Happy Birthday, USA!
My wife and I came to America in June 1977 and landed in New York City. We were in our late twenties. On July 4th of that year, our friend Istrate invited us to a very special celebration.
Like us, Istrate was from Romania, and he and his family had left the country when he was in fifth grade. They went first to Italy and several years later they came to the US and settled in New York. So Istrate arrived here while still a teenager and experienced his formative years in the US. In Bucharest he had been a classmate and good friend of my wife’s and after he left, surprisingly, they became enduring pen pals. He was a very accomplished and multitalented man. He had attained a Master’s Degree in Electrical Engineering, was working for Sperry and was pursuing a Master’s in Business Administration at night. He later went on to become a patent attorney and open his own business. Istrate was fluent in Romanian, Italian, German and English. He was an inventor. In high school he had built an electric car, won the first prize for technical ingenuity and had driven it all the way to California. He owned a Fiat and knew the Big Apple like the back of his hand — he had worked as a cab driver to put himself through college. He lived in Queens, and, in his small summer cottage on a lake on Long Island, he had a computer he had assembled himself. Tall, lanky and blond, he spoke very fast and was always ready to engage in a heated argument on any topic. His girlfriend was as tall as he was and spoke as fast. They had met through a dating service, which was a novelty in those times. To me, he was the quintessential New Yorker, resourceful, efficient, and as American as apple pie.
Oh, yes, I forgot to mention that he was also a pilot and had access to a small prop plane through a flying club. On that 4th of July, he told us to pack a light bag and take the earliest morning train to his place on Long Island. We complied. We boarded his plane, flew east for a little over an hour, landed on an airstrip on Block Island and spent the day with him and his girlfriend on a beach on the Atlantic. It’s hard for me to describe what I felt then — the plane roaring and shaking high in the wind, the ocean and the highway seen from above, the monotonous thud of the surf and the warm sand. There was a small marina and a restaurant near the airfield, and I remember looking in through the restaurant’s windows and admiring the cut crystal glasses glinting on tables covered in white Damask cloth. We returned to his cottage before sunset and watched the fireworks over the sound. That’s America, I said to myself on that first 4th of July.
Later, we caught the night train and arrived in Manhattan a little after eleven. It was nice outside and we walked from the train station to our place on East 36thStreet. When we reached the small park behind New York City Library, we saw two policemen on horseback chasing two African American teenagers on the other side of the street. Fearful, my wife squeezed my hand. That was America, too.
Since then we have attended many 4th of July celebrations. In our town, Columbia, MD, fireworks light up the sky each year above lake Kittamaqundi. Lush greenery surrounds the lake. When our children were little, we went there early, spread a blanket on the grass as close to the water as we could get and, surrounded by throngs of families with children, we waited for the fireworks to start. One time we chose a place on the opposite side of the lake across the highway, on a grassy hill at the base of an apartment complex and watched the display from there. It was less crowded, and we had an easier time supervising our children. We were sitting together with another Romanian couple and my friend’s mother who was visiting from Romania. We had snacks and beers and talked about this and that and the mother, who didn’t speak English and was here for the first time in her life, started complaining about America. The tomatoes didn’t taste as good as in Romania, the streets looked strange and bare without pedestrians, there was no public transportation to speak of, the commercials on TV got on her nerves and, while everything was available in stores, it was so awfully expensive. That’s her defense mechanism, I thought. Sour grapes. But my son, a five year old with unruly brown hair covering his perspired forehead, had heard her. “If you don’t like it here, just go back,” he cut her off with no chance for rebuttal. “My little son, the patriot,” I said with pride and the moment got seared in my memory. Later in life I heard that same statement made so many times by certain adults in response to anybody criticizing this country, and I corrected my stand. Just because you say that something is wrong, does not mean you don’t love this country.
Once my wife started her own business and rented offices on the top floor of a building overlooking lake Kittamaqundi, we went there for the July 4thcelebrations, avoiding the crowds and peacefully enjoying our beer and hotdogs on a spacious terrace when the weather was cool, or in the air conditioned rooms with large windows on muggy evenings.
I watched the 4th of July fireworks in San Diego — they have barges in six different locations around the bay for a majestic display of sound and color over the water –, from a plane overflying Denver, Colorado, in Washington DC by the Capitol, and in Duck, North Carolina. We lived in Copenhagen for two years and saw the 4th of July fireworks there as well. The Danes have them every year in a gesture of friendship and admiration for the United States of America.
I am retired now, but when I was working, the 4th of July holiday represented a welcome break in the routine, an opportunity to gather with family and friends, to relax and enjoy. When one day seems like the next, the magic of this summer holiday doesn’t go unnoticed. Even with our children grown and far away, I always reflect upon how lucky we have been to live here, and how wonderful it is to celebrate this country in peace, with the entire nation.
This year I watched Trump on TV with a mixture of skepticism and curiosity. To my surprise, he stayed on script. The air show was impressive and his words, at times soaring, touched my patriotic cord with unexpected resonance. American strength is impressive after all. Even the weather cooperated.
And yet, I have a few simple questions. Allow me a sports analogy. I watch and understand tennis best. Three men currently dominate men’s tennis, like almost never in its history: Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. They come from three different countries, speak different languages and play in styles that are clearly distinctive. Yet they share one common feature. As good as they are, they never boast about their talent and their successes and never put other players down because they aren’t at the same level of achievement. People know who these champions are and what they are able to accomplish. Modesty and humility — those essential qualities that our moms and teachers had taught us in first grade — elevate them above the crowd and make them worthy of our respect.
Everybody knows that militarily America is the strongest country in the world, by far. We have held this position of power for many years and will continue to do so. Since I came to America, we have never had a show of force on the 4thof July. The presidents have never interfered and given speeches. The celebrations have been entirely on us. We don’t need to flaunt our power or threaten anybody. We are not being underestimated and the world hasn’t forgotten who we are and our true capabilities. But it seems that, unlike my sports heroes, we have lost our modesty and humility along with the quiet confidence in the power of our shared values.
The questions beg to be asked. What’s happening? Why?
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