- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 4, 2004

Americans are intensely patriotic this July Fourth, focused on flag and country.

It’s there in the poll numbers. A Gallup survey of more than 1,000 people released earlier this year, for example, found that 91 percent of us said we’re “extremely” or “very” patriotic.

And 68 percent of us regularly display Old Glory, according to a poll of 1,500 released last month by the Christian Science Monitor.

But we seek patriotic moments as well — those personal encounters with America that linger long in the hearts and minds, stoked by gratitude that the nation still stands fast.

“Nothing and nobody will keep me away from all this, or my kids either,” said Fran Smith, visiting Washington recently from Atlanta with her husband and two children.

She dismissed any threats of what she termed “stuff like suitcase bombs — the things you hear about on TV or a bad movie.”

“I’m just not going to worry about it.

“We’re here, and this is exactly where we want to be. I just feel very American right now,” Mrs. Smith said. “It’s better than I imagined it.”

The Smith family has eaten red, white and blue flavored ices down by the Jefferson Memorial, taken pictures in front of the Capitol and now lingers by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where on this particular day hundreds of single, long-stemmed roses and small American flags are lined up against the black granite wall below the names of fallen troops.

There are other stark mementos left behind: a rosary, a pack of Pall Mall cigarettes with a new lighter, three faded photos, four letters, a hand written poem and a memorial wreath that bears the motto, “Sons and Daughters in Touch. They were our fathers.”

Like other visitors, the Smiths quietly take it all in, keeping a respectful distance from a man who stands nearby with handkerchief in hand.

The patriotic sentiment runs deep.

“People get really teary-eyed at the very thought of being in Washington, in the nation’s capital. That is the most noticeable reaction I see, time and again,” said Anthony Pitch, who has conducted historical walking tours near the Capitol, White House and other sites for a decade.

“There’s definitely a very special feeling about being here. Visitors choke up. They whisper, ‘I can’t believe I’m standing in front of the White House,’ or ‘I can’t believe this is really the Capitol.’ They have seen books, TV movies — but to be here for real — well, they just can’t believe it,” Mr. Pitch said.

The reverence factor is strong even among the tour guides, drivers and other people who have seen the local sites and heard the histories a hundred times.

“We’re the stewards of the most important symbols and institutions of freedom and democracy in the country. Visitors come, they reach out to find their roots, their values and what’s truly important to them on a personal level, particularly at this time of year,” said Bill Hanbury, president of the Washington Convention and Tourism Corp.

“All of us know it as a very special responsibility, an honor,” he said.

Meanwhile, much of the nation’s holiday celebrations today continue to be of the old-fashioned, flag-waving variety — and some long-standing traditions.

Just outside New York City, Ridgewood, N.J., is marking its 96th July Fourth party with a flag-raising, color guard procession, a town “jamboree” and sky divers, among other things.

Now in its 187th year, the Lititz Springs, Pa., holiday celebration is themed “Land of the Free, Home of the Brave” this year.

Bristol, R.I., may have them all beat, though. The town party lays claim to the title of “oldest continuous celebration of its kind in the U.S.,” and no wonder. The nation’s first Fourth of July celebration took place there in 1785, according to the town fathers.

The nation still looks to its capital for a major patriotic fix, however.

With about 17 million visitors arriving annually, Washington tourism is back to pre-September 11 levels. It is the same around the nation, according to the National Park Service (NPS).

“Tourism is up around the country, though Washington leads the way among the 388 sites we look after,” NPS spokesman Bill Line said. “Visitors can come away with patriotic feelings, and the experience provides a great lesson on heroes and history.”

Indeed, according to the Travel Industry of America (TIA) trade association, 81 percent of Americans traveling around the nation — 118 million of us — are considered “historic/cultural travelers,” with discovery on their minds.

Washington leads the way as a destination, followed by New York City, Chicago and Boston.

Another 89 percent of us visit our national parks expressly to “experience history” and spend time with family. Mere “sightseeing” was cited by 39 percent.

“The old-fashioned great American road trip is making a comeback,” TIA spokeswoman Betsy O’Rourke said. “People are looking to reconnect with their family and with their country’s heritage.”

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