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What Independence Day 2019 meant to Hall County residents
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Rigo Gutierrez, left, and his wife Lindsay of Gainesville wait for the fireworks to begin during a Fourth of July celebration at Laurel Park on Thursday, July 4, 2019. - photo by Austin Steele

A booming, colorful blast of fireworks capped the annual Independence Day celebration at Laurel Park in North Hall, a stirring display that awed hundreds of families and dozens of military veterans gathered for the festivities.

The nighttime show was a fitting end to an eventful day, where children played in a water splash park beneath a beating sun, families grilled out, classic rock blasted from a PA system, vendors sold arts and crafts, donors gave blood, and a Boy Scout troop served one and all with delicious all-American hot dogs.

But amid the glory and merriment at Laurel Park were plenty of reflections on what the Fourth of July and America’s independence means to Hall County residents.

Curtis Tate had set up in a shady spot to cook ribs, chicken, fried fish, bratwurst and sausage dogs as he waited on the rest of his family – wife, children, grandchildren, sisters and nephews – to arrive and join him.

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Attendees check out various booths setup selling goods during a Fourth of July celebration at Laurel Park on Thursday, July 4, 2019. - photo by Austin Steele

“We came out a little early to get prepped up,” he said. “We all come out here and just enjoy the festivities.”

Tate’s family has been celebrating Independence Day here for the past few years.

And in doing so, they remember Tate’s father, who was a veteran of the Korean War.

“We do it to honor him,” said Tate, a lifelong Gainesville resident.

Shane Simmons said he and his family have been coming to Laurel Park for Independence Day for about the last 10 years.

“It means what you see – all this freedom,” he said, looking out over the park full of families and good cheer. “Men and women both sacrificed their lives for this right here. I just enjoy coming out and seeing everybody enjoy this.”

Simmons said the Fourth of July is a time to share in fellowship with other Americans.

“It’s like a big reunion,” he added.

For Cameron Hayden, a rising junior at Gainesville High School, Independence Day at Laurel Park is both an American and family tradition, a time to gather with siblings, cousins, aunts, his grandmother and mother, and share what they have with their neighbors. 

It’s also an opportunity to honor three of Hayden’s family members who served in the first Gulf War in the early 1990s.

“It’s just a good time of the year where everybody can come together and celebrate the country we live in,” Hayden said.

Sam Walley, an Afghanistan war veteran, said that as a history buff he takes a unique view of Independence Day.

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Samuel Walley, of Winder, visits the Freedom Garden Friday, June 21, 2019 at the Northeast Georgia History Center. The Afghanistan War veteran was wounded by an IED and now is volunteering with PTSD groups while going to school. - photo by Scott Rogers

“I think of it as ‘Happy Treason Day,’” he said with a laugh. “I think of throwing some tea in the harbor.”

Walley, who will earn his political science degree from the University of North Georgia in May 2020, was injured by a remote-controlled improvised explosive device while on duty overseas. He is a double amputee as a result. 

But, clearly, he has not lost his humor – or his sense of patriotism.  

“Sometimes not doing the ‘right thing’ is doing the right thing,” he said of the righteous cause of rebellion against British tyranny that birthed the United States of America.

That sense of patriotism is something Johnny Varner, an Army veteran and local American Legion Post 7 leader, said he believes is more important than ever to display.

“I think people have forgotten how to do that,” he added. “Like so many other holidays, (Independence Day) kind of gets commercialized. Between Memorial Day and Veterans Day, (patriotism) starts to lose its substance. I just hope that we regain the commitment of patriotism and what it means.”

“Of course, it’s a celebration,” Varner added of the Fourth of July festivities at Laurel Park. “But I wish we could help people understand patriotism.”

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