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Salute to Independence -- Weather threatens, but celebration wins

July 06, 2008|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- Patriotism and pyrotechnics won out over rain and retreat on Saturday - barely.

With thunderstorms creeping in, organizers compressed the 23rd annual Salute to Independence at Antietam National Battlefield north of Sharpsburg making sure some signature elements, namely the fireworks, were seen.

Some people gasped as lightning flashes and thunder claps were seen and heard. Part of the musical program was eliminated so the fireworks could blast off a little early.

But the "oohs" and "aahs" were louder for the fireworks show.

"It was awesome," Heather Greszler of Hagerstown declared as she huddled with her mother, Terri, and brother, Kevin.

Cascading colors in the blue-gray sky and vibrating cannon fire as raindrops fell faster hardly fazed their dogs - Simon, a papillon, and Lucky, a Jack Russell mix - although Lucky barked a bit at the finale.

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As some people left before the weather turned bad, Pat Place and Janice Maxson, friends from Berkeley Springs, W.Va., had cover close by. They sat outside Place's recreational vehicle, parked near the visitors center.

This was said to be the closest the Salute - one of Washington County's largest events, featuring the Maryland Symphony Orchestra - came to being canceled.

Attendance, estimated at 25,000 in past years, was noticeably down, even earlier in the day, possibly because of forecasts of rain. Chief Ranger Ed Wenschhof noted that there were patches of grass that normally would be covered by spectators.

Many familiar standards, though, were back this year.

The Alpha Battery of the Maryland National Guard's 2nd Battalion, 110th Field Artillery of Westminster, Md., worked the M-102 howitzers.

Members of the military stood and received applause as the orchestra played the song representing their branch.

In his 15th year at the Salute, Gene Farmer of Jefferson, Md., and his relatives were dining on chicken, potato salad, macaroni salad, Twizzlers and deer bologna. They brought food for 17.

"It's a relaxing way to enjoy the holidays," said Rob Webber of Frostburg, Md., who was part of the group.

Rob's cousin, Rick Webber of Charles Town, W.Va., couldn't speak highly enough about the Salute and the meaning behind it.

Pointing to members of the National Guard, he said, "I went down and thanked each one of them. They've given me a day that I can spend like this with my family."

Dwight Mumma was on duty as a custodian at the battlefield, but also thinking about his family in a more historical way. He said his great-great-grandfather owned the property on which the Salute was held and on which the Battle of Antietam was fought almost 150 years ago.

It's satisfying to know that joy can emerge from such carnage, he said.

The Salute is held each year on a Saturday close to July 4th, America's birthday. There were other birthdays in the crowd, too.

Emily Benas of Gaithersburg, Md., who grew up in Hagerstown, said she was supposed to be born on July 4, but was two days late. She turns 47 today.

Her in-laws and other relatives sang "Happy Birthday" to her and to Kathryn Humphrey, her nephew's girlfriend, who turned 18 Thursday.

While attendance was down some, it still was formidable.

"I don't think I've sung for a crowd quite this big," mezzosoprano Susanne Mentzer told the audience from the stage.

She added that her family is connected to Maryland, the National Park Service and Antietam, where one of her ancestors died during the Civil War battle.

This year, invitations to the Salute were extended to the entire Maryland General Assembly, Gov. Martin O'Malley and other top state officials.

A few, such as Attorney General Douglas Gansler and Department of Natural Resources Secretary John Griffin, accepted and attended.

Nita Settina, a former Smithsburg resident who now is superintendent of Maryland's state parks, also was there.

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