Why is The Fourth of July?

It seemed like every summer as it approached July 4, one of the local television stations in Chicago would broadcast “Yankee Doodle Dandy”, Jimmy Cagney’s Oscar-winning film performance on the life of George M. Cohan. The highlight of the movie was Cagney singing “I’m a Yankee Doodle dandy ….born on the Fourth of July.” Cohan’s baptismal certificate indicates he was born a day earlier but there were other inaccuracies listed on it so maybe we should take George’s insistence on his own date of birth.

The biographical movie, as does all of that genre, exhibited some stretching of the truth. The woman he married in the cinematic version of his life was Mary portrayed by Joan Leslie, who by the way was an actress more than twenty years younger than Cagney. In real life, George married at a quite young age to an Ethel and divorced her seven years later after having a child, and then subsequently married Agnes Mary with whom he stayed until his death.

At the time of his demise, he was estranged from the three children bore by Agnes and was universally
loathed by most Broadway actors because of his strong anti-union stance. In fact, his breakup with his partner Harris was probably due to Harris capitulating to the union organizers.

Movie musical biographies are intentionally sanitized. Who wants to sing songs about a bad man that nobody likes? Unless, of course, you are poking fun at him. Purportedly, Fred Astaire was first offered the role but turned it down because he had been a Broadway stage performer and sympathized with fellow union workers. This was a strong statement because otherwise Astaire was very much a conservative Republican in all his other politics. Regardless, watching this movie always set the tone for the holiday. July 4 was meant to be a fun-loving, patriotic day free from everyday cares and chores.

That’s another thing- getting the day off from work. When I labored a handful of years as an employee, I would look forward to July Fourth as a day off with pay. When I became self-employed, I began to get annoyed with all the lazy days that customers would not call to have me come out and do some work on site because they were closed. As the years passed by, with increased speed of the internet, clients allowed me to remote into their systems. Once again I didn’t mind holidays as I could still work on billable projects even if the client’s office was shut down.

You have to be at least a baby boomer to remember the expression Decoration Day as well as Armistice Day. Prior to 1967, Memorial Day was called Decoration Day. It was officially renamed because people were forgetting the original purpose, which was to remember those fallen in combat. Veteran’s Day was originally called Armistice Day to honor in perpetuity the truce that ended World War One. Since 1954, it has been used as a day to honor all those who have fought in uniform to defend America.

Most people today hardly use the term Independence Day. I guess it is easier to say July Fourth because it is easier to remember what day it falls on. Most of us don’t think back to 1776 or the sacrifice of patriots to give us the liberty and freedom we enjoy. We focus more on the now just thinking about how everyone else in the world knocks America while at the same time, they are all clamoring to come live here. And do those who have moved here in the past twenty years know from Ethan Allen or Nathan Hale or even Paul Revere?

Dad used to repeat his older brother Henry’s puns and jokes. One was Why Is The Fourth of July? To whomever was hearing it the first time, he would explain, “Get it? The letter Y is the fourth letter in the word. Therefore, why is the Fourth of July.” Everyone would usually groan.

I’m not sure who had the last laugh but Dad died in the early hours on the Fourth of July, 2009.

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