Americans act like kin when abroad

July 03, 2000|By Bill Romanelli

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- If you really want to "get" the Fourth of July, don't spend the next one in the United States.

As Americans, we pretty much take the Fourth of July for granted. It's one of a few well-deserved days off that, once enjoyed, will get rolled up and put back in the rafters along with so many other well-deserved days off that drift through our lives.

Either that, or we feel as if there's not much to be proud of on that day, as we're still haunted by the memories of Columbine and television broadcasts of women vying to marry a multimillionaire they don't even know.

Whatever the reasons, we Americans don't exactly get a big boost of national pride on Independence Day any more. Sure, maybe the obligatory fireworks display will be enough to cause of flicker of "Yankee doodle-ness," but hardly enough to make most of us stand up and salute.

We're rarely in a position to truly appreciate what it is to be an American. For that, everyone ought to spend one Fourth of July in another country.

That's what happened to me in 1984. I was 14 years old and stuck smack in the middle of Cairo. It was no vacation. Dad had taken a job and moved the whole family out there. After six weeks in the country, the fourth day of July found me lonely, restless and extremely homesick.

But on that Fourth of July, my family joined with more than 200 other American families in the middle of a huge Cairo park to share fireworks, eat actual hot dogs and be surprised at just how much we all had in common.

Our various political leanings were put aside as we shared sack races, egg tosses, even square dancing -- classic Americana that I still take for granted even now, but hungered for desperately then.

Complete strangers shared in-depth conversations of a far off place we all called home. People whose U.S. addresses were hundreds of miles apart called each other neighbors. Politics and social problems didn't matter, because as Americans, we believed that if any nation had the power to solve its problems, it was ours.

What mattered instead was that on the far side of the globe there was our country -- a country that more than 200 years ago, people had died to create.

What mattered was that each and every one of us could name something that the United States had made possible for us ... a treasure trove of opportunities, healthy and secure families, a first-rate education that was the envy of the world.

That Fourth of July we weren't just swilling drinks and making noise, we were taking a second to realize how truly fortunate we'd been, and to say thanks.

And as the party wore down, the band fell silent. The murmur of the crowd dropped just a little, and everyone stood waiting. Most of them had done this before, but it was the first time I was ever handed a copy of "The Star Spangled Banner."

The bandleader wrapped a hand around the microphone, and announced that our country's anthem would soon be sung, and would we all please join in.

He started us off, and "by the dawn's early light ..." exploded into life with a thousand voices rising at the same instant. People were holding hands. A few of the older people weren't afraid to get misty eyed.

Some could remember that their first glimpse of Europe had come on June 6, 1944 on a then obscure Normandy beach. Others recalled names like Ho Chi Minh and Saigon. Still others had more mundane reminisces -- a woman called mom, football in the street, muddy footprints on the freshly waxed floor.

The singing wasn't perfect, but what it lacked in unison it made up in spirit. We were 1,000 people, Americans, singing together, taking some time to share a common bond and to remember. So far from home, and yet so close.

I've had some moving experiences since then. But now I'm a little more open to being moved than I was as a cocky high school kid.

That day I became proud to be an American. Not a member of an interest group nor someone with an agenda -- just an American in the best sense of the word.

An individual most certainly, but more, a citizen with a common sense of purpose with other Americans. Those are two things that being an American allows us all to be.

Bill Romanelli is an author and public affairs consultant in Sacramento, Calif.

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