Friday, July 4, 2008

My Most Memorable July 4th

This morning as I sat outside drinking my morning coffee and appreciating the silence, I was so grateful for my life. I love it when there's a legal holiday because the sound of commuting traffic echoing in the narrow canyon where I live is absent.

I am grateful for my home, my garden, my current life. I know I am lucky compared to other people. I have seen some of those other people, both here and in other countries.

I began thinking of past July 4ths and the one that stood out was 1976. At the beginning of the year, I was in Africa in the Peace Corps. I regretted not being home for the Bicentennial, but my contract was not yet completed and there was no way I could leave for a vacation at that time of the year.

One thing led to another and I got so ill I had to be "med-evaced" out of the country and ended up in George Washington University Hospital in D.C. having surgery. The night of the July 4th celebration, a group of hospital staff and I watched the Bicentennial Celebration out of the window of my hospital room bathroom. I sat on the toilet seat, the best and only seat in the house, and marveled at how Fate had brought me home for this memorable event.

That night I was proud to be an American. I was glad to be alive (since I had gotten so ill in Africa I didn't know if I would live). And I was relieved to have been able to leave to get the medical attention I needed (which didn't exist where I was). It had taken days to get out of the country, because they would sell tickets but not make reservations. Each day it was first come, first served. People just lined up and pushed and shoved until they got on. Each day, accompanied by someone from the American Embassy, I would go to the airport, wait, and not get on. It was getting drastic as my medical condition worsened.

Finally my chance came. They thoroughly searched my belongings and when they found a coin that I had kept for a souvenir, they accused my of taking their currency out of the country, which was against the law. Fortunately, the embassy person intervened. The plane was already beginning to taxi along the runway. It stopped as I ran towards it. When I got on that PanAm jet, I cried. I felt like I was already on American soil.

My time in the Peace Corps did more for my patriotism than anything else I have ever done. Even though the country I was in was not so bad off (then), it was still such a drastic change from home. I used to dream of being in Safeway. I'd reach for something and it would vanish before I could touch it. In my PC country, "super-markets" had row after row of empty shelves. Sometimes there would be a whole row of one thing, because they had gotten a shipment. We expatriots stock-piled and hoarded. If something came in, the word got round and everyone would run to the store to get it. We had money, but there was nothing to buy.

We had to go to a nearby country for sugar, coffee, flour, gasoline. I had a friend with a land-rover and we made supply runs every few weeks for ourselves and other people. Nothing illegal, just basic foodstuffs. The locals subsisted on manioc, greens, palm oil and pilchards. But few Europeans or Americans could hack a diet like that on a regular basis.

I think that all young people, when they graduate from high school or reach 18, should spend at least one year in a third-world country, so they can appreciate what we have here. Not just the material wealth, but all of it. I have written before about how my students in Africa were hungry for knowledge. They didn't let "poverty" get in their way. They were enthusiastic about learning. They didn't mind if they had one pair of shoes as long as they could get to class. Many people had no shoes.

What does it take to keep America strong?

For me it takes education, appreciation, understanding, compassion and acceptance of differences. It does not take killing, maiming, torturing, force and fire-power. We will never regain the world's respect the way we are going, nor will we gain its love.

These days when I travel, I find myself in the position of having to explain why America is so evil and corrupt. I feel I have to separate myself from the policies of my government, when I live in a democracy. How can we possibly be an example to the rest of the world - which used to look up to us? People in other countries can't understand why we had a coup d'etat and didn't run into the street to stop it.

Now they are talking about Iran.

What are you doing today? Having a BBQ in the backyard with your family? Enjoy. It might be your last.


Cassy said...

I totally agree with you. I wouldn't mind seeing our youth go abroad (in PC or other volunteer efforts) to see and understand the rest of the world. Only then can we appreciate what we have, and what we could possibly lose.

What a life you've had! :)

Sandee (Comedy +) said...

I'm glad you survived your illness and got back to the U.S. on the 4th of July. What a wonderful post. Have a great day. :)

Liara Covert said...

It is meaningful to focus on those things you can control rather than on those you don't. Anything that evokes negative energy doesn't promote growth and learning. Opportunities to learn remind us everyt experience is a blessing.

Your peace corps story is very uplifting. It reminds people that life is different outside their localities and communities. To find courage to venture outside of what you think you know as "familiar" does leave a lasting impression, providing you don't suppress it and choose to forget. Fewer people leave what they know and choose not to return to where they feel secure and protected. You always have the opportunity to reframe your notion of security wherever you happen to be. Survival is a mindset as much as hope and the desire to learn.

seanymph said...

How ironic to read of you being in DC that day in 1976. So was I :) My ex had a business trip there that week so my son and I went with him. I was there that day and got to see the Bicentennial parade down Constitution Ave. And now your just an hr from me on this coast lol.

Ive often said I think kids today need to so a mission of sorts before they go to college. Most graduate HS and dont have a clue what they want and party too much in school. I went to the local CC here a few yrs back and the attitude of so many kids disturbed me. Here I was at over 50 trying to do what I didnt have the opportunity to do when younger. I worked hard and these kids just partied and blew off finals!

I think perhaps a trip abroad would do them some good and make they see what we do have here in this country. I think it would mature them a bit more before they started college. Too bad its not required.