It was July 1976. I had been on a student exchange with AFS (American Field Service) in Breckenridge, Minnesota for almost exactly one year. All across the United States people in large cities, in towns, and small rural communities were celebrating the American bi-centenary. And it was no different in Breckenridge. They dressed in period costume. They sang, they danced, and dignitaries made speeches.
Back in January that year, when the blizzards struck with a wind as noisy as the Pacific Ocean, and a cold that could and did kill the unwary, it seemed as if summer would never return. And now here it was, mid-summer already and the Fourth of July. It was hot, prairie hot. If you’ve been on the prairie in mid-summer, you’ll know what I mean. There’s no relief from the summer sun. Even the breeze seemed to sizzle.
But no-one wilted, or so it seemed to me that day. I wandered through the crowds, many of whom I knew. I tried to soak it all in, to make memories that I suspected might have to last a life time.
And I felt weirdly out of step. The celebrations weren’t mine. Oh, I could join in, appreciate the sincerity of the sentiments, the scale of the human effort, the sheer bloody mindedness, often, and the hope that had lead to what was now the United States of America. I knew there was a darker side to the story, by then I had read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, but it wasn’t the day to be dwelling on that.
It was other more personal matters that cast me once again as an outsider. The next day was my departure day. I had to begin the long journey home.
My host mother, who at that point in time hadn’t seen the ocean, did what she could to help. And what better than to send me on my way with an American Quilt. A Bicentennial American Quilt. She invited friends and neighbours to help with the tying.
I left the day after Independence Day.
Just after these photos were taken my brave face crumpled and the tears started. They took a long time to stop. It was thirty years before I saw my host family again. By then my host father was gone.
I didn’t go straight home. AFS took us on another bus trip. This time we stopped often, we met other families, AFSers, and we saw more of the country.
In Washington DC I visited the Smithsonian where I saw an actual spaceship suspended in the air! Remember it was only seven years since the first lunar landing.
At the Lincoln memorial I got goosebumps looking up at that giant statue of the great man.
I visited Capitol Hill where I stared and stared at the Magna Carta. The document, an agreement between King John of England and his very unhappy barons, records the first steps towards modern democracy. It was on temporary loan to the US Government from Queen Elizabeth II to mark the bicentenary. It was, and still is the oldest document I’ve seen.
And then, there was this:
This I will never forget. Every AFSer that year, gathered on the lawn of the White House. President Ford addressed us. He charged us to build on our experiences. He told us we, and organisations like AFS, represented the hope for the future.
Later, I was checking my luggage at the airport. I was wearing my yellow pant suit, you might remember the one. To me, it represents irrevocable change. And, I was looking forward to home. The girl next to me in the queue, short like me, an AFS student like me, but for her English was a second language, was crying. I tried to cheer her up, remarking that soon we would both be home.
In a few short sentences she told me that home for her, was not like home for me. There was trouble in her country. The government had been overthrown. Her family were not doing well under the new regime. There was a lot of anti – American sentiment, now. And no democracy. For her, there would be none of those basic human rights which the Magna Carta spoke of, that the bi-centenary celebrated, that I took for granted.
She was worried her return would make things more difficult for her family. She was scared. I said we could always write.
She said that wouldn’t be possible.
I’ve never heard from her.