Annual concert, fireworks display draws large crowd

July 04, 2004|by TAMELA BAKER

They came early and stayed late for the Salute to Independence, the annual backyard bash - for about 35,000 this year - at Antietam National Battlefield.

Though the official program featuring the Maryland Symphony Orchestra and a huge display of Zambelli fireworks didn't start until 7:30 p.m., people were staking out spots for watching the festivities early in the morning - and even the day before.

After 19 years, people have learned to show up early for a good spot.

Park Ranger Ed Wenschhof said some "were here staking claims" on Friday, laying tarps on their preferred spots on the lawn.


"We even had some on Thursday, but we pulled those up because they were killing the grass," Wenschhof said.

One large gray tarp near the visitors' center was spray-painted with the owners' claim: "Rockwell Joe & Joanne & friends."

On the other side of the field, another family had roped their spot off. "Reserved for the Allens," declared a couple of signs fastened to the stakes.

Park Service employees were out in force, directing parking, watching the crowd, taking care of the grounds. Of the park's 80-member staff, about 90 percent were working the event, Wenschhof said.

Tents and canopies were erected across the field as people waiting for the concert shielded themselves from the afternoon sun. Pat Leitzen and Cheryl and Al Ward of Cumberland, Md., bought theirs especially for the event.

"We try to come every year," Cheryl Ward said.

But they hadn't been just sitting there all day; they'd also wandered over to the Healing Field tribute to the victims of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a new feature this year.

"It was awesome," Ward said. "It makes the point of how many people were lost that day. It really brings it home."

Those who waited in the field in front of the MSO stage got a sneak peek at the program as the orchestra and featured soloist Corey Evan Rotz warmed up.

Elsewhere, people amused themselves by tossing footballs, baseballs and Frisbees. Others read books or played cards. A kite was visible above the Maryland Monument across from the Dunker Church. Brendan Helms, son of Brian and Marsie Helms of Reston, Va., played soldier with other children he'd just met. Today, he plans to see the annual battle re-enactment in Gettysburg, Pa.

Christa Seibert of Mercersburg, Pa., formerly of Hagerstown, took the opportunity to check out the displays at the visitors' center.

"I liked that the visitors' center was free today," she said. "The film was going and a woman was giving a lecture."

As Connie Knight and Ruby Houser of Sharpsburg and Doris Shoemaker of Dargan were selling tickets for refreshments for the Sharpsburg Volunteer Fire Department, one customer walked up and, even before plunking his money down, said "you guys do an awful good job." The ladies beamed - the refreshment stand at the Salute to Independence is the fire company's biggest fund-raiser of the year.

"We usually make about $5,000 or $6,000," Houser said.

Finally, it was time for the concert. By then, the sun was dipping to the west and a gentle breeze flitted across the battlefield. Park Superintendent John Howard urged the crowd to drop a few dollars into the buckets the Antietam Partners, a nonprofit group that raises money to preserve the battlefield. "Dig deep when the volunteer comes through the crowd; $1 or $2 would be nice. A $20 we'd be really excited about."

As the orchestra opened with the national anthem, sung by Miss Western Maryland Tiffany Hawbaker, three men hoisted a gigantic American flag behind the stage. Just as it topped the canopy above the stage, the wind caught it, sending it floating like a blanket above the musicians.

The orchestra played a rousing tribute to the armed forces and a poignant one to the memory of those killed on Sept. 11. Rotz sang a medley of American tunes compiled by the legendary Aaron Copland.

More patriotic music followed the intermission, leading up to the big event: the biggest fireworks display around.

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