West Point, July 4th, Independence & Inspiration

West Point, July 4th Independence Inspiration - overlooking the Hudson RiverThis year, I looked forward to July 2nd, the Saturday before the 4th of July, America’s Independence Day. As a child growing up not far from West Point, I played hide and seek with Army helicopters as they flew overhead close enough for us to see men’s boots when they dangled their feet from the open side panel. Our windows rattled each time the cannons saluted, and we cheered along with the distant crowds when Army scored a touchdown.

We even did our best to hide our conflicted emotions when Army scored against my Grandfather’s beloved Navy. Grandpa is a retired Lieutenant Commander, a WWII Navy pilot who flew over Japan and who absolutely loves West Point. It’s from Grandpa that I learned about my Catholic faith and saying the Rosary, the value of my country and how Blessed we are to be here in America, and the unconditional Love for Family – even when you sometimes have a hard time liking family! Fortunately, I am Blessed again with a wonderful Family so that not liking part doesn’t happen often or last very long when it does.

West Point is the center of one of my clearest, early childhood memories, one that probably sparked my interest in politics and how important America’s strength and standing are in the world, how vital it is to stand strong for what is right and good and just even when others think you’re crazy. I was about 11 and can vividly remember Ronald Reagan’s bringing our hostages home from Iran to West Point, our beautiful Hudson Valley decorated with yellow ribbons, the celebrations those heroes were greeted with. I remember…

Now, as a single Mom of five boys, I know my life and the lives of my children would be very different if we lived in many other parts of the world, and I know I owe much of the hope my boys and I have for a better tomorrow to the guys who go through places like West Point, not just the officers, but every single enlisted man and woman in every branch of the US Military.

Celebrating July 4th at West Point

To me, celebrating July 4th at West Point seemed like a no-braine. I arrived at West Point with thoughts of sitting quietly on a small patch of grass high on the hill at Trophy Point, listening to the free concert put on by the US Army Band playing below, watching the sun set over the meandering Hudson as it drifted quietly, continuously carving the valley I never took for granted, all of us cradled in mountains God had created countless centuries before.

I wasn’t quite prepared for the number of people who felt the same or where I would have to park. I’ve long since moved away from the West Point area, but I’m close enough to drive and make a day of it and do so when I can. On days like this when parking is hard to find and I’m forced to drive before I can get out and walk or when I am walking and just get turned around being awed by the beauty and history of this sprawling, extensive, sacred ground, I am amazed at how much more there is to this place than I realized, how many hidden corners there are that I never knew existed, each one with its own personality and charm.

This time, I’d explored many of the usual parking spaces, and none were available. I thought briefly about parking near the Catholic Chapel which I am so familiar with and love so much, but that would have meant a long, uphill walk late, when I was tired; frankly I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t mind walking far, but I didn’t feel like exerting myself with an arduous uphill stroll at 10:30 at night. Besides, that would have been playing it safe, gluing myself to the familiar. Tonight, I wanted something different. I’ve learned that familiar isn’t always best.

My thoughts brought me to one of those undiscovered-by-me sections of West Point, but this one was a residential area. I pulled into the last spot in the row. I was barely parked legally, but I was reluctant to drive in further. This was their neighborhood, the Men, Women,Husbands, Wives, and Children. As I got out of the car, I saw two families walking together, one pushing a baby stroller. I heard their happy chatter drifting toward me as I walked quickly away not sure I belonged there, pretty sure I did not.

Knowing I did not.

I was again awed by what living on a military base meant. I tried to fathom what these people lived with day in and day out knowing what their loved ones are capable of and why we need people like them. I tried to fathom what these people understand about what it means to come home after a long time at work. I tried to fathom…so much…I knew I couldn’t and wasn’t sure I’d ever want to. These ordinary people, with the same joys and challenges we all face, are also heroes, a class by themselves.

My Walk to Trophy Point

West Point cemeteryMy walk led me to the cemetery, and I walked close to the wall trying to read the names written on as many gravestones as I could, praying for these long dead families, military personnel, wives, and even an infant daughter as I walked. I thought about the heartbreak their deaths must have caused.

I thought about how we’ve forgotten their names, too many names for us to try to remember or know, and I thought about how God knew each one of those children, His children, their bodies now six feet below soil others walked upon, souls hopefully flying in the true freedom of Heaven many feet above. I thought of how what is impossible for us is a given for God and of how each of those people I thought of as a hero God sees as just another of His beloved children, the same as but different from you and me, unique, special, loved.

West Point firehouseI walked past the fire house, a few ordinary, heroic Men lounging on the step outside, and I realized even heroes need heroes, even heroes need saving sometimes. It didn’t seem like a coincidence a few moments later to pass by the Catholic Chapel high up on its hill. I thought of the sacrifice The Hero gave for all of His brothers and sisters, my brothers and sisters.

West Point Catholic ChapelI thought of all the times I am called to be a hero and I cower or act in anger or selfishness instead. Even heroes need heroes, and our country needs heroes, not just those in uniform but those in our homes and in our schools and in our places of business and worship now more than ever. I thought of how we need heroes in our voting booths and on our ballots, and I prayed for America, the land that I love.

I prayed for myself, that I may be more hero than coward, that I happily choose to sacrifice my desires and hand them all over to The One who intimately knows every name in every grave beside me and more. I thought of how we put up memes about the importance of fathers but women (myself most of all) often choose men incapable of longterm commitment and sacrificial love, lessons my Grandfather taught wordlessly.

Margaret Corbin historical markerI passed the grave of Margaret Corbin, Revolutionary War heroine. I’d never heard of her, or if I had, I’d long since forgotten. Who was she? What battles did she face? A female Revolutionary War hero? It seemed almost unthinkable, but I also knew there were others, names like 16 year old Sybil Ludington and more. I thought of what we expose our children to today and of what we don’t allow them to experience.

I wondered how we carve out heroes like Margaret and Sybil in today’s world. I realized that my children, my neighbors, and even strangers on the street and those an entire country away are carved from the same clay that gave us these long departed heroes. I wondered what these long departed souls think of how we shape ourselves today, and I vowed to mold myself more carefully. I vowed to choose carefully those I allow to mold me and the tools they use to do so. I vowed to try harder, readers the battleground, and not fall to defeat when I am knocked down because of my own foolishness or circumstances beyond my control.

I realized that I too am made from the same clay those long departed heroes are made from, and that I can always do more, give more, forgive more, find more Joy, offer more Love than I do. I realized that excuses we give are just that excuses and that memes about single moms being super heroes are just memes unless we do the hard stuff, the stuff we don’t want to do, the stuff I often fail at. I realized super heroes are fictional and that our world needs more real life heroes doing what others can’t do, not because they don’t have the ability but because they won’t see past themselves or because they don’t think they have the freedom or the power to do anything about it.

I met Carmen on that walk and we chatted happily. Her husband is a Christian life coach, and we chatted briefly about some of the struggles of today and of our faith. I wished I could have talked with her more, but I met a friend and had to say good-bye. I gave her my life coaching business card and hope she’ll be in touch, knowing God brings people together for whatever reason, knowing that sometimes brief encounters lead to lasting friendships, and knowing that whether I meet Carmen in this life again or not, I’d been Blessed by her company and, from the sweetness that shone from her, had hopes to meet her again one day in Heaven. I hoped I’d remember her name by the time we got there but knew God would help me if I’d forgotten.

Trophy Point on July 4th

Crowds on July 4th at West Point, Trophy PointI finally got to Trophy Point where I was amazed at the crowd. I sometimes went to concerts there with my father as a child, but I never remembered crowds like this. People stood literally shoulder to shoulder, friendly crowds happy to be there enjoying the view, patriotic music, and being together. There were old people, young people, blacks, whites, and Asians all come together to celebrate the 4th of July, America’s birthday, her Independence Day. In our nation more racially divided than I can remember it being, tonight wasn’t about our differences, but about our similarities. It was about us all coming together to celebrate the 4th of July, America’s birthday, her Independence Day.

I watched the sun set over the Hudson even more beautiful than I’d remembered. I listened to Yankee Doodle Dandy, She’s a Grand Old Flag, and other favorites sung by talented West Point Cadets. I heard the cheers of young cadets in their white dress uniforms near the stage in a section reserved just for them.

Trophy Point, West Point overlooking the Hudson River West Point Military band July 4thI wanted to stop on the walkway and take it all in, but heavily armed MP’s patrolled moving us along so we did not block the view of those behind us or the sidewalk itself, which was the only visible ground allowing visitors to move from one place to another. It was strange seeing those Men and the weapons they totted so naturally. It made me think of places in the world where foreign MP’s are needed for daily protection and of other places where men work for dictators and are feared by the common citizen.

I couldn’t imagine needing their protection on our streets on a daily basis or living in fear of their cruelty. I realized God didn’t imagine it either. He knew it firsthand. He knew of the sufferings of those people as surely as he knew their names. He even knew and Loved those armed men dealing in cruelty. He also knew they were making eternal choices, choosing the easier path rather than being the heroes they were created to be. He knew there would be consequences given or comfort extended based on what such men do today and tomorrow.

I’d planned to go to Mass at the Catholic Chapel and come to Trophy Point for the concert right after, but my son had had a baseball game earlier. I missed the West Point Mass and now had a hard time finding a place to sit until I finally found an open spot under a small tree on the southeast side of Trophy Point. I could not see the band, but I could hear the music. I sat among families, children laughing and running, playing Uno and catch. I sat with groups of people and realized how alone among so many happy people.

I wished my boys were there with me.

West Point July 4th Fireworks

West Point July 4thThe sun set lower in the sky and I knew the fireworks would start soon. I got up and made my way north on the walkway, daring to stop for just a moment to take a few shaky pictures and a bit of even shakier video. I didn’t fear the MP’s barking at us to move along, but I respected them and didn’t envy their jobs especially in a crowd like this.

I wondered at them in full fatigues on a hot, July day carrying those heavy weapons through the crowds. I wondered if how often they thought about someone trying to grab one of those weapons and use it against the innocents there. I knew anyone foolish enough to try something like that would be dead before most of us knew what was happening, but I wondered if that idea, especially with so many people packed so closely together, added aggravation to the MP’s voice. I wondered what this young Man was like outside of this role he now played. I didn’t fear him or any of the MP’s but I moved along out of respect again offering silent prayers for many of them as I passed.

Battle Monument at West Point's Trophy Point July 4th

Battle Monument in honor of Civil War Union soldiers

Finally, the first explosions took place overhead. Sparkling colors danced across the darkened sky, purple right above us, the sun still setting casting a blue, then yellow, then orange and red glow in the valley on the horizon farther up river. Oohs and aahs from the crowds filled the air following the whoosh of another firecracker being sent to boom in the night sky and echo against the mountains. Small children exclaimed behind me and to the right, imaging what each firecracker looked like, fireflies, butterflies, jumping rabbits, and more.

It was the most amazing display of pyrotechnics I’d ever seen. My phone died before the finale and I was not able to take pictures, but instead decided to enjoy rather than document. As I sat there in the blackness, illuminated only by whatever color floated above our heads at the time I wondered if this was truly the greatest fireworks display I’d ever seen or if it was this place too.

I’d looked out at West Point often as a child. When I needed to be alone, I’d walk to the big, old yellow church high on the rock overlooking the Hudson and facing West Point. It was my thinking spot, my praying spot, my sketching spot. It was where I connected with God and think of the American Indians who He’d created and who had roamed these same mountains, paddled the very river at my feet thousands of years before. It was where I connected to my history and to my possibility. It was where faced Storm King Mountain and let the river wash my tears away.

Exiting West Point

The rush of people to get out of West Point began as soon as the fireworks ended. I walked with those people back to our cars, retracing my earlier route but while they rushed, I strolled. I had no great desire to leave this place, but I wanted to go too. Something about the night, the awe of heroes past and present, the knowledge that we need to do more to be the heroes we are created and called to be today in our own lives, the understanding that I would never understand what the families in the houses next to me understand about how precious each day is, and the vast timelessness of God’s power, knowledge, and beauty combined with my aloneness was almost overwhelming.

I left inspired but also feeling melancholy and nostalgic. I had no tears, but I longed for my children, missing them terribly yet thankful to have this time to think, to reflect, to pray, to remember, to believe, to be.

I drove through Lonesome Gate, exiting West Point, and heading home. It had been a long day, and I had a long drive ahead of me, but I was glad I’d gone and hoped to celebrate next July 4th there as well. As always, I was thankful for and awed by the sacrifices of those past and present and renewed in my determination to be a better me.

This is America’s birthday, her Independence Day. My visit was tiring but worth it. I left inspired to free myself from any chains that still bind me. I was inspired to learn my history, to leave the bad behind and to remember and honor the Good instead. I was inspired to fight battles chaining me to insecurity, unworthiness, and cowardice and instead aim for nothing less than being a hero in my own life and in the lives of those who know me, to arm myself for battle choosing my weapons carefully, conditioning myself to carry those weapons and training to use them skillfully and only with the right people.

I was inspired to watch the crowds, to choose company carefully and withhold judgment on all. I was inspired to look up and to know that when the sun sets and the skies are darkest, the glitter of the few lights that are left to dance in the sky shine brightest. I was inspired to know that those dancing lights are only possible because they feel heat and fire, pressure and flame, and I vowed not to let the heat, the fire, the pressure, or the flame burn and scar me, but to ask the Fire to be that of the Holy Spirit to help me shine in the darkened world and to dance across the blackened skies.

Today is July 4th, America’s birthday, her Independence Day. Each of us, no matter how we long to deny it, is chained by something. What chains you and how, who, or what inspires you to celebrate your own independence? God wants you to be free. What will you hand over to Him? What do you continue to hold onto that keeps you from dancing across your darkened skies?

Claim your independence by claiming your dependence on the one True Hero, Jesus Christ.

God Bless America!

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3 Comments

  1. Manny on July 4, 2016 at 7:32 pm

    I’ve been to West Point a few times and each time I was unsure if I had parked legally. It’s a beautiful place, and this is a fine tribute to the institution and to our members of the military. Thanks and God bless.



    • Strahlen on July 9, 2016 at 4:33 am

      Haha – I often have the same issue there and am always thankful to find my car still in the same place I left it when I return!

      Manny, if you and your family are up that way again, let me know! I Love West Point and love meeting new people too! Maybe we can even bring out Father Veras! 🙂



      • Manny on July 10, 2016 at 4:25 am

        Sure thing!



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