It was our long-ago Fourth of July tradition to park near the intersection of Millerstown Road and Route 29 to watch the fireworks from Grimes Airport. Whether we viewed the colorful display from inside our car or standing along the road, the thrill remained undiminished as we oohed and aahed at each sparkly design briefly illuminating the evening sky. The farther-away-and-harder-to-see Niagara Falls display always saddened us because it signaled the end to our celebration of America’s birthday.
Occasionally during the German exchange years, my students and I spent July 4th in Springe. It is an odd feeling to know that fellow citizens at home are celebrating a holiday not associated with the history or tradition of the host country. As a college student, I spent one rather lonely Thanksgiving overseas, on just another German day.
Although my friend Ingrid and I started the St. Paris-Springe program in the bicentennial year of 1976, well after the end of the war, student exchanges between Germany and America actually began in the early 1950’s. I have long believed that friendships between people of diverse nationalities and cultures accomplish far more for the cause of international understanding than politics and government positions.
An athletic contest on a German soccer field provided evidence to support my belief. During the early 1980’s it happened that I had enough boys – plus a sufficient number of adventuresome girls – in my group to organize a German-American-soccer-football game. Soccer at that time had not reached its current popularity in American schools, but my kids learned the basics from their exchange partners. It was left to me to explain in German the fundamentals of American football to our hosts.
It was quite the game. The visiting Falcons of both genders put on a good show, although the German athletes frustrated my team by moving the football forward through a series of lateral passes as they ran down the field. I do not remember the final score, but I have never forgotten the symbolism of the event: young Americans and Germans left the field arm in arm amid gales of friendly laughter, in a country where a just few decades earlier their grandfathers had fought dangerous, bloody battles. My students were learning an important lesson: to be a proud American blessed with wonderful German friends.
I often wonder how my father must have felt as he spent every holiday for a couple of years in a Europe torn apart by war – far from his familiar life on the farm with his family. The special days I celebrated abroad were by choice; he spent his holidays away in service to his country.
It was probably inevitable that my father and Ingrid’s father were both World War II veterans, and we were our fathers’ first children, born into the emerging postwar generation. Every year I was warmly welcomed by Ingrid’s family as well as her husband’s parents. And my whole family came to know and love Ingrid and always enjoyed her visits.
I once accompanied Ingrid and her father to a veterans’ get-together. We began our evening with light refreshments on an outdoor plaza. Later we walked through several rooms offering various themed celebrations with dinner and dancing. There was even a midway of sorts with carnival games and booths. It was a unique gathering.
The evening finished dramatically with midnight fireworks. A rhythm in the distance set the cadence for a drum and bugle corps that marched onto the plaza to play “God Save the Queen,” followed by a similar group performing the French “La Marseillaise.” And then the Americans entered the plaza; I cannot accurately describe how I felt when I heard my national anthem as I stood on foreign soil. Knowing that I was probably the only American in attendance, remembering what had been required of my father and Ingrid’s father, feeling grateful that this experience was even possible – the arrival of the German corps, the musical strains of “Deutschland Über Alles,” and the subsequent light show provided an unforgettable ending to a memorable evening.
Whenever my group and I did happen to be in Germany on July 4th, the kids always decided – with no prompting from me – to wear red, white, and blue to school. In the late 1990’s, however, we celebrated our national holiday in a special way.
The Fourth of July that year occurred late in our stay, on the day of the potluck and final program with our host families. The several marching band members in the group formed a mini-version of The Dancin’ Band from Falconland and performed their favorite numbers for our German hosts. At the end of our program I announced that Amanda Evans would sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” in honor of our country’s birthday; the Graham kids all scrambled to their feet and removed their hats, with the Germans following suit. As Amanda sang our national anthem – acapella – in her sweet, clear voice, tears of national pride filled my eyes.
I have only personal conjecture about my father’s feelings as an American citizen in a foreign land during extraordinarily difficult circumstances. I am, however, well aware of my own beliefs. It is with humility and gratitude that I, a free citizen of a free nation, have been able to freely celebrate Independence Day anywhere in the world, carrying my love of country in my heart.