|The American School in London, St. John's Wood, 1972|
Independence Day was never more meaningful than when I was a mid-teen.
Sounds weird, but true, and requires explanation.
From the age of 15 through 19, I lived in a foreign country where no July 4th celebrations took place.
Worse, that foreign country was Great Britain, for which American Independence was a commiseration, not a celebration. The Brits, having lost their North American territories to colonial revolutionaries, scoffed at such a holiday—while continuing to refer to we Americans as colonials.
Which meant we American teens had to work hard to celebrate US independence, rendering July 4th more essential to us.
Making matters worse, there were no hot dogs in Britain back then. And the only hamburgers available were sad specimens of beef offal and grease from a droll chain called Wimpy.
But it hardly mattered because the Brits had not yet discovered the art of barbecuing.
And no parade, either.
This sad situation only served to make we expats more American.
We were forced to put a large amount of effort into retaining our identity as Americans, to those things that—in our minds— made us feel American.
In those days, that meant loading up on Levi’s blue jeans, Frye harness boots, and CPO jackets during stateside summer vacations, along with an assortment of snacks—Hershey bars, Skippy peanut butter, Oreo cookies, etc.—all unavailable in the UK back then.
Popularity among teens at American schools in London was based on who had the best regular access to such garments and edibles.
Quite literally, we clung to our American-ness. We fought for our American independence against a foreign culture that would otherwise consume us with generic “Bank Holidays.”
The American high school my friends and I attended gave us a sense of identity. But by the time July rolled around it was bolted for the summer and we were on our own, in a star & stripe-less setting.
Ever wonder why three American teens from Bushy High (the U.S. military-brat school in the far-off suburbs of London) called the band they formed America and sang longingly about "the free wind blowing' through your hair" cruising Ventura Highway? Now you know.
In June 1971, reinforcement arrived in the guise of the Hard Rock Café, an American burgerie modeled on the Finger Diner in Memphis, Tennessee (and not, back then, the rock ‘n’ roll-themed emporium it would morph into a decade later).
Finally, we homesick teens could order a real American hamburger and wash it down with a real chocolate milkshake. Even better, for those of us who looked at least 16 years-old, the wash-down could be with the real beer that made Milwaukee famous.
Not surprisingly, such clinginess to everything American bestowed upon us a keen appreciation for our country and its culture, which we recreated for ourselves every chance we got, every way we could.
Such thinking may have even played into my decision to attend university in our nation’s capital. Arriving there in 1975, having just read Gore Vidal’s novel, Washington, D.C., awed me to my core, enamored as I was by politics, intrigue and media.
The monuments. The memorials. The White House.
To me, every day in DC felt like July 4th.
And I guess that’s my point: You don’t have to restrain your patriotic pride to one day of the year; you can celebrate the spirit of what it means to be an American all year round.
Which leads to this question: What does it mean to be a citizen of the United States?
For a start, you have a vote.
Your vote is so precious that political parties and special interest groups (and the intelligence services of hostile foreign countries) spend tens of millions of dollars every election cycle trying to influence it. They try to buy votes, sometimes try to steal them. That’s how valuable your vote is. So, don’t ever take your vote for granted or let it go to waste. Educate yourself on candidates and issues and use your vote on what and who you believe in.
You live in an enduring democracy.
Sure, conflict exists, but with democracy comes adversity, and the adversity we witness (openly, for we welcome freedom of expression) is tempered by a system of checks and balances, advise and consent, to ensure that our high-powered locomotive, always in motion, does not go off the rails.
Ours is the only country in the world where people of multiple races, nationalities, ethnicities and religious or spiritual or agnostic beliefs coexist mostly in peace.
It is a country in which, whatever your economic strata at birth, whatever your origins, through hard work and determination you can make something of yourself.
And if you don’t believe that, witness the millions of people around the globe that aspire to renouncing their unstable and often unsafe homelands so that they may take up residence in the United States, most of them willing to swear an allegiance and become citizens.
Maybe it takes living outside the United States for a while to truly appreciate what we’ve got here, best articulated by Tom Waits in a line from San Diego Serenade: “I never knew my hometown until I stayed away too long.”
This union of ours is not perfect. But, as conceived by a group of illustrious forefathers blessed with idealism, intelligence and foresight, it represents one of the fairest, most decent forms of government ever created.