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!


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Celebration!:  Tales Of A War Far Away
Copyright 1995 Kirk S. Ramsey
Last modified: March 02, 1995