What this day is really about

Before you throw those burgers on the grill, before you slice into that watermelon, before you flop down on a picnic blanket to watch the fireworks, let me tell you a story.

This is a story I've never told anyone. It's not embarrassing or particularly private. I've just never felt the need to tell anyone until today.

On the Fourth of July in 1999, my family and I went to Helen for the holiday. The little mountain town has a nice celebration with a big fireworks show, and if you choose, before the show you can rent an inner tube and float lazily down the Chattahoochee for a couple of hours. I'm convinced that if we all took a day to float down the Chattahoochee once in a while we'd all be a lot easier to get along with.

Anyway, we all drifted down the river, and when we were through we went back to our hotel rooms to clean up. It was still a few hours until dark and the fireworks show, so I went to kill some time in one of my favorite places, a local book store.

While I was there I spotted this little display of replicas of famous American documents. It included the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution among others. It was pretty cheap, so I bought one and took it back to my room and tossed it on the bed.

By dark I was pretty hungry, so I went to get some dinner with the plan of meeting my family back in the hotel parking lot to watch the fireworks. The restaurant was jammed full of people, and I took the only seat at the counter.

The place was a madhouse. It was so loud and so crowded you couldn't hear yourself think. It took forever to get my food. They finally served me and I started to eat and tried not to get any on me, since so many people were in there that they kept bumping into me. As I was sitting there eating I heard these faint booms over the din. It took a minute to dawn on me, but I finally realized it was the fireworks show. I had no idea how long it had been going on, so I wolfed down a few more bites and went outside.

But it was too late. The show was over and I'd missed it because I'd been stuck in that loud restaurant.

I went back to the hotel feeling pretty miserable about missing the show. I hung out with my family for a little while and then went back to my hotel room. I sat down on the bed and grabbed my little envelope of replica documents. I pulled out the Declaration of Independence and started to read.

Most everyone learns the first sentence or two of the Declaration in history class, but few can remember past "When in the course of human events ..." or "We hold these truths to be self-evident." I was no different. So I sat there and read the whole thing. And here's the part I never told anyone: I got a little misty-eyed at the end.

I'd always been a history buff, but I'd never really paid that close attention to the words in that document. It's not the first lines but the last few that really blew me away as I read in that hotel room, where, as an adult, I really understood for the first time what those men had done for me that day in 1776.

I think I had to be an adult to really get it, that they were risking everything - including their lives - so that generations to come would not have to live under the yoke of tyranny. I felt very grateful.

So by all means, go out and do something fun to celebrate Independence Day. And while you're doing it, take a minute to remember a few of these words that begat the holiday:

"We, therefore, the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States ... And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor."

E-mail Nate McCullough at nate.mccullough@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Fridays.