Tall Stories

Typhoon Banyan dumped a lot of rain the night before it was to arrive on our doorstep, then missed us entirely. It also took a lot of the moisture out the air and the following day was hot and clear. We took advantage of the beautiful weather to check out some sights.

First stop was just a mile or so from home. The area where we live is a strip of land only 3 miles wide that runs the lenght of Lake Kitaura on our West and the Pacific Ocean to our East. "Ohno Shiosai Hamanasu" Park is less than half a mile from the ocean and is surrounded by small farms. It features a 225 observation tower, next to a nice wooded area with a stream and trail, a 450 foot long slide for kids, and baseball field. We entered at the base of the tower, paid the 300 yen entrance fee (only about $2.75) and discovered that there is nice museum of local history with a lot of artifacts on display. Surprisingly, they also house a large number of reproductions of famous paintings ranging from Leonardo da Vinci to Pablo Picasso and some of the reanisance, romantic, and impressionist painters in between. There is also a planetarium, but we didn't have time to take in the show.

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View South to Kamisu City, Kashima Soccer Stadium on Right

We were delighted with the view from the tower. The visibility was excellent and the view encompasses the industral area of Kamisu with its 600 foot high smokestacks in the South, Mt. Tsukuba 32 miles to the Northwest, and the Pacific coast North as far as one can see. Closer by were a lighthouse built a mile inland, the Kashima Soccer Stadium and the tree tops of the old cedars at Kashima Jingu shrine. We could not see our house or lake Kitaura because of trees.

After lunch at home we headed out the find the lighthouse we had seen from the tower. Its location so far inland seemed odd, but it does give it added height for better visibility. Called Kashima Lighthouse it went into service in 1971.

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Kashima Lighthouse

Having gotten into a lighthouse mood, we topped off the gas tank and drove South to Choshi City which occupies a cape where Chiba and Ibaraki Prefectures meet and where the Tone river enters the Pacific. Choshi has been settled by humans since ancient times and is famous for making shoyu (soysauce), as well as sardine fishing.

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On a high rocky point sits the Inubosaki (barking dog) lighthouse. It is a popular tourist destination and many people visit on New Years morning to watch the first rays of sunlight reach the island of Honshu. Standing 102 feet tall, It was designed by English engineer Richard Henry Brunton and lit in 1874. Next to the light is a tall GPS locator antenna, the signals from which help ships and aircraft within about 200 kilometers to pinpoint their location with a high degree of accuracy. A glance at a map of Japan and the importance of this location for navigation becomes obvious.

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Brunton, was hired by the Meiji government to bring Western technology to Japan and he lived in Japan for eight years. Building lighthouses to insure the safety of ships coming to Japanese ports was a requirement of an international treaty which Japan had signed in 1867. After Inobusaki lighthouse was completed, Brunton went on to work on Japan's telegraph system and also designed Yokohama Park. He later wrote a memoir of his years in Japan titled "Schoolmaster to an Empire".

Unfortunately for us we arrived a few minutes too late to go into the lighthouse, which is open to the public and has 99 steps leading to the observation deck. There are nice paths around it from which one can view the waves crashing onto to the rocky shore and we enjoyed the ocean air and vistas. Denifitely another site we will add to our list of places to visit again.

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Bon Odori

Obon is a Buddhist holiday that bridges my experiences in Japan and Hawaii, as the tradition is celebrated in both island nations.

Japanese immigrants came to Hawaii and the Western US in the early 20th century and brought their Buddhist religion and Japanese traditions with them. People from many parts of Japan migrated to Hawaii to work the sugar plantations in hopes of a better life. It was a harsh new reality in Hawaii as plantation owners segregated the workers - Philippinos, Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese - into to seperate camps to keep them from forming unions, exacted long hours of work in the fields under the supervision of men on horseback with whips, and charged high prices for necessities at the company stores.

Yet the religious and cultural traditions lived on, and later generations reaped the fruit of their ancestors' sacrifices, becoming leading teachers, engineers, politicians, and at least one astronaut (Elison Onizuka who died in the Challenger disaster). A beautiful Buddhist tradition that lives on in Hawaii today is the Bon Odori (Bon Dance).

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As a Dharma school teacher (Buddhist equivilant to a Christian Sunday school teacher) for many years in Hawaii's Hongwanji missions, I have looked forward to dancing at Bon Odori every year for nearly two decades now. I am looking forward to experiencing it for the first time in Japan this year.

Bon originated in India and can be traced to a Buddhist sutra that tells the story of Mogallana, a disciple of Buddha who, in meditation, saw his deceased mother suffering in the realm of Hungry Ghosts. He tried giving her food but it turned to flames. Buddha advised him to engage in a "jishi," or retreat, and make an offering for his fellow monks. This done, he saw his mother released from suffering and he danced for joy. The tradition was carried with the spread of Buddhism, through China to Korea and Japan.

Over time, new beliefs were added (Buddhism is an adaptive religion which accepts being modified by local beliefs), such as the idea that the ghosts of ancestors came to visit at this time, so lights were put up to guide and greet them. Today's Bon dances have paper lanterns strung over the dancers and some ocean side temples set lanterns, with the names of deceased relatives written on them, afloat on the ocean.

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In Japan, this holiday is celebrated in mid August, and is a time of vacations. Dances are held at temples around the country. Each district or region has its own special dance or dances. Dancers wear light summer kimonos called yukata, or just pants and a happi coat. Some dances also call for a small cotton bath towel or a fan as well and in Hawaii, the temples give cotton towels to each dancer as they enter the ring. The dancers go around a central tower, called the yagura, where the musicians are located, and dance in concentric ovals or circles. Permit me to reveal a secret - the drummers take breaks and go into the covered lower part of the yagura to have a beer or some sake. Paper lanterns illuminate the area. Experienced dancers are usually in the center ring so that those in the outer rings can follow their movements. The dances consist of repetitions of steps and arm movements which can be 8 to 16 bars long with many different movements in each set.

In Hawaii and in many cities along the West coast of the US and Canada, Buddhist temples celebrate the holiday with traditional Japanese style dances accompanied by the booming taiko drums and flute. The dance is preceded by a service dedicated to those temple members who have passed on in the previous year. On each of the major Hawaiian islands, the many temples of every sect, have agreed to hold dances at each temple in turn over a period of several weekends, with the members of each temple attending the dances of the others, making for a summer long celebration that lasts from mid-June to the end of August. There are one or two dances every weekend and many of us would try to be at every one of them. This also helps the temples raise more money through sales at their food and game booths.

An interesting difference from Japan's dances, which often feature just the local dance and perhaps one or two others, is that US temples perform many dances from various parts of Japan, since the immigrants came from many prefectures and cities, each with a different dance. New songs are added every year and some are quite modern featuring jazz arrangements and even a samba. Sometimes the music is performed live by local clubs with taiko (big drums) and flutes, but most of the songs now days are recorded with just the taiko drums being live.
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My friend Shane at Kahului, Maui (an airport security guard by day) wearing a happi coat, pounds out the rhythm on a taiko drum.

In the USA, you can find Bon Odori in Vancouver, Seattle, San Fransisco, San Jose, Southern California, Phoenix, and even Chicago - as well as throughout the Hawaiian Islands. There are usually food booths, games for kids to play, and everyone is invited to join in regardless of religious or ethnic background. If you don't have a happi coat, most temples have extra to lend. If you ever have the chance, go to a Bon dance and enjoy the music, colorful costumes, food, and just plain fun.

Odori mashoo! - Let's dance!

Faster Than A Speeding Bullet(train)

Never content to rest on their, um, laurels, the latest Shinkansen design, the Nozomi N-700, made a test run yesterday from Tokyo Station to Shin-Osaka, a distance of 515 km (that's 320 miles to you people in the British Colonies). The new machine will enter service in eary 2007.

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The N-700 has a newly designed front end to make it more streamlined and hold it on the track (I wish they wouldn't tell me things like that). I think the real reason for the new design is because the present model is said by some (see the annoymous comment on the previous bullet train post) to resemble a duck. The new one is referred to as an "eagle". So there! Personally, I prefer the present cab design, but with things changing at this pace, it does not pay to be nostalgic.

Though it has a top speed that is 20 kph faster, the average speed for the run is not up by that much - it only shaves 5 minutes off the 2.5 hours, but comfort is said to be improved (hard to believe) by having the cars tilt on curves. This also allows them to take curves at higher speeds.

In other news....

East Japan Railway Co. on June 24 unveiled a new shinkansen bullet train in the town of Rifu, Miyagi Prefecture that will operate at a speed of 360 kilometers per hour, possibly the world's fastest. The orange "ears" you see pop up to provide air resistence to help slow the train when braking.

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Like I said, it doesn't pay to be nostalgic about bullet trains.


Of Float Planes and Zeppelins

As a pilot and son of an aeronautical engineer, I make it a point to seek out airplanes where ever I go. Japan has been no exception and I've stood next to a WWII Zero fighter in Nagoya and a huge 4 engine WWII flyingboat, the Kawanishi H8K, at Tokyo harbor. Even here in Kashima I have managed to find a replica Ohka (Cherry Blossom) manned rocket bomb on display in a bunker as a memorial to the 467 pilots and launch crews (who where trained in Kashima) that lost their lives in a desperate but futile attempt to save Japan from defeat in 1945. Another interesting find was a 1960's era Mitsubishi T-2 supersonic fighter trainer, which I found (I am not making this up) mounted on pedistals in a kindergarten play yard. "Move over jungle gyms, we are serious about our play time here." You can see photos of these aircraft HERE.

I tend to tire of war planes though, as they represent such a sad perversion of the beauty and potential utility of flying machines. So it was with great delight that I discovered that a nearby lake, Kasumiguara, which is only 10 km (6.2 miles) as the crow flies from my house, was party to three very significant events in the early history of aviation. You can click on the next 3 photos for links to the full stories.

In 1924, the US Army - there was no "US Air Force" until after WWII - made a daring flight with four aircraft around the world. It was the first time that any aircaft had circumnavigated the globe. The planes were Douglas "World Cruisers", a single engine biplane which could be fitted with either wheels or floats and had a crew of two. The cruising speed was 103 mph. They took off from Seattle on April 6th and within days crashed one of the ships in fog on one ofe the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. Happily the crew survived and hiked to safety.

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One of their stops was Kasumigaura, on May 22, 1924. They landed on the lake using their floats. Ultimately, two of the planes completed the flight around the world having covered over 27,500 miles and taking 371 hours of flying time. The total time for the trip was 175 days due to time on the ground for rest, repairs, and waiting out bad weather.

The next big aviation event for Kasumigaura turned out to be REALLY BIG! In 1929, the airship Graf Zeppelin made the first (and only) circumnavigation of the globe by a lighter than air ship. This trip covered 30,831 miles and only took 21 days. One of the stops, before heading to San Fransisco, was the naval airbase on the shores of Kasumigaura where there was a 787 foot long hangar wher the Zeppelin would be housed. [The hangar was originally in Berlin, but given to Japan after WWI, dismantled and errected in Japan.] I can only imagine what the local farmers thought as they looked up at the 776 foot long, 100 foot wide machine as it rumbled along only six hundred feet overhead. Onboard, as an observer for Japan, was LCdr. Fuiyoshi who would later take part in planning the attack on Pearl Harbor. As many as 250,000 people turned out to see the Graf.

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Two years later, in August of 1931, Kasumigaura would be visited by the most famous aviator of the 20th Century, after the Wright brothers, Charles Lindbergh with his wife Anne Morrow who had become a licensed pilot that year. Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote great books about their adventures as they charted new airways in the 1930's which would later be followed by the airlines. I highly recommend that you track them down, as her prose reads like poetry and is fitting of the inspiring and fascinating trips they took. In her book, "North to the Orient" (1935), she describes their great circle flight from Maine, across Canada and Alaska, to Japan and China. They flew a beautifully sleek and powerful single engine float plane, the Lockheed Serius that even with bulky floats could cruise at 150 mph. In the book, she does not mention Kasumigaura by name, but a little research reveals that it was the location of their landing when they visited Tokyo. Anne was daughter to the US Ambassador to Mexico, and Charles was, of course, world famous for his New York to Paris flight. Wherever they flew, they were heartily welcomed.

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Earlier this year, a new Zeppelin arrived in Japan and recreated the visit of the Graf with a visit to Kasumigaura. The new ship is only 1/3 the length of the Graf, but at 246 feet it is still quite a sight. It is not a rigid airship, but a semi-rigid one. That is, it does not have the aluminum frame of the big airships of the 1930's, nor is it a blimp like the Goodyear ships. It is a cross between the two, with a blimp like bag of helium attached to a rigid keel. It was built by the Zeppelin company and sold to the Nippon Airship Corporation for use in advertising.

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Aviation has come a long way since the 20's and 30's, and the base at Kasumiguara now is home to JGSDF helicopters (yawn). But it is pretty cool to me that Kasumiguara played a part in some of the great early achievements in the hisotry of flight and has not been entirely forgotton.


Al-Gebra Arrest

At New York's Kennedy airport yesterday, an elderly individual later discovered to be public school teacher was arrested trying to board a flight while in possession of a ruler, a protractor, a set square, a slide rule, and a calculator.

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Olga Alexandrovna Ladyzhenskaya

At a morning press conference, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said he believes the woman is a member of the notorious Al-Gebra movement. She is being "questioned" in Gauntanimo pending charges by the FBI which could include carrying weapons of math instruction.

"Al-Gebra is a fearsome cult," Gonzales said. "They desire average solutions by means and extremes, and sometimes go off on tangents in a search of absolute value. They use secret code names like 'x' and 'y' and refer to themselves as 'unknowns', but we have determined they belong to a common denominator of the axis of medieval with co-ordinates in every country. As the Greek philanderer Isosceles used to say, 'there are 3 sides to every triangle'."

When asked to comment on the arrest, George W Bush said, "If God had wanted us to have better weapons of math instruction, he would have given us more fingers and toes."

Rice Paddy Art

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Rice farmers in Inakadate Village, Aomori Prefecture - the Northern most prefecture of the main island of Honshu - are using different colored rice plants to re-create two Ukiyoe prints by 18th Century artists Sharaku and Utamaro. They can be viewed from the town's government building tower. Previous years have featured other art works including the Mona Lisa.

Leave it to the Japanese to take crop circles to the next artistic level.


Bullet Train!

My first experience on a Shinkansen was during my first visit to Japan in 1987. At that time, the train in service was called the “100 Series”, and had a kind of frumpy looking front end, like the Douglas DC-6 airliners of the 40’s and 50’s, yet looked futuristic compared to the diesel-electric engines of Amtrak at the time. I took it from Nagoya to Tokyo, and later from Tokyo North to Koriyama. As I recall, there was a digital display at the end of each car indicating the speed, which reached 200 kph (124 mph). As a private pilot, I get uncomfortable in a car that goes faster than say, 60 mph. At that speed it is time to start pulling back on the stick to “slip the surly bounds of earth” pull up the gear and “join the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds”. To stay on terra firma at such speeds, where other, stationary objects are close by – or worse, objects traveling in the opposite direction - intuitively seems suicidal (and I think the annual highway death toll bears this out). But the ride on this train was smoother than air and I soon focused on the view in the distance and tried to forget about the trains passing the other way every several minutes.

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I was fascinated with Japan on that trip – still am – and thoroughly enjoyed the ride. The overhead played Japanese folk tunes while in the station. After we were underway, a young woman came down the isle with a cart, calling “obento, kohi, ocha, ikaga desu ka?” – “How about a box lunch, coffee, or tea”? When she reached the end of the car, she turned, bowed, and said, “domo arigatou gozaimashita” – Thank you very much. That has not changed over the years. Quite a difference from the (mis)treatment we have become accustomed to on US airlines. The ride is smoother than any other form of transport I've been on. The reclining seats are large with plenty of leg room. The view is good and it is very quiet. I was sold on the trains on my first ride. If you have luggage, you need to bring it on the train with you, but I found enough room in front of my seat to put a suitcase sideways, with my feet to one side. There are also usually luggage spaces at the end of each car also overhead storage for smaller items.

The “Bullet Trains” of Japan are called Shinkansen locally, which means “New Trunk Line.” The term acutally refers to the routes themselves, but people commonly call the trains by that name. The service now runs nearly the full length of Japan’s main islands, from Kyushu in the South West to Northern Honshu. One day, Japan’s “mini-Alaska”, the Nothern island of Hokkaido, may have a station as well.

A response to the booming economy of the 60’s and beyond, and the need to move millions of people efficiently at high speed, the Shinkansen system required dedicated lines, which meant buying up real estate. Unlike America’s transcontinental rail system, which struck out across new territories, Japan’s Shinkansen lines needed to buy land that was already developed. Naturally, this led to political squabbles over the routes. Farmers, whose land would be used, suddenly had a political power that they did not possess before. The national politics of Japan was greatly influenced by this with a significant shift of power out to rural prefectures.

In the summer of 2003, K and I went to the Japan Alps for hiking and sight seeing. I may write about that trip in a future post. I can only compare the beauty of the scenery of Kamikochi National Park to the Rocky Mountains in Colorado – breathtakingly beautiful. On that trip we took an express bus to get there and the Asama Shinkansen from Nagano (home to the 1988 Winter Olympics) back into Tokyo. The service on the Asama was comparable to my first ride, but the speed was faster and there were miles of tunnel to traverse. This train is special, as it must climb steep grades at high speeds on its way up from Tokyo even in heavy snow. Hurling through LONG, black tunnels at speeds up to 260 kph – 161 mph - is a bit disconcerting for one accustomed to the “wild blue yonder”, but I was awed by the technology that made it possible. With the blackness out the window, one could easily believe that the mode of travel was by jet plane at night, without any turbulence. Out in the open the views are quite good, as the tracks are elevated. There are no grade crossings on any of these lines for obvious reasons.

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Asama Shinkansen in Winter

The views can be beautiful, such as when passing fishing villages, farms, or viewing Mt. Fuji. But riding from Tokyo to Osaka, one can also see that much of central Japan is one vast urban corridor as is much of the so-called “first world”. It brings back my youth in the San Fernando Valley of Southern California, where the fields and orange groves and rolling grasslands dotted with oaks gradually succumbed to that ignorant paradigm called “suburbia” until everything beautiful was devoured by asphalt. “Pave paradise, put up a parking lot”, as Jonnie Mitchell sang. Sigh. By the way, I highly recommend that you watch the documentary titled "The End of Suburbia", which is a wake up call to our global energy situation.

In March of 2004, we boarded a brand new Nozomi 700 Series Shinkansen in Tokyo station and flew to Kyoto. Well, we never left the rails, but it sure as hell seemed like we were flying! The front of this train looks like a Ferrari and goes so fast that the track actually banks around curves so that your coffee doesn’t slosh out of the cup. We’re talking a top speed 300 kph now – 186 mph. Older trains are still in service. We rode a Hikari Shinkansen from Kyoto to Nagoya as part of the return trip that year. The older trains run at slightly slower speeds and make more stops. There is a premium for the Nozomi tickets, and Japan Rail Pass is not accepted, but as I am a resident and don't qualify for the Rail Pass anyway, it was worth the extra cost to ride the fastest. While France and Japan have vied for 1st place in the fast train catagory, at present the Nozomi 700 is the fastest scheduled passenger train in the world, based on average speed between stations. Not to dimish France's technology - their train is fast, but is rarely on time as it has to share the track with slower trains. C'est la vie.

Not fast enough for you? They keep working on going faster. To go faster, trains need to be light and powerful, things that work against each other. The shinkansen cars of the 60's weighed 20 tons, today's just 6 tons due to construction that uses an extruded aluminum skin which is only 1.8mm thick, and radically different electric motors that are much lighter as well. The next generation to enter service in 2007 will be a little faster and will have cars that tilt into the turns and an air cushioned ride. They will use only a third of the energy that their counterparts of 25 years ago used. But to get up to speeds much above 300 kph will require some new technology, as at higher speeds, the train does not maintain enough pressure on the track for the wheels to be able to get traction for acceleration or braking (i.e. it really is flying!). The anwswer may be maglev trains which float on a magnetic field and would be capable of 500 kph, but the cost of such machines could prove to be prohibitive.

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The older model 100 on the left, newer Nozomi 500 on the right

Now days, the cost of living in Osaka and Tokyo are so high that people actually commute on the Shinkansen. Efficiency? Well, to move those people with cars would be impossible, but assuming it could be done would cost ten times as much and produce ten times the CO2 emissions. In addition, trains are electric, so are flexible with regard to how that energy is produced: oil, gas, nuclear, coal, wind, hydro, solar, whatever, will do. That matters a lot in a country that imports 90% of its energy. Japan Rail has recently developed the world's first hybrid rail car as well - not a Shinkansen, but a sign that Japanese train techonology is not about to stand still.

Over the course of their forty year history, there has never been a fatality on the Shinkansen lines. Amazing, when one considers that they have carried over 6 billion passengers, and now serve 90 million people each year. Computers connected to laser sensors by the tracks monitor the trains and if a problem is detected they automatically slow or even stop the train. Earthquakes are also carefully monitored of course. Last year, during a devastating earthquake in Niigata Prefecture, North of Tokyo, a Shinkansen train going 210 kph was derailed (the first time that has ever happened). The driver hit the emergency brake and they came to a stop on the rail bed without anyone being injured.

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The fastest - Nozomi 700 at Nagoya station - VROOOM!

During the day, a Shinkansen train leaves Tokyo every few minutes – as many as 15 trains per hour - with up to 1634 passengers on each train. While obviously much slower than a jet airplane, the trip from Tokyo to Kyoto only takes 2 hours and twenty minutes by Nozomi (the train is limited to 110 kph near Tokyo for noise abbatement). There is no time taken up with check-in, security screening, and boarding everyone through one door, so it works out to be nearly as fast as flying a similar distance, and much less hassle. You buy your ticket at a machine, go to the platform and step into the train. And unlike airports, train stations are in the heart of the cities. But you need to be punctual. The trains run precisely on time, the average delay per train is only 6 seconds. You can literally set your watch by them. And mind your stop. Except for end terminals, you'll only have a minute or so to get on or off the train. Japan is a VERY busy place, as the paint scheme on the side of the trains conveys - "Ambitious Japan".

So, if you are planning a visit to Japan, get a rail pass before you come. The train announcements now are in English as well as Japanese, and help is available at the stations. Take a ride on the Japan Rail (JR) Shinkansen lines. It is truly a technological marvel and definitely an experience you won't soon forget.



July 4, 1776

"We Hold These Truths To Be Self Evident..."

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...that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. --
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --
That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it. ..

Is that a great document, or what?

Politicians often try to co-opt Independence Day and call it the USA's birthday and try to wrap themselves in the flag. But in reality it is not a holiday that celebrates government or politicians, and is not the nation's birthday either, and it was a different flag to boot. Technically, the United States of America did not exist until the US Constitution took effect in 1789. (I know someone will disagree with me on this point. It is true the 13 Colonies called themselves the "United States" earlier, but they did not operate under the Constitution, so in my view it was a different government).

It's also kind of silly for politicians to try and act patriotic on this day (while at the same time working on new ways to deny us our rights) as the Declaration is an anti-government document and puts not only King George III on notice, but also any future government, that we know the source of our rights is in the nature of man and that powers come from the people - i.e. don't bite the hand that feeds you, or as they said back then, "don't tread on me". This is truly the people's holiday.

I also like the idea of flying the Gadsden flag for Independence Day, rather than the Stars and Stripes, for two reasons. First, the American flag did not exist in 1776, and the Gadsden flag was widely used by the revolutionaries during the war. Benjamin Franklin liked it too. (Other flags were used in the revolution as well, and the "Betsy Ross" flag was adopted by the Continental Congress in June of 1777). Second, the stars and stripes carries the baggage of the entire history of the United States of America with it, not all of which is something to celebrate (that flag does have its place and I certainly don't denigrate it). I just think that the Gadsden flag better represents the Spirit of '76, which is what this holiday is really all about. You can click on the Gadsden flag above for more of its history.
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However you celebrate the day, and with whichever flag, I hope you'll remember that 56 men risked everything and pledged their "lives, fortunes, and sacred honor" in an historic bid for freedom from which we still benefit. And while you're at it, have a blast! Life Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness is what it's all about.