Independence Day… two words that spark a glowing pride in most Americans. The fourth is a time of rejuvenated patriotism; a time to think back at the sacrifices once made in the name of freedom… a time when a nation was born, and a legend, too.
Mention the 4th of July and we hear the strains of The Star Spangled Banner as Old Glory flutters in the breeze, while looking out across the land of the free and the home of the brave. We hear marching bands in the street and imagine the angular frame of Uncle Sam waving to crowds. It’s heady stuff.
But there are places where that date evokes a much darker response… places like Silkstone, in Barnsley, England, where the dappled shadows of tree trunks stretch out across a mound from which two figures peer anxiously out. It’s a memorial to a tragic event whose date has been subsumed by America’s national holiday.
Huskar Colliery is quite a pretty spot these days, now that nature has reclaimed it. Back in 1838 that wasn’t the case. At that time, the smell of coke filled the air as miners hauled coal from the depths of the earth. It was hard, dangerous work, and it wasn’t just men who risked their health to retrieve the fuel. Soot-blackened children as young as seven years old also toiled in the pits.
And it would be on the 4th of July that 26 of them would pay the ultimate price while doing their work. For two hours that afternoon, a thunderstorm raged over the colliery. The rain was so heavy that it extinguished a boiler fire in an engine that was used to take the workers up to the surface.
Rather than make their way to the bottom of the pit as instructed, the children decided to wait where they were until the engine got working again. Nine hours they waited. Not wanting to stay any longer, 40 of them made their way to a ventilation drift in an area known as Nabbs Wood.
There was a door at the base of the drift through which the children entered. It would prove a fatal mistake. Making their way up the drift they were met by a torrent of water from a swollen stream, which washed the children off their feet and sent them back down to the door they had just passed through. The water rose higher against the door as the children fought for their lives. Fourteen of them would manage to escape, but 26 others would drown in the drift.
Brothers George and James Burkinshaw (10 and seven respectively) were among the dead, as were Isaac (12) and Adam Wright (eight). Eleven-year-old Elizabeth Clarkson would later be buried at the feet of her 16-year-old brother James.
The Huskar Colliery disaster sparked an inquiry, and the resulting public outcry led to a law banning boys and girls under 10 years old from working underground. It says a lot about society at the time that this was deemed by many to be a reasoned response.
But back to America and the 4th of July…
I still remember the bicentennial celebrations in 1976, and all because of a tin serving tray that we had in our house. It was decorated with stars and bore the image of some Minutemen fresh from a fight with the British. I don’t know where that tray came from, but I liked studying it.
The 200th anniversary of the founding of America was a big deal, but that 4th of July, 1976, was also momentous in Israel, where worried military chiefs waited to hear the result of a daring raid to rescue 94 Israeli passengers and 12 crew who were being held hostage at Entebbe Airport in Uganda.
The kidnappers, members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, were being supported by Uganda’s military dictator, President Idi Amin.
The raid – codenamed Operation Thunderbolt – was hugely ambitious. It involved flying 100 commandoes over 4,000km. Three hostages died in the rescue bid and 102 were freed (one was ill in hospital at the time of the attack). All the hijackers were killed as were 45 Ugandan soldiers; 30 fighter jets were also destroyed.
The commandos suffered five wounded and one killed – the unit commander, Lt Col Yonatan Netanyahu, was the elder brother to Benjamin Netanyahu who would go on to become Israel’s prime minister.
It was an audacious and spectacular rescue, and several movies were made about it.
The 4th of July can mean so many things to so many people. For me, its significance is not to be found amongst the red, white and blue of America, nor in the eerily poignant memorial at Silkstone. The Entebbe raid does linger in the mind but its date never really registered with me.
No, the 4th of July is special because 86 years ago it was the first birthday of a postman, a carpenter, a glazier, a stringer of tennis rackets and a builder of dolls houses and toy forts. It was the day my father was born – and, for me, that surpasses all the historic milestones one could mention.
So, though my thoughts will stray to the victims of Huskar Colliery, the heroes of Entebbe and even Uncle Sam, my main focus will be on a bald-headed, pot-bellied man with mischief in his eyes. Happy birthday, Da.