You know that elementary school joke: “Is there a Fourth of July in England?” Of course there is! It’s just that it’s not Independence Day for them there the way it is for us in the US of A.
I’ve spent holidays in some unique places. Thanksgiving in Tunisia (let’s just say there was no turkey for dinner), several Christmases in West Berlin, Easter in Paris, and The Fourth of July in Thailand.
Spending your country’s independence day in a different country is bizarre. You feel patriotic and guilty, both at the same time. Kind of like when I traveled to the USSR in high school and all I wanted to do was chew gum…and I hate gum. It was this tenuous connection to the USA – something that made me feel American…as if I needed reminding when all around me was the Cyrillic alphabet, furry hats, and borscht.
When the Fourth of July rolled around in Bangkok the summer of 1989, all of the American ex-patriots were invited to the American Embassy’s front lawn for a down-home American picnic, complete with hamburgers, hotdogs, corn on the cob, and ice cream. There were games, too: three-legged races and tug-of-war. And, at the end of the day, fireworks.
Let’s just say that the American embassy in Thailand doesn’t have a very big fireworks budget.
But, that being said, that afternoon and evening stand out in my mind as one of the most memorable Independence Day celebrations I’ve ever had. Being away from home made home all that much more special.
But I think the best Fourth of Julys were spent on Orcas Island, growing up. Their budget – supplemented by tin donation cans at every island store all summer long – was a million times larger than the Thai embassy’s. Orcas Island had – and still has – the best fireworks I’ve ever seen.
When the sun goes down, round about 10:00 at that latitude, the people of the island – along with a gazillion tourists – line Eastsound Bay and wait patiently for the show to start. Out on tiny Indian Island (only slightly less unpolitically correct than its former name, “Jap Island”) – with fireboats floating at the ready – the pyrotechnics are about to begin.
Now, Orcas Island is an upside-down horse-shoe shape, and Eastsound Bay is at the top of the inner part of the “U”. All around the bay, then, is island and hills – big hills – hills which would be called mountains around here in Minnesota.
Indian Island is an itsy-bitsy island just at the head of the bay, which can be reached at low-tide if you’re booted up and keep a wary eye on the rising tide so that you don’t get stranded. It’s the perfect spot for fireworks, as any accidental fire is contained on the island, and you have this amphitheater surrounding it with space for hundreds of viewers, both on land and by sea.
So, picture this: you’ve shimmied across a narrow rock path to get to your favorite place on the beach. In the dark, no less. And now you’re sitting on a promontory, hearing the local YMCA campers singing campfire songs at the top of their lungs (the sound traveling across the water), hearing waves lapping a few feet away, and watching the star-strewn sky for the explosion of fireworks.
There are probably 25 boats out on the bay, sitting quietly at anchor. Occasionally the sound of laughter or popping of champagne corks comes faintly toward you, but nothing too obnoxious.
Then comes the first burst of color, the BOOM of powder, and the echo of it all ricocheting off the mountains.
Explosion after explosion, reflected on the water, in our eyes, in our hearts.
Now THAT, my friends, is how to spend the Fourth of July.
Happy Birthday, America.