For several years, now, my family and I have spent the Fourth of July in Mecosta, Michigan. It is a small, somewhat unprepossessing town. But it has a number of important advantages for such an occasion. First and foremost, of course, it is the home of Mrs. Annette Kirk and of the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal. As such, it hosts important cultural treasures and is the sight of conferences and less formal get-togethers enlivening the minds and refreshing the spirits of students, teachers, scholars, and others seeking to live and learn about the life of the mind. It is good to celebrate America’s birthday in a town that hosts people and institutions devoted to renewing what is best therein.
The town also provides helpful reminders of both the importance of a limited scale for people to make a difference, and how important it is for people who are not purely local to make that difference in their own towns. Many of the festivities take place in a park put together largely through the efforts of the youngest Kirk daughter, Andrea Kirk Assaf, who resides nearby with her husband and children. The “downtown” library has within its walls a Russell Kirk reading room, complete with a bust of Kirk that is quite intimidating, in its way. I could mention many other less obvious signs of Kirkean involvement, but my point should be clear: one can make a difference in a small town without destroying its character—something that is much more difficult in more populous areas.
The fourth of July also is on a small-scale, here—though not so small as one might think. The parade had as many participants as spectators, from the look of it. It included more fire engines and rescue vehicles than I knew existed in the county, along with a few floats, marching veterans, classic cars, and some folks on bikes and motorcycles. But the highlight for me always will be the chain of tiny cars in which tiny (and not-so-tiny) children ride, pulled by a small tractor. My own children rode in those cars—probably for more years than they should have. People tossed candy to the kids (some of the kids even managed to grab some candy away from their parents) and there was much clapping and waving of flags. Most years there is a bit of local music at the park and this year there was a surprisingly impressive fireworks display that night.
And that is about it. There are, of course, countless bar-b-q parties and informal get-togethers every year. But Mecosta’s Fourth of July, while rather grand for its size, would hardly compete with the spectacle in one of our large cities. Thank goodness.
We have plenty of grand spectacles, these days. And they can be both exciting and fun. But I am just as happy, and my wife and children are happier, to skip grand spectacles in favor of a celebration that aims at nothing more than to acknowledge and celebrate the people we know, the country we love, and the way of life we hope we can continue to lead.
People reading this may note the irony that I am writing so warmly about the small town sense of place in a town that I only visit—and that seldom more than two or three times a year. I am, sadly, a bit of a cultural tourist when it comes to such values. My wife and I live thousands of miles from our places of birth, and I lived in six different cities before going to college—when I really started moving around. What is more, the two towns I remember most really are not there any longer. Both were rural areas with a few housing tracts in them when I lived there; one was surrounded by ranches. Both now are random collections of office parks, strip malls, and subdivisions with no trace of their former character. I have said more than once that I miss it, even when I am there.
As for my wife, the town she grew up in (Everett, Washington) retains something of its former character—a blue collar town with a working port. But it, too, is much bigger and less personal. Still, in an area that is, shall we say, culturally challenged, Everett still does some things on a human scale. I remember visiting my wife’s family a number of years ago and watching the local fireworks from the pier. Visitors (from Michigan, as it happens) actually derided the display for being so small, noting that they could see patches of fireworks in several directions. “Why don’t they combine them and get a decent show together?” one asked. I am not sure why I did not reply, but had I done so I know what the answer should have been: “Because it is more important that the celebration be ours than that it be big.”
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