Posted by: Ruslan Furtas, 2011 Muskie Program Alumnus (Edmund S. Muskie Graduate Fellowship Program)
Coming from a country with a Soviet history, I grew up with national holidays being marked by soldiers marching, tanks rolling, and military muscles flexing. During these parades, the celebrations seemed more like choreography and even the sports clubs’ performances felt forced. It seemed to me that some of these organizations existed only to participate in such events. The holiday seemed to be made by state officials for higher state officials.
I observed similar parades in the United States as well, but I was surprised to discover one difference – the holiday is celebrated by the people, not just the state. This particular Independence Day began as an all day party at a beach in San Diego and included grilling on an industrial scale followed by burger consuming on similar par while storytelling and arguing whose role was more important in winning World War II and who played the key role in the Soviet Union’s collapse, all which culminated in fireworks – the good kind. With the first whistling light, rocketing into the night sky, everyone on the beach stood up, every boat in the harbor and every car on the roads stopped to watch the scene. As the multitude of independence displays broke out along the beach and in the neighborhoods throughout the city, framed by the city’s own spectacular backdrop, I could hear the spontaneous hooting, clapping, and chanting and even found myself donning the nearest cowboy hat and joining the crowd in hollering, “America! Hell yeah!” Sadly, I was so excited that I dropped probably the best burger I ever had in my life.
My group on the beach actually included more foreigners than natives, but that night everyone was proud to be an American. Because you can read, you can study, you can take polls and surveys, but an opportunity like the Fourth is a chance to feel on many levels that America is first and foremost an idea, a way of life, and an unusual perspective on the world that has made our planet a better place.
That day in San Diego was the first time I realized that in a country with more minorities than most could even imagine, it is possible for millions to be united by an idea that isn’t about one race or one religion or even one language, but about celebrating the freedom to be different, yet also reveling in the choice to come together.
I had never seen something before like that in my life. But in a lot of ways the 4th of July was merely a more extravagant way of expressing the day-to-day attitudes I saw displayed the next day at the airport. While waiting in line, I saw an elderly man come over to a young soldier and shake his hand, and with his hand on his shoulder he simply said, “Thank you for your service, son.” The sincere exchange made me realize that a country’s greatness cannot simply be measured by military muscle, but must be appreciated by the respect freely given from the people to institutions like the military.
I guess to sum it all up, there is a difference between drinking to forget a past that dictates a bleak future, and drinking to celebrate a future made possible by the past.