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Volume 16, Issue 27 - July 3 - July 9, 2008

My Fourth of July

I’d rather be in Chepachet than anywhere else — especially Burton Lake

I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy,

A Yankee Doodle do or die;

A real live nephew of my Uncle Sam’s

Born on the Fourth of July.

–George M. Cohan

I wasn’t born on the Fourth of July, but as one of my favorite holidays approach, I can say I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy. My grandmother called me Doodle until the day she passed away in 1966 well into her 90s. I never heard her call me anything else, and I never knew whether I went by that name because of the old Revolutionary song or because Doodle was the name of a popular comic strip character back in 1926, when I was born.

Though she was born in Iowa before statehood and spent a good part of her life in Virginia, she was proud to be considered a Yankee. She was a self-sufficient hard worker with an independent view of what I’d call the social side of life. And she was a patriot in the true sense. I recall that when she was having one of her bad spells during World War II, she told me she wanted above anything else to carry water to our soldiers on the Bataan Death March.

The Fourth at the Family Farm

It was only fitting that in her later years, the family farm of well over 100 acres became the gathering place for an annual family reunion on the Fourth of July, sometimes with 50 or more from California to New England in attendance — and with an American flag flown as a reminder the occasion was more than a gathering of family. It is an anniversary of the birth of a nation.

Only in recent years, long after Grandma’s death, did we learn the Fourth had greater significance than she imagined. She would have been proud had she known. One of our ancestors, William Cheney, was among the 14 who gave their lives at Bunker Hill.

For more than 50 years I have made it a point to attend the Burton reunion in Chepachet, R.I., where, along with Vermont, I spent many of my younger days. The nearby village had and still hosts one of the biggest parades in the state, also fireworks, clam cakes and a band. There was nothing like it when I was a boy — and that holds true to this day. It’s a security blanket and it’s family.

Miss the Fourth in Chepachet? Never.

My Misspent Fourth

Well … almost never. About 45 years ago, while toiling for the Baltimore Sunpapers, I missed a Fourth at the farm. I had no choice. I was assigned to spend three weeks in Canada to fly with waterfowl biologists of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Canadian Wildlife Service and Ducks Unlimited to get a handle of waterfowl nesting success. The pilot — easygoing, pipe smoking Jake Chamberlain — and his sidekick, a fellow named Kazynski, were to take the place of relatives on the Fourth. We were flying a twin-engine vintage amphibious Grummond Goose.

In the morning, we were flying across Hudson Bay. While idly looking at polar bears on ice floes, I was occupying myself with thoughts of the reunion I was missing, especially the biscuit-based strawberry shortcake with real whipped cream. Suddenly we were blindsided by a heavy snow that began to build up on the wings. Hudson Bay is a big, big pond, and for a time there was the question whether we’d have to make an emergency landing.

We didn’t, but I’ve often wondered, had we — and I found myself swimming in Hudson Bay — whether I’d have chosen to share an ice flow with a polar bear or freeze to death in the bay. Both were lose-lose endings. That was only the beginning of a misspent holiday.

In late afternoon, above a mix of dry land and lakes hundreds of miles from anywhere, another storm caught us off guard. This time, we had to make an emergency landing in blinding snow. We couldn’t tell what was beneath us, but we had no choice. It was water. Thank God the plane was amphibious, and we made it with few problems despite all the boulders jutting out of the water and unseen just beneath it.

We tried rigging an antenna to get word to the outside world of our plight. We didn’t know if anyone heard, but with snotty weather prevailing we had to dig in for a stay of unknown time. Being able to take off in a lake cluttered with boulders was questionable. It was cold on the lake, which by the way the charts told us was Burton Lake, no kidding.

While Chamberlain and Kaczynski took a hike to evaluate take-off possibilities, I grabbed my fishing rod to see if there were any edible fish in the lake. On my first cast of a Johnson Silver Minnow with plastic worm attached, I reeled in an eight-pound trout, the biggest trout I have ever caught. Under any other circumstance I’d have kept on fishing, but I realized the situation we were in.

We had only tinned emergency rations, so we had dinner, but if we didn’t make it to the Ungava Peninsula in a reasonable time we would be listed as missing, which meant big-time worries for my wife and children. Not to mention the pickle we were in, not knowing whether anyone heard our emergency message.

The trout was tasty, but we had no shortcake for dessert. Only two could sleep in the Goose; I drew the short straw and slept (tried to) on the bare tundra under a blanket that didn’t keep me anywhere near warm. I had other things on my mind: What was I sharing the tundra with? I was out in the open, easy prey, and wished I had chosen as a bed a wing of the Goose.

By daybreak, I was fishing again. I caught a fair sized northern pike, which was to be our breakfast. The weather broke, and Jake, a seasoned flier, decided to risk a takeoff. The engines revved, and we silently prayed — not knowing what weather could come or what boulders lie hidden in our path. We made it into the air without even a scrape, and it was on to the Ungava Peninsula and the geese.

I promised myself then that when each Fourth came, I would enjoy it in the safety of family in warm New England, nowhere else. So that’s where I’m headed for the holiday. I need nothing more exciting. Enough said.

© COPYRIGHT 2008 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.