Independence Day brings back memories
by Linn and Ari Armstrong
"We hold these truths to be self-evident..."
We can already smell the gunpowder. Next week is Independence Day, our nation's celebration of the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. No other day in human history surpasses that day to mark such a radical advancement of liberty for the individual.
We were talking about what we wanted to write about for this column, and we started thinking back to our own Fourth of July memories.
Your younger author has seen the fireworks from the Mall in Washington D.C., which is quite a show. (The problem with that town is that politicians burn through your money every other day of the year, too.) Usually the holiday was a time for family; we'd go camping or to the Bookcliffs or to somebody's house for a barbecue and fireworks. Jennifer Armstrong (Ari's wife) is the distant descendent of William Whipple, one of the signers of the Declaration.
Your elder author has one memory that's perhaps more impressive, if bittersweet. It was 1970 in Vietnam. Since that was a year before Ari was even born, the story will be told from Linn's first person perspective.
I was in the Air Force, and we shared a base with the Marines near Da Nang. When I had time, I taught English in the Civic Action Program. That's something that hundreds and hundreds of Americans were involved with. We taught English, built schools, built roads -- all kinds of things to help the Vietnamese.
And sometimes it was pretty high risk. I was about the only person I know that went downtown to Da Nang from the Air Force. Marines could go down there. A lot of people didn't have passes to get to go downtown. It was off limits to many because of the high danger.
One time I was headed downtown in an armed forces military jeep. A jeep blew up in front of me, and another blew up in back of me. Our vehicle was untouched.
Today, nobody talks about the tremendous amount of effort and risk that Americans committed to freely give their time to help Vietnamese children and other people in everyday life. You just don't hear anything about it anywhere in the media (except here, of course).
I still have photographs of some of the children (which Ari has recently seen), including a brother and sister and one of their friends. There were times when one of those three kids would say to me, "You don't come down next week because of the VC."
It was a tough situation there, yet my all-time favorite memory of the Fourth of July is from Vietnam. In the middle of all the combat, Americans just celebrated that holiday, maybe more-so than any other. There was this tremendous patriotic outpouring, just a strong feeling. We weren't supposed to shoot off ammunition unless there was a clear and present threat. But it seemed like on the Fourth of July there were threats all over, because soldiers were shooting up in the air anything and everything they could find that made a bang. Tracers, flares -- the GIs did their utmost to fire off anything they could find to celebrate the Fourth of July. It was all spontaneous; nobody planned it. Stuff was falling all over.
I was back in the states when Da Nang fell. I was really close to some of those Vietnamese students, and I never heard another word from them. I don't know if they survived it, or if they got killed, or what.
Independence Day isn't just about taking a day off, or lighting off fireworks, or eating burgers with the family. It's a celebration of freedom. The rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that we so often take for granted have been but an unrealized dream for countless millions of our fellows. Even in this country, our rights are eroding at a perilous rate, though we remain among the freest peoples of world history.
This Fourth of July, we urge you to set aside part of the day for a reading of the Declaration of Independence. Perhaps family members could read in a circle. Remember, as you read, that there have been times and places where such a reading might have gotten you arrested or shot.
If we don't continually remind ourselves of the unequaled value of liberty for our lives, we may wake up one day to find that our freedoms have been stripped from us. We can think of few better ways to celebrate freedom than to read these sacred words:
"...that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness..."