July Fourth is one of two holidays that are dear to my heart (can you guess what the other one is?). Our country’s independence is more than just fond childhood memories of BBQs and small town parades. It is the time when I take a moment to reflect how lucky I am to live in a place where I’m free to live as an individual. Not to say I don’t shake my head in befuddlement on occasion, but hey, who said life was perfect.
People ask what my fondest Fourth of July memory is. Was it a particular family event, fireworks on a small New Hampshire lakeshore, or my girls running around in the dark with sparklers when they were young?
Fresh out of college, when adulthood broadsided me, a biology degree didn’t offer much in the way of gainful employment at the time, so I chose a path less traveled and joined the Peace Corps. It promised adventure and a chance to do something special in a third world country. Being the impressionable young man with noble dreams and zero sense of reality, off I went to the Philippines as a Fisheries Biologist for a two-year, non-stop assignment without home leave. I left just after July 4, and returned two years later in mid July.
Oh, the places you’ll go, claims the time honored Dr. Seuss story. I had a new passport, and a portfolio of cluelessness. On our chartered flight to Manila, we all favored sitting on our right butt cheek from multiple inoculations for various tropical diseases. First six weeks in country went by in a flash with orientation, language lessons, and a few tips from departing volunteers. They handed me a plane ticket to an island centered in the archipelago, where I was to board a train to a tiny port town in one those open air cars with wooden seats you see in National Geographic photos. Reality hit about the time when passengers aboard the train all crowded into my car to stare at the “cano” – the entire seven-hour journey.
Nothing prepared me for an assault to the senses. Damn near about-faced and came home with tail between my legs. Made my first vow as an adult to stick it out, no matter what. With the help of an amazing family who practically adopted me, I learned to make some major adjustments. First was to embrace locality. Forget about what normal used to be. Don’t judge because they do things differently. Found a used off-road motorcycle to get around with, but some places just didn’t have roads.
What impressed me most was how quickly they accepted me. They’d been doing fish farming for centuries, yet listened with open minds to suggestions from a college kid who read about some things that might improve yields. Think I learned more than they did, especially the art of eating with your fingers.
A moment forever etched in memory, was a time when I gathered in a jungle area with local villagers and a couple fellow volunteers who rode in for a week. It was July Fourth, a roaring campfire, plenty of San Miguel beer and cheerful camaraderie. Pilipinos love music. Someone always had a guitar. They offered ancestral stories, patriotic tunes and love songs (their favorite). Just for grins, we canos broke into the Star-Spangled Banner to celebrate our national holiday. We stumbled on a couple verses (give me a break – we were alcoholically compromised). The guitar player picked up the tune and helped us sing it correctly. Pilipinos in general had a deep appreciation for America in those days, fostered by our alliance during World War II, and the thousands of Pilipinos working in the US, many of whom became American citizens. But here we were, about as remote as one can get, and a local villager not only knew our national anthem, they knew it better than we did.
I returned home after two-years, irrevocably changed. Yeah, that’s me the day I got back to the family homestead. I weighed all of 150 lbs. Wouldn’t I love to have that girth back. Isn’t a day go by I don’t think about my service in the Peace Corps. The experience instilled a simmering desire to know more of diverse cultures whose way of life may teach something more about mine. In later years, I had the fortunate luck to live in Asia for ten years as a professional businessman.
I firmly believe we can’t truly appreciate what we have in America, until you “walk a mile in their sandals.” If it were up to me, every American coming of age should have a choice of two-years of compulsory service. Serve in any one of several military branches at home or abroad, participate full time with agencies assisting disadvantaged Americans or citizen candidates who need mentoring, or live in a third world country where we can help others less fortunate than us. I guarantee you’ll walk away with a profound sense of respect and gratitude for the life we have in America.
No matter where you live, we humans all have the same dream. To live in peace, be a part of a productive society without fear, to be included without prejudice, to be spiritual without reprisal. Many thousands of years into the human experience, too many places in the world have yet to get there, or have had it taken away.
So when you light up that grill, put on the star-spangled shirt you wear every year, and toast the good life this country has given us, keep in mind that we are a nation of diverse migrants, most of who fled persecution or poverty. Ask any common man outside our borders. They wish for a similar existence that fits their unique culture.
God Bless America, and all the people of the world who wish for the same dream.