I was reminded about what freedom meant when I looked up and saw the medal hanging down on Sammy Davis's chest.
It was three years ago in late September when I first attended Freedom Fest.
Back when I used to venture out of Langdon as a political candidate, someone suggested that I go to Skidmore, Missouri, as part of my campaign. You have to meet the people when you run for office, so that’s what I did.
Populations are down in all our rural towns. Like a lot of small towns in Northwest Missouri, Skidmore has seen better times. Not long ago the State Highway department decided to close the local maintenance barn. That was quite a blow to local residents.
But they still had Freedom Fest.
I admit there wasn’t a huge turnout the first night when politicians were invited to speak. Politics aren’t real popular here in the Heartland. That might be why attendance was thin while I was there. Later on that evening when the bands started to play more people showed up to dance, or just listen.
But I took my turn and tried to give a patriotic speech just the same.
Freedom Fest is a celebration of America, and celebrating America always comes down to our land, our lives, our freedom, and the people who fought to help us keep it.
After I spoke my piece, a man about my age walked up to shake my hand and thank me for doing my part. He had reddish blond hair, a ruddy complexion, and he was wearing something around his neck that I had never seen before.
It was the Congressional Medal of Honor.
It’s funny, but there are things you’ve never seen, yet when you finally do you know exactly what they are. So when I saw the most treasured, the most honored, the most hallowed award for bravery and self sacrifice any American can earn in the service of his or her country, I was humbled.
That’s how I happened to meet Sammy Davis. I thought it was more than a little ironic that HE was thanking ME.
I pointed that out to him.
I’m ashamed to say I don’t recall ever hearing of this Sammy Davis. Sammy is well aware of the name recognition most people have when they meet him. When they appear puzzled by his name he just says in so many words, “I’m not that Sammy Davis.”
That’s pretty obvious.
But while I and a lot of Americans may not know “this” Sammy Davis, if we’ve been to the movies we know who gave him his medal and a little about what he did to earn it. That’s because in the movie Forrest Gump, Tom Hanks’ head is superimposed over Sammy’s when President Lyndon Johnson placed the medal around his neck.
Forrest Gump’s fictional heroics are the real life reason Sammy Davis won the Medal of Honor.
Freedom Fest began over 20 years ago as a welcome home for Viet Nam vets. A local banker and World War II vet named Ken Hurner wanted his son to return to a big celebration, so the Skidmore American Legion Post #411 and a local band, Britt Small and Festival, sponsored the shindig.
That’s how Freedom Fest was born.
For the last several years the Traveling Wall, a replica of the Viet Nam Memorial, has come to Skidmore and Freedom Fest along with a memorial to our fallen soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. There’s entertainment from live bands, plenty of food, a flea market, and ceremonies to honor our veterans. Along with thousands of adults, about 2,000 local school kids visit it each year.
It is important that they know in spite of the way it may seem to them, freedom really hasn’t been free, or easy. The Wall makes that plain to see.
Carla Wetzel, the current organizer of Freedom Fest has been involved one way or another from the very beginning. Carla said she started out singing with the band and gradually took charge. But it’s been getting harder and harder to get veterans to come out. “They’re getting older you know” she said, “and they’re starting to have more in the way of health problems.”
Carla named her son after Sammy Davis whom she’s been friends with for years, but she has been unable to get Sammy back to Skidmore since I saw him there in 2006. Last year open heart surgery kept him on the sideline, and this year the Medal of Honor Reunion coincided with Freedom Fest.
In the past fundraising has been done through donations and chicken dinners in Skidmore. “Do you know how much chicken it takes to raise $15,000 (the cost of putting on Freedom Fest) at $3 a dinner?” she asked. “My family is getting older, and I want to see my kids grow up — and this takes up a lot of time.” With Carla stepping down and no one else willing to do it, this year was the final Freedom Fest.
But Carla is upbeat about it all, saying it’s been a great experience for her and all the people who’ve been involved throughout the years. “This is small town America, a great place for people” she said, “and it’s been a great place for Freedom Fest.”
Besides, just like the veterans she’s helped to honor for 22 years, Carla knows she’s done her share.