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Reflecting on Independence

Upper Valley Residents on What Holiday Means to Them

  • Hannah Foston, 6, enjoys candy thrown from a float as she and her brother Liam Foston, 8, watch the Fourth of July parade in Plainfield, N.H., on July 4, 2014. The siblings' mother, Shelly Foston, said they made their costumes themselves, with the help of their grandmother. (Valley News - Will Parson)

    Hannah Foston, 6, enjoys candy thrown from a float as she and her brother Liam Foston, 8, watch the Fourth of July parade in Plainfield, N.H., on July 4, 2014. The siblings' mother, Shelly Foston, said they made their costumes themselves, with the help of their grandmother. (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Portia Barrett of Enfield, N.H., rides her eight-year-old horse Diesel during the Fourth of July parade and celebration in Plainfield, N.H., on July 4, 2014. "It's his first parade," Barrett said. (Valley News - Will Parson)

    Portia Barrett of Enfield, N.H., rides her eight-year-old horse Diesel during the Fourth of July parade and celebration in Plainfield, N.H., on July 4, 2014. "It's his first parade," Barrett said. (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Laura, 7, and Keira Hines, 11, ride a miniature bicycle during the celebration following the Fourth of July parade in Plainfield, N.H., on July 4, 2014.    (Valley News - Will Parson)

    Laura, 7, and Keira Hines, 11, ride a miniature bicycle during the celebration following the Fourth of July parade in Plainfield, N.H., on July 4, 2014. (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Hannah Foston, 6, enjoys candy thrown from a float as she and her brother Liam Foston, 8, watch the Fourth of July parade in Plainfield, N.H., on July 4, 2014. The siblings' mother, Shelly Foston, said they made their costumes themselves, with the help of their grandmother. (Valley News - Will Parson)
  • Portia Barrett of Enfield, N.H., rides her eight-year-old horse Diesel during the Fourth of July parade and celebration in Plainfield, N.H., on July 4, 2014. "It's his first parade," Barrett said. (Valley News - Will Parson)
  • Laura, 7, and Keira Hines, 11, ride a miniature bicycle during the celebration following the Fourth of July parade in Plainfield, N.H., on July 4, 2014.    (Valley News - Will Parson)

West Lebanon — About halfway through a year in which Russia annexed Crimea, America’s wars wound down in Afghanistan and tensions rose in Iraq, and the Supreme Court extended religious rights to privately held businesses, the Valley News asked Upper Valley residents celebrating the July 4th holiday what independence meant to them.

In Brownsville, the day began with a pancake and sausage breakfast in the basement of Brownsville Community Church, where a volunteer Edson Pierce greeted his neighbors and collected donations at the door.

Pierce, 80, said the holiday reminded him of the importance of religious freedom.

“Right off the bat, independence to me is being able to worship in the church of your choice,” he said.

A seventh-generation Vermonter, Pierce retired 26 ago from his job as a corrections officer, but he has always been a member of the Brownsville church.

“I’ve been a churchgoer ever since I was in the cradle,” he said. “I was baptized here, I was married here, and I hope to have my funeral here.”

Inside, Meg Clough, a West Windsor resident who works at a Woodstock dental office, had a different idea of what independence meant.

“I can choose not to go to Hobby Lobby,” she said, referring to the Supreme Court’s recent ruling that the national retailer’s owners were justified in limiting, based on their own religious beliefs, their employees’ access to certain kinds of contraceptives.

“It (independence) means I can say what I want,” Clough said.

Clough’s sister who lives in Texas, where Hobby Lobby does business, refuses to visit the store, she added.

While Pierce didn’t know much about the decision — he had only read the headlines — he said it was the envy of the world that the United States, a country founded in part by people seeking religious independence, could even have these kinds of discussions.

“In other nations, they have an awful time with their religions. It comes to bloodshed and who knows what else,” he said.

Later Friday morning, across the Connecticut River, singers — professional and otherwise — gathered in the sanctuary of the Mary Keane Chapel, a colonnaded marble church in the center of the Enfield Shaker village, for a patriotic singalong. They began by recognizing the event’s recently retired organist of 12 years, George Butler, and then sang the national anthem.

Accompanied by the new organist, Peter Beardsley, the program wound through the canon of musical Americana, transitioning without a pause from one song to the next: My Country, ‘Tis of Thee , America the Beautiful and Yankee Doodle , among many others. As each new song began, the room broke into applause.

Chief vocalist and conductor Ken Munsey introduced the only piece that the congregation did not accompany with their voices: Charles Ives’ Variations on ‘America.’

“He (Ives) was an insurance salesman,” Munsey said. “He got his inspiration from going to parades and hearing two bands marching next to each other, playing two songs at once.”

While Beardsley played the complex, polyphon ic piece, Munsey sat nearby and nodded his head to the cascading runs of notes that emanated from the organ. Beardsley enjoyed himself, too; it was a welcome break from keeping time for the singers.

“Independence as a musician means getting to play what you want, when you want, where you want,” he said afterward.

But before the singalong could end, it needed a finale. Beardsley accompanied the group to Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor, and then to The Battle Hymn of the Republic. As they reached the first “Glory, glory, hallelujah,” the last two rows stood up in their pews. At the second refrain, half were standing, and by the end of the chorus the room was on its feet.

Finally, Beardsley struck up God Bless America. A lady in red, white and blue clothes held up her right palm throughout, and when the song came to an end, the singers cheered. People held up American flags; one woman used her iPhone to record a video of another woman’s flag waving two pews ahead.

Once it was over, attendees came up to Munsey and Beardsley to thank and congratulate them. One man in patriotic suspenders and a straw hat suggested that they add Dixie to the list.

“We’ll keep that in mind,” Munsey said, smiling at the man.

Back in Brownsville, a parade made its way through the middle of town. About 200 residents came out to watch together, eating hot dogs, hamburgers and ice cream and anteing up money at the shooting gallery while they waited. The procession began at 1 p.m., passing under an enormous American flag suspended across the road by two fully extended firetruck ladders. It finished eight minutes later.

“That’s it, huh?” a woman said.

“Yep,” said a man beside her.

But the parade, which the West Windsor Volunteer Fire Department puts on every year, soon circled back for more. Behind a firetruck came a brass band, The Firehouse Six, playing a jazzy rendition of Dixie on a carriage towed by a minivan. A John Deere tractor, a Jeep with a Vermont National Guard banner and more red emergency vehicles followed.

A clown in oversized fireman’s overalls distributed flags to the onlookers. He carried a foam axe and wore a helmet that read “Chief” on the side — his real helmet.

The clown, Mike Spackman, has headed West Windsor’s fire department for 29 years.

To Spackman, independence is “the ability to be who we are.”

Each community has its own independent nature, but “we’re all under one huge flag,” he said, gesturing to the 20-by-30 example that hung at the entrance to town.

As a surprise for the town, Spackman had borrowed the flag from the Ascutney fire chief, Darrin Spaulding. Flags like that one were usually raised at a firefighter’s funeral, Spackman explained, but he and Spaulding had decided to extend the tradition to a celebratory occasion.

“How come we always do these things for a bad event? Let’s change it up a little,” he said.

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.