What does freedom mean? We can read a dictionary definition of freedom, maybe even define freedom in our own words, but do we really understand the full impact of freedom? Let me share almost a dozen events in my lifetime and maybe you will better understand my question of what does freedom mean?
In the mid-sixties as a recent high school graduate I spent ten weeks in Santiago, Chile living with a family. There were two pictures on the living room wall where I lived and in many other homes I visited. One was of Pope Paul VI and the other of the recently assassinated President Kennedy. President Kennedy’s picture was there not because he was Catholic; but rather because of the Peace Corps. Before the Peace Corps, the United States sent money to Chile but the average citizen never saw it; after the Peace Corps was in operation US citizens went to Chile to work side-by-side and improve the citizens’ quality of life. Also that summer Adlai Stevenson II, the twice defeated candidate for President and then current US Ambassador to the United Nations, died on the streets of London. Chilean citizens I did not know expressed their condolences and I quickly learned that when the United States spoke, the world listened.
In the mid-seventies I was a Soldier stationed in West Germany. When I got orders that allowed me to visit Berlin, I saw the Berlin Wall. When driving in West Germany and I took a wrong turn, I became dangerously close to the Iron Curtain – the fence between West and East Germany. During that era people were willing to risk their lives crossing the Berlin Wall or the Iron Curtain to escape the Communism of East Germany; and many died trying! As a food inspector in the Army, many times I visited a potato packing shed in West Germany to inspect potatoes being purchased by the US Forces to be shipped through East Germany into West Berlin. The most significant part of this inspection was the requirement by the East German government to assure all the openings on the rail car were sealed by a ¼ inch steel rod properly twisted three times – to keep East Germans from getting in the rail car and escaping to freedom!
In the mid-eighties as a Soldier again stationed in West Germany, I again saw the Iron Curtain. This time it was on an Army organized tour and we were close enough to see the East German border guards, loaded weapons in hand, as they watched every move we made. One Christmas Eve we entertained a German lady that sang with the Army Protestant Chapel Choir and she started reminiscing about the day the Berlin Wall went up. She had gotten up that day like usual, taken her basket to go do the daily shopping for food, and there was a large brick wall that not only crossed the street, but went in both directions as far as the eye could see. And, the food markets were on the other side of this wall! During this period my wife attended a conference where a lady of Polish decent shared that Americans don’t understand freedom as United States is the only country in the history of the world that was born in freedom! I later read her biography (HANSI The Girl Who Loved the Swastika by Marie Anne Hirschmann).
At Christmas 1989 I received my annual Christmas letter from a German man that has been a friend since the mid-seventies. In it he thanked me and my fellow United States Soldiers for what we had done, for without our efforts he could have never gone home. His story was he had left the eastern part of Nazi German as a toddler during World War II and had never been able to go home which was about an hour away in the 45 years since. Earlier in 1989 the Iron Curtain had come down and he had finally gone home to visit the relatives he hadn’t seen in those 45 years.
More recently, a few years ago we visited the World War II Memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C. Initially, it was just another site to see. Then, in an emotional moment I realized this was a memorial to my Dad, a World War II Navy Veteran; my wife’s Dad, a World War II Army Veteran; the millions of men and women that served their country in uniform; and the millions of men and women who, as patriotic private citizens, served on the home front. A few years ago I also talked with a man whose grandfather in Nazi-held Eastern Europe during World War II had risked his own life to rescue, hide, and then guide to freedom a flight crew from a shot-down United States fighter plane. Earlier this spring I attended the funeral of a decorated Army Air Corps veteran that flew over the English Channel on June 6, 1944 – D-Day!
To fully understand freedom, we must also understand what freedom is not. I well remember the words of my 8th grade United States History teacher when he said “My freedom to swing my fist stops just shy of your nose”.
What does freedom mean? Think about this on Independence Day and the other 364 days too!