Chester Martin Remembers The Glorious Fourth

Tuesday, July 4, 2017 - by Chester Martin

Yes, it IS indeed a Glorious holiday for celebrating our Independence! Although we now love Britain, it was not always so, and many nations around the world are envious of all our Freedoms. As an Engraver at the U.S. Mint IN Philadelphia I had the privilege to work on some ommemorative coinage for both the Bicentennial of our Constitution, and later, for the Bill of Rights, plus others, too. Folks, you do not know the true meaning of those documents until you have lived in Philadelphia and been able to almost "see" the Founding Fathers who framed them and spliced them together, as they hurried to and from the Statehouse of Pennsylvania, better known as Independence Hall. It is said that the later Bill of Rights was written in NYC, but our Constitution was written by Thomas Jefferson and ratified at Independence Hall in Philadlphia. There you can visit some of the actual places that the Founding Fathers actually frequented, hear the exact same marching tunes that they heard - played by modern day school kids dressed in Early American uniforms, playing their fifes and drums. It is a very uplifting feeling, I can tell you! (Those musician-kids were so enthusiastic they seemed to never notice the near-100 degree mixture of humidity and heat!)

We mint Engravers always studied our subjects before making the first sketch for new coinage, so we all six got a good refresher course in American History - and as for me personally, I got daily reminders of Philly's significance, as I passed the Betsy Ross house both mornings and afternoons, going to and from work. From the break-room at the mint we could plainly see the cupola atop Independence Hall - and Ben Franklin's grave lay directly across Arch Street - about 100 feet from that same window. My apartment building was at the corner of Arch and Front streets - the latter leading straight south past the former site of the Philadelphia Slave Market, to the site of Tun Tavern, where the U.S. Marine Corps was founded in November of 1775. Unchanged 18th Century Elfreth's Alley was one block from my building's front door - famous for being lined with Colonial "Trinity" houses of three stories: representing Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

But I did not grow up in Philly! I am a product of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and my closest ties to Philadelphia were previously our wonderful next-door neighbors of the early 1940's, Jack and Grace Metague. They lived next door during the early War Years. Although not old by any means, they were childless - though deperately wanting children. Possibly to compensate for their inability to have children of their own, they had come to Chattanooga with two young men they knew from Philadelphia. Mr. Metague was a salesman of printer's ink, and had numerous customers in Chattanooga. They immediately fell in love with our city and bought a motor boat to use on the then-new Chickamauga Lake. They named it the "Ducky Mate" - a name which has always intrigued me, and which I can never forget. The two young men - neither of them related to the other - or to Metagues - were also very friendly with me, a 7 or 8 year old. I remember the older one performing magic tricks for me, and I think they called him Stanley. The other boy was Jimmy Knecht (pronounced "Connect"). WWII was breaking out about that time and both of them went away - forever. Metagues never heard from either one again. Stanley may have joined the Navy, but Jimmy was drafted into the Army. I was devastated at their departure - just as I was when Metagues announced that they were returning to their roots, and fine house, in Philly. Once back home, they continued to write and send me stuff - like a small parchment copy of the U.S. Constitution - still a popular gift there. My mother and I got to see Jack and Grace once, years later - about 1953, and I talked with them by phone from my apartment in Philadelphia about 1986. No finer neighbors ever existed, and their memories of Chattanooga and the old neighborhood here were accurate and clear over 40 years later.

Yes, I grew up in Chattanooga, the son of a postman father and a former office-manager mother. Mom never worked a day during my entire life, as she had had to give up a good job during the Great Depression, when men were still seen as the Head of the Family. Preferential employment privileges were granted to men as being "bread-winners".

But dad had been a farm-boy, and an alumnus of the new Berry School at Rome, GA. For nearly 30 years he lived on a farm just off Broomtown Road, having been born on what is now called "York Road" in Chattooga County, Georgia. His early life had been molded by this rural background and he enjoyed all kinds of outdoor activities, both summer and winter. One thing he always looked forward to was picking blackberries on the Fourth of July - and that is the thing I remember most about MY first Independence Day events. Dad knew all the best places to find them - and it turned out that Chickamauga Park was his most favorite place of all. In those days there was nothing but woodland and undergrowth from the park boundary going toward Ringgold. No one could predict whether other people would beat us to the berries, and sometimes we had competition. If too many others were working the same area we would simply get in the car and drive farther out to another spot in the wilderness outside the park. This was a thing that all three of us - my mom, dad, and me - enjoyed doing together. My mother would have already planned to spend the entire next week canning berries. Those days would be good days to avoid the kitchen due to its steamy, savory odor of cooking berries. That odor would be shared for blocks around, as windows stayed open all summer back then.

For years I could remember where I had been on every Fourth of July in my life. As I got older, my adventures became more diverse and my older memories began to fade. I used to travel by Greyhound buses a lot, and I DO remember being on a Greyhound bus one Fourth, somewhere in the Bayou country, between the Texas-Louisiana border and New Orleans - and on a back-road. A group of Cajun men got on the bus somewhere far out in the country, laughing and talking in their native sing-song and slightly nasal French. I was attracted to their speech, so was watching them - and noticed that behind them came a small, stocky black man - not one of their party - with a proud expression on his face that literally radiated "America"! All the pride you could ever have wanted to express was written on his face. He was wearing an olive-drab Army jacket that bore a line or two of colorful military medals, possibly indicating a number of military battles or achievements - and possibly from the First World War. (His civilian pants were clear indication he was definitely no longer "military". He was obviously headed for some event important to him - a picnic or a barbecue - which he considered "worthy". Maybe a day of speeches - like in the old days of the country - but certainly with fireworks after dark. Am not sure of the medals' significance, but the gentleman's facial expression said it all. I have thought about him many times through the years.

Then there was the Independence Day we celebrated here at home with our young house guest from Spain - Luisa (or Sisi). Sisi is the daughter of an imminent Spanish sculptor. When we first met her it was at her parents' home in Madrid; she was only about 12 or 13. Now, at the ripe old age of 15, her parents had called us to see if a visit to our house might be arranged. Everything worked out beautifully and she came for a 3-week stay - her very first trip outside of Spain, and definitely her first intro to America and the U.S. My wife, Pat, and I felt very honored to have her as a guest - and introduce her to her very first Fourth of July celebration before heading back to Spain on the 5th. We celebrated with the traditional grilled hamburgers and fireworks (somewhere north of the city). Sisi LOVED America - and Chattanooga! She later studied Architecture back home in Madrid, and is now employed in a high position in one of Spain's new "green" industries. She is called upon to represent her company and her country throughout Europe - and the U.S. She has brought her new husband to see us TWICE, and now has two little ones: a son, Enrique, and a younger daughter, whom we hope might also one day pay us a visit! To be honest, I believe the proud parents are already eying one of our local private schools for Enrique to attend one day! Oh, yes, Sisi's dad, Eduardo, has a monumental equestrian statue of Spanish King Charles III, which is placed in Madrid's "Puerta del Sol" - equivalent to New York's Times Square. Wikipedia has a picture of it @ "Puerta del Sol" - and WE have an actual bronze miniature of it!

BUT - back to Philadelphia where our Glorious Fourth holiday originated. As you might imagine, the National Park Service and the City of Philadelphia are able to combine their efforts to put on a truly great Patriotic celebration. Hobart (Hobie) Cawood, then-Director of Independence Mall National Park (and former Director of Chick-Chatt, here), saw to producing impeccably fine events in his park. Several times I walked the 15 minute walk from my building up to Independence Hall just to witness several of these. There they have an annual celebration to applaud and honor some LIVING worthy personality of great distinction who has served the Cause of Freedom. One year it was former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, and another year it was a much admired Costa Rican (former) president who had stood up for Democracy in his country. Yet another honoree was Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, and Civil Rights Leader, Thurgood Marshall. They and all such honorees were presented a gold medal from the City of Philadelphia which was designed by my personal friend, Eugene Daub, a Philadelphia native. (Although long a Californian, Gene also sculptured the recent statue of Rosa Parks for Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol Building at Washington). Following the medal presentations and acceptance speeches, the public is then invited over to a large park, just southeast of Independence Hall to sample the blocks-long National Birthday Cake! For this cake, civic organizations from all across the Delaware Valley are asked to donate a segment of cake, conforming to specific dimensions, but decorated to suit the donor. All the donations are then assemembled on one long table that doubles back several times under a tent - open at the sides - and a line forms. Forget your diabetes, folks, and go back to that tent as often as you wish! There is always plenty of cake to go around - plus free punch, as well. I remember a party of three black ladies all tastefully dressed for the occasion in red, white, and blue attire. (I have their picture somewhere, and regret that I do not have it available now). They helped make that happy occasion even more festive! There were several Ben Franklin look-alikes in Philly at that time - and one especially who needed absolutely no make-up to look exactly like the "real" Ben himself! These actors were in great demand and they would pop up in some unpredictable places - including this National Birthday Cake event.

By telling so much about Philly, I am in no way knocking my own city's enthusiasm for the Fourth. I remember how - back in the 1960's one of my bosses lived on Signal Mountain, and he had just been masterminding an "authentic, old-time Fourth of July celebration" for the entire town of Signal Mountain. I think it was successful.They were offering a good variety of old-fashioned games, such as potato-sack racing, marbles, pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, etc. And then there is always Lake Winnie to save our day. If certain planned events fall through, Lake Winnepesaukah can usually save the day with its famous barbecue pits, pavilions, rides, etc. (Am thinking that those may be gone, now. Am not sure). Anyway, their fireworks are probably the most spectacular in our area - and their entertainments the very best. At least, when my dad was newly retired, he took my mom to a Fourth of July celebration there. The Carter Family had top billing, and my mom raved for years about getting to talk with June Carter all that afternoon (between shows), long before June became Mrs. Johnny Cash.

And so, folks, if you have been able to follow this story through all its many twists and turns you are much to be commended; I will add you to my list of Favorite People. Be aware that the ENTIRE WORLD is aware of our glorious Independence Day celebration, are very jealous of it, and ENVY the graceful ease with which we transition from one Administration to the another. That does not happen everywhere, as you may know, and our Glorious Fourth still shines as an inspiration for people around the globe. May God Bless America!

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