We celebrated the Fourth of July at patrol base Dragon. That night
is one that will forever remain in my memory. Holidays were perhaps the hardest
times in Vietnam. A deeper loneliness crept in because holidays are a special time
back home. A time for traditions. A time for families and friends to do things
together. But in Vietnam we were a world apart from our loved ones. We were in
the midst of bloodshed and war, they in peace and prosperity. We were facing death
by the hour and by the day. They were celebrating life and liberty won hundreds of
years before. They fired pinwheels, candles and glorious bursts of every hue - we
were making just as much noise but we were shooting the real thing.
I have always believed in America, and loved the land where I was fortunate enough to
be born. Like other schoolchildren I learned how our forefathers undertook hardship
and struggled to build a life different from that so common elsewhere. The Fourth of
July was always a special day for me. I remember childhood fireworks displays at my
grandparent's home in Rock Island, Illinois. As evening approached we'd run around
the big yard with sparklers in each hand, pretending to be the Statue of Liberty with
torches blazing. After dark we watched pinwheels nailed to the big oak tree beside
the house, and Roman candles shooting their balls of fire into the night sky. It was
an exhilarating time.
Then I remembered my first big fireworks show! We went to a football stadium and
watched giant aerial fireworks light the sky, while repeated booms echoed from the walls.
There were twin battleships outlined in burning lights, firing rockets at each
other on wires strung between them. A long volley of air bursts signaled the finale,
with an American flag sparkling at the end of the field.
As a college student in Laramie, Wyoming, the thrill was still there. The
festivities started before dawn. Fireworks crackled all day long from the
Mexican-American part of town. In the evening, hundreds would gather for the
fireworks show on the sagebrush hillside north of the city. Families sat in front of
their cars and pickups, while the children lit strings of firecrackers, smoke bombs,
miniature Roman candles and bottle rockets. The excitement mounted as the sky
darkened. From the streets below, the lights of last minute arrivals picked their
way to the parking area. At five minute intervals a single "Boom!" echoed
across the valley, warning late-comers to hurry. Finally it was time.
For the next forty-five minutes we sat transfixed as one aerial display after another
rose to the night sky and showered back to earth. And the final crescendo was always
the best one ever. One on top of the other they exploded in rapid succession, with a
final "Boom" to end the spectacle. Going home was always a letdown.
You hated for it to end.
Such was the world I had left behind. In Vietnam there was little time for
thinking of that other life. Our days were filled with work and activity. The
life we now lived became an accepted fact. Letters from home were just a part of
that other world, the one that we could not be a part of for the present. Holidays
brought a remembrance of what we had been, and would be again. And with them came a
bit of the excitement of years past.
I don't remember exactly what happened during the day of that particular 4th. We
probably spent it on patrol. We returned about five for dinner, and spent the last
hour of daylight writing to our loved ones. About seven o'clock the light faded and
night descended. From somewhere out of the past came a feeling of anticipation.
Nothing was spoken, but it was there, nonetheless.
It started about nine o'clock. On the eastern horizon multicolored lights
appeared - first a few, and then dozens and finally hundreds. There were parachute
flares and hand-launched signal flares. White, green, red and gold, mixing together
in a rainbow of colors. Some burst high in a flash of light, and then slowly drifted
to earth. Others raced aloft in a blazing streak, and arched back down, burning out
as they neared the ground.
As if on signal, more lights appeared about twenty degrees to the north, from a fire
base further away - another burst of lights and colors. Then came another, and
another. In every direction, near and far, the patches of light appeared and changed
as wave after wave of flares lit the heavens. Here and there delicate streams of
light rose into the sky as machine gunners fired belts of tracer rounds into the night.
And then we joined in too, swept away in a rush of excitement to be one with those
around us, and to declare that we were a part of something bigger, something we had put
aside for a time. Bunker after bunker fired their signal flares. The
"Whoosh" of rockets climbing into the sky grew to a symphony, and the
"Pop!" of igniting flares echoed from above. The fields around us grew
light as day as hundreds of flares filled the air. The rapid chatter of M-16 fire joined in, followed by M-60's and
the .50 caliber machine gun. Tracer rounds streaked away, climbing in beautiful
ribbons and crisscrossing one another as they went in every direction.
Then the cheering began. Around the perimeter men were shouting at the top of
their lungs. It was a time of celebration and happiness, and a time of sadness and
heartache. How I wanted to be home again. To be free of the dirt and fatigue,
the patrols and the night ambushes - to be safe and secure again. After all, that's
what we were celebrating. That was the world we had come from. It was the one
we believed in. That's what America was all about.
After a few minutes the cheering faded away. We kept on firing flares until we
ran out. The lights on the horizon around us kept flickering away for more than an
hour. But by then we were quiet - no one felt much like talking. When dawn
finally lifted on another day in Vietnam, we had returned to our roles as soldiers,
plodding through the routine of yet another day of patrols. And Charlie? He
probably thought we were crazy. If the enemy had planned any activity that night, it
must certainly have been called off when the celebration began. After all, there
were a lot of stray bullets flying around out there!