In 1968 I was sitting in the bleachers at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, watching what was to be the biggest and best fireworks display ever. In other words, the military had a chance to shoot off some huge rockets and make lots of noise to celebrate the day off. There was to be the launch of the mightiest rocket ever. The stands were full. I was 19 years old, homesick, pregnant and the last thing I wanted was to be there on a hot day waiting to watch the proverbial ‘rocket’s red glare’.
Next to me was a much older woman. Each time there was a boom, she would jump and tremble. Occasionally she would grab my arm. If there was anything I noticed was that she wasn’t enjoying the day. After one particularly noisy display of sirens, drums, and guns going off, I looked over and she was silently crying. I asked her if she was okay and she told me this.
She was from Germany, married to an American serviceman. She and her family had lived through The War in Europe. She had migrated to America with her new found husband at the age of twenty. She had applied for and received her citizenship. Each year she honored this country by attending the nearest celebration. But for her the celebration was bitter sweet. She told me that when she was growing up, the sound of sirens and guns meant that someone was going to be taken away. It meant that your home may be destroyed. It meant you lost your parents to evil of the highest nature. You couldn’t stand for anything because no matter what you stood for it was against someone else’s principles who had more power than you. There was only survival.
I asked her why did she put herself through this each year; the flashback of the worst of times than most of us can imagine. She said she owed a duty to this country to repay it once a year for the one thing it gave her above all. I asked her if she meant freedom and she said no. The one thing she loved about this grand country of ours was the feeling of being safe. She wasn’t taking about physical safety but about mentally feeling safe.
We Americans are safe because for right or wrong we have built a system of laws, a system of government, and a system of beliefs, that allows us to go to bed at night knowing we can still try to make this place better. We are safe because others are willing to lay down their lives for us at all costs to protect the right to freedom for all. It can take us a week, a decade or a generation but sooner or later it seems we get it right about human equality and human freedom. We are safe in knowing that.
I owe this woman a debt of gratitude. As a young 19 year old military wife I simply needed a lesson that the world is not as I see it but as it really is. At a different time and a different place, a young woman at the same age I was then had to run, hide and pray that she would survive one more day.
We held hands that hot day in Oklahoma and as we say one patriotic song after another, I felt this burst of pride that I was an American through and through. Each year on this glorious birthday of ours, I set back and think about her. She gave me a gift far too precious. She gave me the gift of understanding what it really means to be an American.