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The Fourth of July doesn't officially arrive until Sunday. That's when fireworks will undoubtedly light the night sky, the heavenly aroma of barbecue will fill the air here, there and everywhere and it will be easier to find a snowflake than someone not wearing red, white and blue.

But to stop by the Brainerd Golf Club for the Brainerd Women's Golf Association's sixth annual Firecracker Invitational on Monday morning was the next best thing to experiencing the Fourth.

Before the clock had struck 8 a.m., all matter of patriotic music blared from the loudspeakers, including the Wright Brothers' classic lyrics "Thank God for Chevrolet, Harley-Davidson and RCA," from their 1980s hit "Made in the USA."

Near the first tee stood Larry Palmer, David Mullins, David Sherrill and Jim Grisard, all proud members of American Legion Post 95 in East Ridge, all dressed in starched uniforms, all of them ready to lead a group of 88 women in the Pledge of Allegiance after Grisard deftly played "Call to Colors" on his bugle and before Mullins, Sherrill and Palmer fired off a three-gun salute to signal the start of the event.

Noted Palmer with the pride and respect for the American flag that one might expect of a Vietnam vet as he surveyed more than a dozen of them hanging off the Brainerd clubhouse: "They're all displayed properly, just the way you're supposed to. You'd be amazed how many people don't know that."

Until two weeks ago, tournament co-chairs Susan Thurman and Sheryl Royer didn't know for 100 percent if the Firecracker would be able to have its lunch served inside after last summer's one-year hiatus due to COVID-19 restrictions, even though the tournament had been taking registrations since May 15th.

"It's supposed to be for 80 people," Thurman explained. "That first week we had 72 sign up. We finally decided on 88. And while we can't put everyone in one room for lunch, we can have a seat for everyone, even though some will have to sit outside."

Still, the Firecracker's unique format — which calls for the two-woman teams to play six holes of best ball, six of select shot and six of alternate shot — along with a chance for everyone to don their favorite July Fourth-themed outfits, wound up having to turn away at least a few folks.

"I think not having it last year has made people appreciate it more this time around," said Thurman.

For Post 95's Palmer, he appreciated just being alive after battling COVID-19 on this same week last year.

"I was in and out of Memorial Hospital for 13 straight days," said the 73-year-old Palmer. "When I finally went home on a Sunday I wished the guy well who was next to me in the hospital. He died on Monday."

Thurman and Royer recalled how they spent their 2020 summers without a golf tournament to run.

"My husband and I built a room in the woods, complete with a fire pit," said Thurman.

Recalled Royer, "We cleaned, we painted, we pressure-washed and we cooked."

Added Brenda Spangler, president of the BWGA, "My husband and I started playing backgammon and dominoes again for probably the first time since college."

And if the Firecracker went off without a hitch, there were adjustments made because of the lingering threat of COVID-19.

"We usually ask for hole sponsors," said Thurman of the event, which includes posting pictures on every hole of participants' family members who have served in the military. "We didn't hit up any businesses this year because of the state of the economy, though we did accept some donations."

Even without solicitations, 22 veterans were recognized over 18 holes, more than the usual number.

They also tabled the usual post-tourney barbecue buffet with all the trimmings for box lunches

Yet even that concession came with a familiar and soothing ring for any Southerner. Asked what each boxed lunch contained, Thurman smiled and said, "Barbecue, chips and banana pudding, of course."

Still, Thurman and Royer and so many others were decorating the Brainerd clubhouse and course by 6:30 Monday morning, just as they had the five previous Firecrackers. Pam Potter made special scorecards for the event. Everyone seemed intent on pitching in.

"Best event we play in all year," said Tresa Goodroe, who along with fellow Dalton. Ga., resident Betty Sadosuk, were back to defend their 2019 championship, which won them a collection of fireworks.

Added Sadosuk, "I like the camaraderie, everybody's always dressed in red, white and blue. We were so disappointed when they couldn't play it last year."

If any participant embodies the spirit of the Firecracker it may be Jean Hudgins, whose late mother Ella Mae Tolbert was a real-life Rosie the Riveter during the height of World War II.

"She installed radios in B-29s in a factory near the Birmingham (Ala.) airport," recalled Hudgins. "There's a website now (rosietheriveter.net) that will certify that your family member was part of the war effort."

Asked what made her most happy about the tourney's return, Hudgins, dressed head to toe in red, white and blue — pretty much the same as everyone else — replied, "That we're free, that we're a great country."

Having the Firecracker at all, box lunches or no box lunches, indoor and outdoor dining, hole sponsors or no hole sponsors, was another step toward returning this free and great country to normal.

Said Thurman, hopefully framing both the Firecracker and this Fourth of July week in general, "We are so divided as a country right now. But not today. On this day, we're all one."

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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