Marking America’s birthday a day early, just as it has for the last five years, Apalachicola threw its most spectacular celebration Sunday since it wrote July 3 in big, red, white and blue letters on its calendar in 2012.
Thousands of people gathered along the dock, across the grass and throughout the street along RiverfrontPark to partake of the grand festivities for the nation’s 240th birthday, made possible through an immense effort of 70 volunteers by the Apalachicola Main Street organization in conjunction with the city.
By the time the crowd had been roused by a stunning 18-minute firework extravaganza, accompanied by a patriotic soundtrack, young and old alike had spooned their way through cups of complimentary hand-dipped ice cream, and savored 350 pounds of shrimp, 3000 chicken wings, 500 hot dogs and lots of fries, not to mention their favorite local brew and beverage.
“We sold out of shrimp and hot dogs almost immediately,” said Jim Bachrach, Main Street’s board chairman. “We improvised with sausage and corn to come up with new recipes to finish off the night.
“What was incredibly amazing was the energy of the volunteers, to be out in that heat, working their butts off, for no compensation whatsoever,” he said.
More so than even the food, though, was the crowd’s ravenous appetite for patriotism, marked by a solemn standing, hands over hearts, to Jhaki Davis’ stirring rendition of the National Anthem. That led into certified pyrotechnician Mike Cates’ stunning display, complete with heart-shaped designs in the air, fired from aboard Bill Grimes’ barge, maneuvered by Tommy Ward.
Prior to that, just as the sun was dipping low over the river, the crowd was treated to inspiring words from Apalachicola resident Mark Milliken, a retired Navy admiral, who offered a first-hand tribute to the veterans with whom he served throughout his career.
“For a veteran such as myself, this holiday takes on a different meaning. I had the privilege to serve my country in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan and a couple other place on our globe along with men and women who were more than fellow sailors, coasties, soldiers, marines and airmen. They were my very good friends. And while I came back and can be with you here this evening, many of them did not,” he said.
In recounting America’s early years, Milliken noted “our forefathers went up against the world's most colossal empire since ancient Rome. No colony had ever successfully left a mother country to set up a self-governing state. Not only were the historical odds set against them, they were set to fight against the world's most powerful Navy. King George III sent a massive armada for what became the largest amphibious assault of the 18th century – over 300 ships and 32,000 men.”
Milliken described the war’s opening battle, on July 12, when the British sent the Phoenix, a 44 gun battle ship and the Rose, a 28-gun frigate past southern Manhattan into the Hudson River. “New York was eventually lost to the British. By mid-August, only 20 percent of the citizens of New York City remained – a mere 5,000.
“General Washington retreated to New Jersey and it would be seven years before New York was taken from British control,” said Milliken.
The retired Navy commander told how Washington “would avoid large-scale confrontations that played to the British strength and begin a new battle strategy. Small-scale skirmishes and guerilla tactics which favored American forests and landscape would replace traditional methods of battle. And, it worked. He won.”
Milliken likened Washington’s strategy to one needed in the ongoing battle against terrorism. “In this war, there is no armada of British ships visible across the New York harbor. The enemy is present but hidden. We must re-write the battle plans of the past and create new ways to combat this enemy,” he said. “Our national strategy that has evolved over the course of the last couple of years is all about quick response. The first rule is: can you get to the fight? To stay credible, future capabilities and platforms must be able to respond in time to deal with any future conflicts.”
Addressing criticisms that America is “the richest country in the world,” Milliken suggested that “we are proudly the richest country in the world – rich in our multi-cultural heritage, rich in our traditions, rich in our entrepreneurial spirit, our zest for the unknown and our reach into the future. The American colonies became the United States of America because of our determination, our self-discipline and most of all, our dreams. Our desire for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is not a coined phrase, but a day-to-day philosophy celebrating free-expression, freedom of religion, freedom of speech and the right to be and remain free.”
He closed by saying that the today’s soldiers, on foreign soil in Iraq, Afghanistan, African and elsewhere, are motivated by the same spirit as the Revolutionary Army. “It is still the impossible dream of a nation under God, with unalienable rights endowed equally to all — among these life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness!
“Surely this weekend is a time for all of us who really cherish that original dream, the one for which so many have died, to individually and collectively re-declare our independence from tyranny, taxation without representation, and debts that no free society should ever bear.,” he said. “And allegiance to the blood-bought foundation of government of, by, and for the people . . . people who are determined to live free.”
The afternoon began with a young Tallahassee songstress, McCall Chapin, delighting the crowd at the river, followed by Tobacco Road, atop a sound stage overseen by Rick Ott, of From the Heart studio in Sopchoppy.
As the crowd slowly gathered, the traditional local parade massed at LafayettePark, led by Elgin “Big Red” Sizemore" as grand marshal. Sizemore served with the 1275th Small Craft Division in the Navy during World War II, where he escorted American and British ships through the Panama Canal into the Pacific Ocean.
Complete with local politicians accompanied by their entourage of supporters, plus State Rep Halsey Beshears and his family aboard bicycles and at least one candidate for Congress, Republican Ken Sukhia, walking the route, the parade was the largest in memory.
By the time it reached downtown, the crowd had swelled, beneath palm trees themselves decorated with red, white and blue. The Franklin’s Promise Coalition and its Conservation Corps were on hand to help, as was Project Impact with games and face painting and all sorts of fun.
Bachrach presented a five-year award to Apalachicola businessman Harry Arnold, for his contribution to raising the Independence Eve celebration to “a premier event in Apalachicola with state and national recognition.”
Busy sending out thank-you notes the day after, Augusta West, Main Street’s director, said this year’s event drew a sizeable number of families from throughout the region, who came in for the entire three-day weekend to share in the small-town excitement.
“We’ve made a name for ourselves,” she said.