In these challenging times

Semiquincentennial.

Chew on that for a minute.

I had never even heard of the word before reading The Telegraph’s Nov. 17 editorial. Nor had I ever given any thought to the fact our country will celebrate its 250th – or (you guessed it) semiquincentennial – anniversary as an independent nation 10 years from now.

The editorial was driven by the appointment of New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen to a national commission to begin planning for this historic event. Never mind that the Granite State’s senior senator will face another re-election campaign in 2020. I’ve never been a fan of Shaheen, going back to when she was New Hampshire’s governor, but apparently she plans on hanging around long enough to see this through.

However, reading the editorial gave me pause to think and face the reality I see every morning when I look in the mirror. Damn, I am getting old. I say this because I remember very clearly playing a role in the United States’ bicentennial celebration. Unlike the JFK assassination, John Lennon murder and 9/11, this nation’s bicentennial in 1976 was an unforgettable date for good reasons.

In 1976, I was a mere 27 years old and fresh out of the Air Force after serving almost nine years. In those nine years, and by the grace of God, I escaped being sent to Vietnam. However, I did spend four of those years stationed 110 miles inside Soviet-controlled East Germany, behind the so-called "Iron Curtain" in West Berlin, assigned to a radar unit that officially never existed.

"Free" West Berlin was encircled in part by the infamous Berlin Wall, as well as high fences, razor wire, a mined "death strip," guard dogs trained to kill and vehicle traps. West Berlin was often referred to as "the Island City" for good reason. It’s an experience I will take with me to my grave.

In these especially challenging times in the United States, it often seems as though we’ve forgotten about those basic freedoms and rights we fought so hard to gain during the Revolutionary War and which many other Americans shed blood to preserve in all the wars since.

In West Berlin, I heard and saw firsthand how people were willing to risk everything, even their very lives, for a chance at freedom by trying to escape from East Berlin and East Germany into West Berlin. In the 28 years the Berlin Wall stood, more than 100 people died trying to escape to freedom by Russian and East German border guards. The dead ranged in age from 1 year old to 80.

We take our freedoms for granted. Or perhaps more correctly, too many Americans simply abuse those freedoms, twisting them to purposely fit some personal agenda. Let’s have a show of hands. How many of you were taught in grade school that the Pilgrims came to America for religious freedom? Right. No one would argue that religious freedom isn’t a good thing. Heck, it’s even written in the Bill of Rights.

Yet, mention building a Muslim mosque in your town or city, for example, and wait to see how long it takes for people to try to block it from happening. The constitutionally protected freedom of religion doesn’t exclude Muslims, as far as I know.

You don’t like it? That’s certainly your right. You may also exercise your freedom of speech to speak your mind about it. But in the end, Muslims have the same constitutional right to practice their faith as do Roman Catholics, Baptists or Jews. Heck, if a Pastafarian (member of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster) wants to wear a colander on his head, he has a legal right to do so.

I have never, in all my 67 years, seen this country more divided as now. Blame the presidential campaigns and election, if you want, but I truly believe these are merely excuses for something else. When you raise a generation or two of spoiled whiners who refuse to accept responsibility for any of their actions, this is what you get.

My biggest concern today is not about Jeanne Shaheen or the commission she’s on. It’s about whether in 2026 we still will have a reason to celebrate the semiquincentennial anniversary of a nation founded on freedom.

Thinking back to July 4, 1976, I still remember standing on an outdoor stage in front of a huge crowd in Caribou, Maine, playing guitar with a band ironically named Blitz. As we played, fireworks were lighting up the evening skies behind and above us. I was never more proud of being an American and playing a role in our nation’s bicentennial celebration.

We can only hope and pray that on Saturday, July 4, 2026, we still have something to celebrate.

Nashua native Paul Sylvain’s column appears the second Sunday of the month. He can be reached at PSylvain.Telegraph@yahoo.com.