imagine that one day, your relatives and friends can no longer come and visit because of a wall that was constructed almost overnight without much warning. You own a business and one day none of your workers show up, they are locked behind a wall, or if they attempted to cross the yet constructed wall, they would have been shot by one of the many communist soldiers guarding the line as workers were building the brand new wall of separation. One day the communists soldiers would come and remove residents from the first floor of apartments and brick up the windows facing freedom in west Berlin. Those on the second and third floors or higher were left alone….temporarily. Only the first floors were shut down, the residents pushed out somewhere and a relative a block away in the west knew not where they had gone. Just gone. Not a trace.

In open areas, land was cleared and a circling barbed wire fence was strung on the western edge of perhaps a 100 foot cleared area on the eastern side. Guard stations were strategically placed so that the soldiers could see and shoot anyone trying to run to the wire and hopefully, they could cut through before being shot to death. I saw some of those attempts on news broadcasts, the soldiers coming and removing those bodies. And, there was nothing that could be done.

During this wall construction time, I was able to get a leave, a vacation, and a few of us decided to go to West Berlin, literally an island surrounded by communist Germany. Our curiosity about Berlin and the wall was tempered with the stories of the abundant night-life available. So, off we went. My memory fades on some of these details, but we were able to drive the autobahn in my 1950 VW. The turn signals were arms that rose out of the door frame. There were two small rear windows. To downshift into first gear, you had to come to a complete stop, and I bought it from a German for $200. What a car, but that’s another story of the places that car took me throughout Europe. We had to drive through the eastern part of communist Germany to get to free West Berlin. I do remember at the gate separating West Germany from the East, just an interruption on the autobahn, we had to show our papers to a stern looking uniformed officer in a small hut guarding the entrance to the eastern section. It seemed like an hour for him to inspect our papers. As the driver, I was told not to stop anywhere along the way and that the gate at the other end would know what time we should arrive. The imaginations of what could happen were ingrained and a quietness fell over us during the long trip. We had a full tank of gas, and we arrived a bit ahead of schedule.

West Berlin was a beautiful city, vibrant, economically thriving and the people loved Americans, and American servicemen of all stripes. I stood on the western side of the Brandenburg gate and have some pictures of that walled gate somewhere. People were walking about the open square doing their business while communist soldiers were perched nearby on top of the wall. I also visited one of the few areas that business people and visitors could cross through to the eastern side for a short time, called checkpoint Charlie.  As I toured the city, somewhere else along the wall, I literally witnessed a couple jump from a second floor window desiring to get to the freedom in the West. Safely they landed, and so excited they seemed, the deep bruises and sores were forgotten. If anything was broken, they did not appear to care. The row of buildings was the wall, so if you did not hurt yourself while landing, you were free, otherwise severely wounded or dead from the fall. The windows below many of the third floor flats had already been bricked in, and the communists may have thought no one would try to jump from the third or fourth floor or higher, so at the time, they were still allowed to live in the upper floors. Some times these attempted escapes were planned ahead of time, and relatives or just compassionate friends in the west would show up at an appointed time with blankets stretched out hoping to break the fall and avoid injuries. Thousands escaped through these windows, but hundreds also lost their lives by a mishap, or were shot at some other point along the wall or fences in their attempts to return to freedom.

Now, I know. I know that freedom has a price. It did not come from knowledge of the stories in a book, it became real.

On the trip back from Germany, I’ll never ever, ever, forget the experience of the troop ship pulling into the New York harbor and seeing that beautiful lady, that Statute of Liberty standing tall in the distance. What a sight. I could not keep back the tears, and at the time, I wondered why it affected me so greatly. It’s just a statute. I was just glad to be on the way home to a new life in America, back to Chicago and a new chapter. But then sometime later, the lights went on and I understood. America is the land of the free and the home of the brave. It’s the greatest country on the face of the earth. There is more diversity of races, of creeds, of backgrounds, of peoples from every other nation, within our borders than anywhere else, and on the whole we are a law abiding people, a tolerant people, a truly multi-cultural people all rolled into one nation, assimilated under one flag, with one common language, ruled under the most astounding piece of paper ever written by men. It was not always so. This freedom we share and the opportunities and challenges before us came with a price, as thousands of our brave men and women have paid the ultimate price protecting this simple ideology.

“We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

I’ve experienced it.

Happy Independence Day.

There is another experience that brings a deep down in the bottom of your gut freedom. It is what we Christians call the born again state. “Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” John 3:3 “You shall come to know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” John 8:32 This freedom comes at a price too.

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