Reflections on freedom

Contact Reporterhbridges@vagazette.com

On the eve of Independence Day, Lara Templin read from the Declaration of Independence, her voice ringing across the lawn of Yorktown Victory Center.

A small crowd gathered around, attendees of the center's two-day Liberty Celebration that Templin largely put together. Some stepped up to the microphone to read a few sentences, but Templin picked up where they left off.

Templin knows the document well – better than most, in fact. She's worked at Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation for 17 years.

The words never seem to lose their power.

"It wasn't just a declaration of war," she said. "It was: this is why….As good people, we have to tell you why. Here's why. Right or wrong, this is what we think. This is how we feel. And that was earth-shattering."

Its reverberations manifest in the burst of fireworks each Fourth of July, America's yearly celebration of freedom. So, in the midst of celebration, the Gazette asked four members of the community to reflect on what a freedom declared 240 years ago means to them.

Templin said her definition of freedom might not be popular.

"I think that freedom means the right to do things which don't harm others, but responsibly – and that's the part that's probably not very popular," she said, laughing. "The freedom to do what I want is tempered by the duty I owe to my fellow people."

Her time at Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation has shaped Templin's perspective. As assistant interpretive program manager, Templin said she feels like she knows, -- really knows -- people who've been dead for more than 200 years.

She's still astounded by their actions.

"The way they crafted the government, it wasn't easy," she said. "I think we forget when we're taught in school how hard it was. That it took years and years of struggle to win the war, and then it took years and years of struggle to end up with the Constitution."

Templin said it's often easy to point out imperfections in the system, as the newness has long worn away. But at the time, she said, it was a crazy, radical concept.

She believes it's radical still.

"The fact that they designed our government so that it could change and grow and hopefully meet the needs of the people," Templin said, "not only was it a radical idea for its time, but it's fairly radical now."

She hopes people don't lose sight of that.

"As imperfect as the system is, it has given us, I think, a world that does have more freedom and more rights for people," Templin said. "Even though we're still fixing our system, we're still fixing our rights, we're still having protests and so forth, I still feel that the world is better in so many ways than it was 200 years ago.

"It's our responsibility to kind of carry on with that."

Robert Birney,World War II veteran

By Ryan McKinnon

Robert Birney, 91, is more than 70 years removed from when his B-17 bomber was shot down over Germany, but he still tears up when he talks about the events of that day.

Birney joined the Army Air Corps as a 19-year old on the advice of a neighbor. He was told pilots got to sleep in their own beds at night, and that sounded better to him than sleeping in a tent as an infantrymen.

And Birney said he believed he had a better chance of survival in the air than he did on the ground.

"Oddly enough, there was a belief that even if the plane went down, you could survive," he said.

That belief proved true for Birney, who became a navigator in a bomber, but not for his friend George Lesko.

Birney's crew began bombing Germany during the waning days of the war, flying 20 bombing missions in 30 days. On the twentieth mission, their plane was hit with anti-aircraft fire from the ground. Birney said as the plane was going down he realized Lesko had been hit in the back with flak.

"He screamed. I got him out of his suit and tried to treat the hole, but it was hopeless," Birney said.

The pilot crash-landed the plane safely on a golf course in Canadian-occupied Belgium. Everyone survived, except for Lesko, who bled to death.

"I always think about the waste. George Lesko was 20. He's buried in Arlington. He never got to live," Birney said. "The rest of us were very lucky."

Birney said that experience changed his perception of holidays like the Fourth of July.

"As the years go by, you're not inclined to celebrate much. Rather you are inclined to feel the sense of regret that once again, we've got to go through war," he said. "So it's not very pleasant."

And he said the price of freedom is hard to reconcile with seeing a young man die.

"It had to be done, but oh my God, it was wasteful," he said.

Greg Riley,police officer

By Adrienne Mayfield

For many public safety workers, like Maj. Greg Riley of the Williamsburg Police Department, the Fourth of July is another day on the job.

Greg Riley spent the holiday working security for Colonial Williamsburg's fireworks celebration. While he watched fireworks from a small window in the security camera station, his wife, Kim, enjoyed family time at a barbecue.

Kim Riley brought home a plate of hamburgers, hot dogs and baked macaroni and cheese for her husband, which he enjoyed around 11 p.m. after his shift ended.

"It was late, but I still had something to eat," Greg Riley said.

It's a normal routine for the couple, who have often been separated on holidays due to Riley's schedule as a police officer.

Missing holidays and family time isn't always pleasant, but Riley knows it's an important part of the job that ensures the safety and freedoms of other Americans.

While police officers play a role in protecting Constitutional freedoms, for Riley the Fourth of July is a time to remember those heroes making the biggest sacrifices of all – the military.

"They are making sacrifices so we can enjoy those freedoms and the lifestyle we have," Riley said.

Richard Schumann,

Colonial Williamsburg interpreter

By Steve Vaughan

Richard Schumann who interprets Patrick Henry at Colonial Williamsburg, said Independence Day would be especially important to Henry because he was one of the first of the Founding Fathers to call for actual independence from Great Britain.

"That is true, sir. I believed that the people of this continent should see themselves not as colonists or the subjects of a distant empire, but as a distinct and sovereign people for many, many years. Of course it took me quite a lot of time to convince my compatriots."

Henry would have enjoyed the raucous way Americans celebrate the Fourth of July.

"It was my good friend John Adams who first suggested that this auspicious day should be commemorated with fireworks and public celebration."

"What I would say would be 'Give me liberty — and independence — or give me death," he concluded.

Bridges can be reached by phone at 757-345-2342.

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