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What is independence?

A 5-year-old dares deep waters for the first time. A family escapes political terror. A man becomes his own boss.

What does "independence" mean?

Today is Independence Day. As the history books tell it, July 4, 1776, was the day the Continental Congress adopted the final draft of the Declaration of Independence.

It was the day a handful of colonies took an axe to the apron strings, the day an upstart youngster demanded the keys to the car from Mother England.

It's been a long time since the redcoats were driven from our shores. But in ways large and small, the land still teems with people (and other creatures) being sprung from shackles real and symbolic.

Today in America, beneath the din of fireworks, you can hear freedom ringing at beautiful and surprising frequencies. Have a listen.


A boy tests the waters

A concrete hierarchy exists at the Davis Islands public pool.

The lowest rung is the so-called Baby Pool section, a place for the kids who don't yet tread water. Then there's the Medium-Sized Pool, for those who can execute the elementary backstroke but who might falter on, say, the infamous crawl form.

At the top is the Deep Pool _ 5 feet and deeper. Only the strongest, bravest swimmers qualify.

This week, for the first time in his life, Rious Fortier made the cut.

The 5-year-old spent most of his swimming lesson showing instructor Sam Martino that he could float (with a little help), glide (with a little help) and make it to the far end of the Medium-Sized Pool (with a little help).

But on this particular day, Martino decided Rious was ready for the big plunge.

"He's a good swimmer for his age," Martino said.

With aplomb, the boy jumped into the Deep Pool, its waters stretching out like an ocean from the vantage point of a boy 4 feet high.

He took a big breath and swam a few strokes entirely underwater, with Martino close by. Quickly, the boy climbed out, back onto the wet concrete.

"It was kinda good," he said, "and kinda scary."


A teen earns a paycheck

Okay, so Rebekah Deuel had, like, three goals for this week: buy a new bathing suit, get a better cell phone plan, and open up her very own checking account.

By Tuesday, she had the phone and the bathing suit _ a two-piece "that connects in the middle, so technically, it's not a bikini, which my parents say I can't have." Her next goal: a car.

"Then I can drive myself to the bank and get my own money out," the 16-year-old Brandon resident said, giddy at the freedoms of her first summer paycheck.

Deuel, a senior at Grace Christian School in Valrico, got her first job two months ago at a microfilm imaging company. It pays less than $6 an hour, and copying files onto microfilm can get pretty dull, so she got a second job at Banana Republic. Now, on a good week, she takes home $200.

She's been saving _ some of it, anyway.

"But my money just, like, disappears, to cheerleading and clothes," she says. "I love clothes! They're the best thing ever."

Before her shift one day this week, Deuel stopped at the Gap and tried on jeans that perfectly hugged her tiny frame.

"Can I put these on hold?" she asked the saleswoman. "I don't have any cash on me right now."


A manager takes a risk

At the Shell station on Kennedy Boulevard in Tampa, customers know the amiable 34-year-old manager who has worked there for the past six years as "Eddie." His real name is Assad Darwish. He left his home in Sierra Leone in his early 20s, fleeing the West African nation's political violence for America.

Eddie knows all there is to know about running a gas station, from fuel deliveries and finances to handling an ever-shifting roster of employees.

Recently, Eddie got a phone call that scared him as much as it excited him. A relative offered to make him part owner of a gas station in Dearborn, Mich.

Eddie considered how little he knew about Michigan and how there are no guarantees in business. But he is single. And he figured that as a manager, he was doing 90 percent of an owner's work anyway.

Next month, he'll quit his job at Shell and go.

"You will never know if this is your lifetime opportunity unless you try it," Eddie said. "If you have a dream of being something, life is nothing but a big risk."

He'd like to own a boat and a high-end Hummer, his dream vehicle. He hopes to find a wife in Michigan, too.

"I would like to have 50 gas stations," he said. "The sky's the limit, if I can make it."


A puppy gets a home

"It's going to get really loud in here," says Cheryl Dickey, an animal care assistant at Hillsborough County's animal shelter.

A cage opens. On cue, a cacophony of barks and howls instantly reaches manic pitch. Dogs jump up and down for a peek over concrete walls separating the kennels.

Over here! Over here!

"They're jealous," Dickey says. "It's almost like they're protesting: "Why can't it be me?' "

The nameless lab-shepherd mix, all of 5{ months old, must be coaxed from her cage to meet her prospective owners. She is led to a courtyard, where she runs on coltish legs.

Then she quickly seals the deal by nuzzling her muzzle into Darin Bush's chest and giving him The Gaze.

The last time they adopted a dog, Bush and Daniel Law looked for six months before picking a lab and pit bull mix they named Eli. This time, it took all of a day.

"It's like when you meet a person," Bush says. "It's a look-in-the-eye thing. You know."

Bush and Law are pound people when it comes to picking dogs. There's a reason.

"They seem to know what situation they're in," Bush says. "And they seem to appreciate it."

First, some paperwork. The nameless dog waits back in her cage for the verdict.

Then she's sprung.

Alex Lopez, one of the customer service reps at the shelter, smiles.

"You're going home, puppy," he says.


A newcomer feels safe

Salih Adam Ahmed Fator, from Sudan, has known the brutality of a regime that demanded he fight against men he didn't hate. He has known the outrage of a government that burned down his farmhouse.

And he has known the unhealable sadness of discovering his father dead after another raid in a country riven by civil war for 20 years.

But as Fator and his wife, Fatima Abdelrahman A. Ali, and their five young children settle into life in suburban America, they are coming to know something new.

Independence to Fator has nothing to do with apple pie and fireworks. It has everything to do with not being harassed, not being frightened, not being watched.

"We don't have any freedom for the citizens of my country," said Fator, 41, speaking through an interpreter from the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay Area, which is assisting the family.

With a home provided by St. Mark's Episcopal Church, his sponsors, in a neighborhood off Gunn Highway in northwest Hillsborough, Fator can ride his bike wherever he pleases. No one bothers him. That he finds remarkable.

"As a Sudanese citizen, I couldn't feel safe in my house. Over here _ I've only been here a month _ I feel more safe," he said.

For the first time, his children are receiving formal instruction. They already know the alphabet and the words for lamp, floor and light switch.

Factor joins them for their daily lesson, trying to learn words that trip on his tongue.

He is happy he is here.

"I felt free from the day I arrived at the airport," Fator said, gazing out the window.


A convict savors freedom

John Wayne Sanpardo knows freedom. He just finished four months of house arrest.

The 45-year-old Gibsonton man was serving time for obstructing a law enforcement officer without violence and violating probation on a worthless check conviction. (He insists a relative wrote the bad checks.)

But on Tuesday, jail officials told him he could remove the ankle device that had tracked his every move. He could venture more than 500 feet from his home. He could, finally, go outside after 6 p.m.

"It felt like 200 pounds being lifted off your back," Sanpardo said. "It was a natural high."

On Tuesday, just because he no longer had to stay in Hillsborough County, he drove to Pasco. That evening, he took a long walk through his neighborhood.

"It felt good to feel the night air on your skin for a change," he said. Wednesday, he headed to Pinellas County, just because he could.

Sanpardo plans to spend his holiday weekend at the beach off Gandy Boulevard. He'll pack a cooler of Mountain Dew and Pepsi, crank up his Coleman grill and cook hot dogs and hamburgers.

"I'm going to jump in that water I haven't seen in a while, get some salt water under my skin," he said. "It's like being reborn."


A dreamer plays the lottery

Jason Racoma dreams of magnificent sunsets slowly sinking into the waters off Hawaii's white beaches, his 2-year-old daughter, Breonna, by his side.

His parents and siblings are lounging around lazily, not a care in the world.

Oh, the freedom the lottery could buy.

Racoma, 26, bought three lottery tickets Wednesday at the Hess station on Fletcher Avenue in north Tampa. Burning in his wallet were the three pieces of paper with randomly selected numbers that just might buy his freedom from bills, from unemployment, from worries.

Racoma, a nurse, hasn't found a job since moving to Tampa from Hawaii a month ago. He's here fighting for custody of his daughter.

"Me and my daughter, we'd move back to Hawaii and watch the sunsets go down," he said. "Me and my family, we'd be just chilling forever."


HE CAN DO IT: Five-year-old Rious Fortier reaches for the hands of his swimming instructor after taking his first plunge into the Deep Pool at the Davis Islands public pool on Wednesday. "I liked it," Rious said afterward. "I'm not going to swim in the deep pool, but I'll jump in again."

LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT: Darin Bush hugs his newly adopted puppy in the parking lot of Hillsborough County Animal Services. Why did he want this dog? "It's like when you meet a person," Bush said. "It's a look-in-the-eye thing. You know."

A SAFER PLACE TO CALL HOME: Rashid Fator, 6, laughs while singing a song during an English class at his family's home in northwest Hillsborough County on Thursday. The Fator family fled the violence in Sudan to begin a new life in the United States. At left, Salih Adam Ahmed Fator, Rashid's father, writes an English lesson. He said, "As a Sudanese citizen, I couldn't feel safe in my house. Over here _ I've only been here a month _ I feel more safe."