When I was kid growing up on Nantucket Island the Fourth of July was usually boiled down to a few things. A portion of the day was spent on the beach. I don't remember too many cookouts but that doesn't me they didn't happen. Then when it got dark there would have been a trip to Step beach. Step beach for those who haven't been to Nantucket, is so named for the several flights of wooden steps that lead from the bluff overlooking the ocean down to the eponymous beach. A beach so nice that it forever ruined other beaches for me.
There was a rotary, actually a large, amoeba shaped, grassy field encircled by a fence and Lincoln Ave. Many a real estate developer has lost sleep thinking of the amount of units they could build in it. The dirt and sand path leading from Lincoln Avenue to the beach was flanked by a riot of beach plums and Honey Suckle was the perfect place to watch the fireworks. The fireworks were usually set off on Jetties beach and seemed to burst and bloom over the heads of the spectators at the top of the steps. If you were lucky and got there early you could watch them from the top of the steps. It was always an awesome sight.
Twenty years ago I went on my first deployment. I was an Army Reservist, a 1st Lieutenant, who was sure as 90's wore on that I was destined to eek a my time in uniform one weekend a month and two weeks a year. Then I transferred into Civil Affairs and months later was in Kosovo as a NATO peacekeeper.
Twenty years ago I was sitting on the deck of SEAHut (Hut, South East Asia), the Army's version of the cabins at a summer camp. The SEAHuts had a covered veranda that ran all the way around which offered shade and protection from the spring rain. This particular SEAHut was the one that housed the interpreters quarters. I was sitting next to a Vicky, who worked with my team and I had a crush on. She liked me but not enough to endanger her job. Being an interpreter paid her more than she could ever make working in Macedonia. It was not uncommon to find doctors, lawyers and engineers translating for the U.S.
We were sitting looking out over a wide open stretch of plowed over field on the little former Yugoslavian Army Base that NATO had taken over. The Army was going to put on a fireworks show. We sat shoulder to shoulder and almost touching but not quite. As I remember it there was a faint smell of flowers from her shampoo mixed with cigarette smoke. The show had been advertised all over the camp. It started, red and green fireworks bloomed. Pops, hisses and a few more of a variety of colors. Then ninety seconds later it was over.
"That's it? What was the point?" Vicky, who was jaded as only those who were born into communism and came to adulthood in the post communist era in Eastern Europe could be.
"It is for the soldiers who miss home. Miss America." It wasn't that my argument lacked conviction, it was that they lacked context. Being born into the Yugoslavia that had an uneasy relationship to the Soviet Union she had to live with State Sponsored patriotism. Songs and marches, military parades and young pioneers. Then after the Soviet collapsed there were years of struggling and then more struggling as Yugoslavia disintegrated into a brutal ethnic war. Vicky was married to a Macedonian cop, they had two children and she would earn in a month what he could make all year. For her things like sexual harassment were a common occurrence to be dealt with. Female interpreters were easy fodder for soldiers or managers looking to trade sexual favors for better assignments. Interpreting for a Civil Affairs team was a lot better duty than being stuck at a check point with the Infantry or being fired. I was at twenty-seven very naive and she was at twenty-five had seen a lot.
There have been other Independence Days celebrated overseas in the service of my country. In 2003 it was pretty notable because instead of partying with another team in Dohuk, my team had to drive to our safe house, collect up our Operating Funds (OPFunds), the money the Army gave us so that we could operate on the local economy. And drive to Erbil to clear our funds. Someone had screwed up and this had to be done on the Fourth. No debate, no apologies, just go do it. We were so disgusted that we chose to drive back that night rather than stay and enjoy the barbecue that our Battalion Headquarters hosting. This meant driving at night, in Iraq and through the city of Mosul. We were so pissed of we would rather endanger ourselves than to stay. Fortunately there were no fireworks that night.
We made it back to the team house very late. Our neighborhood was silent. We disturbed only the local Kurdish Asayesh (Kurdish security forces) who were charged with keeping an eye on us. There might also have been a NATO ally keeping tabs on us too. We climbed into our racks and slept and got up the next day and it was business as usual. We got up and did our jobs and that was that.
Now almost twenty years later we are in the midst of trying times. America is grappling with a pandemic. We are grappling with societal unrest and upheaval the likes of which we haven't seen since 1968. We are having to confront the fact that there are still huge social inequities and much work still to be done. Everyone seems backed into their political corner.
I look to history as my guide. Our short history, this brief experiment known as American democracy has faced in 244 years numerous and significant challenges. We have overcome much just in the last century, the Depression, Prohibition (barbaric!), the Dust bowl, War, Jim Crow, social upheaval. Much of which was while being directly or indirectly threatened by Totalitarian enemies, the Nazi's, Soviet Communism. We overcame these challenges and threats by coming together as neighbors or as strangers with common beliefs. Division is as big a threat to us as we faced before.
While Vicky may have thought the fireworks were a waste of time, I didn't. I didn't do a good job of explaining to her that it wasn't just about homesickness. It is also about being reminded that we fought for our democracy once. That while we are a flawed nation we offered the promise, the hope that we can lead a good life. It is a promise for everyone and it is worth fighting for. Worth working for.
Now I am going to go grab a beer and some grilled meat with some socially distant friends. The red and blue will talk, mostly not about politics and have a good time. I hope you get to do the same.
The date stamp on the camera is off. This picture was taken July 4, 2003 at "The Pink Barbie House" in Dohuk. A short time later we were summoned to Erbil to turn in our OPFUNDs.