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Unruffled in tense times

On July 4, a Pennsylvania town epitomizes an America clinging to the rhythms of daily life despite the intrusions of the world

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 3, 2003


As dusk descends over the annual Lions Club Carnival in New Freedom, Pa., the scene seems momentarily suspended in time. Families stroll the grounds amid the orange glow of lights and the greasy-sweet scent of corn dogs and funnel cakes. Clumps of teenage girls pretend not to notice the boys jostling a few feet away. Older folks set up lawn chairs by the pavilion, listening to the band and waiting for the fireworks.

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Only a few details hint at a different reality: At the Shoot-the-Star game, players fire at a paper target - a picture of Saddam Hussein.

Yet on the eve of this Independence Day, less than 20 miles from where the Continental Congress once met, and 6,000 miles from the struggle to establish democracy in Iraq, the churn of national and international events is never completely removed.

Like any community in America, residents of New Freedom have been affected by the past year's tumult. In the run-up to the Iraq war, employees at a local die-casting plant - which had cut its workforce because of the slowing economy - wound up working overtime to make parts for gas masks for the military. Churchgoers have had to deal with the resignation of a longtime priest over sex-abuse allegations. Parents had to explain the Columbia disaster to preschoolers, whose class had sent tomato seeds aboard the shuttle as a science experiment.

Like so many small towns these days, too, New Freedom has also been undergoing long-term, sometimes painful, shifts of its own. Once a thriving railroad and industrial hub, it's evolving into a bedroom community for commuters from York and Baltimore. Some say neighborliness is dwindling: Membership in groups like the Lions Club is down, while local businesses struggle to compete with chain stores near the interstate.

Still, most here seem largely unruffled by all the uncertainty and change. This is a nation founded by revolution, after all, and, as many note, it has weathered testing times before. Through everything, the New Freedom Lions Club has put on the same carnival since the 1930s, halting only once during World War II. The layout is the same: rides and games on one side, food and music on the other. So is the schedule: kiddie fireworks the first night, the grown-up version at midnight, July 3.

In that sense, New Freedom may be America, circa 2003: aware of the increasing intrusions of an unsettled world - postwar violence, the omnipresent threat of terrorism, a frail economy - but yet relatively unperturbed, clinging to a sense of constancy and the rhythms of everyday life. "We always did go through ups and downs," says Will Shuchart, a Lions Club member who figures he's been selling raffle tickets at the same stand for 35 years. "I guess there always was and always will be change."

Tracing back the name

There are two theories about how New Freedom got its name. One holds that the town, located just above the Mason-Dixon line, was a stopping point on the Underground Railroad, offering a "new freedom" to slaves escaping the South. The other traces the name back to a local family, the Frees, who played a role in incorporating the town, and wanted to call it Freedom. Since Pennsylvania already had a Freedom, they settled for "New" Freedom.

But regardless of its actual derivation, the patriotic moniker is reflected throughout the town, from its street names (Constitution Avenue, Franklin Street) to the scores of flags and yellow ribbons festooning the porches of its many old Victorian homes.

Patriotism isn't on the upswing here - because it never really went away, people say. Mostly Republican, residents tend to be supportive of the job President Bush is doing, though most also say they'll wait to see whom the Democrats nominate before deciding how they'll vote in 2004. They're even more supportive of the military, though some offer differing views of the Iraq conflict.

Marge Goodfellow, who served in the Women's Army Corps in World War II as a medical technician, followed the Iraq war closely from the day it started, and is deeply proud of the efforts of the US military.

"For the first time in history, I think we had a war that was efficiently run and saved lives," she says.

But while most people say they agree with the overall purpose of the war, several also wonder if Mr. Bush proclaimed the end of combat too quickly. And many are dismayed by the reception US troops have gotten so far from the Iraqi people.

"We're over there giving them their freedom, and they're acting like they don't want it," says Wade Simmons, who works for the Postal Service in York, and is running the Ravens Fan Club stand at the carnival.