My Most Memorable Independence Days

fireworks over a city

Happy Fourth of July!

As we approached celebrating our country’s 241st birthday, I thought about a couple of my memorable Fourths of July. Two things made the two mentioned below memorable: they diverged from the usual picnics and fireworks, and both involve Iran.

July 4, 1976

The first was July 4, 1976, our Bicentennial Independence Day. While Americans in the US experienced months of listening to 76 Trombones as a lead-up to the big day, I was one of 25 American teachers with the University of Southern California among an estimated 25,000 Americans living and working in Iran. The week before July 4, the US Embassy contacted all businesses with American employees to advise that we keep our celebrations low key. While rumors of disgruntled persons planning to do harm to Americans by attacking locations where large numbers gathered had not become common at that point, the embassy advised that we avoid large gatherings to reduce the possibility of such an attack being carried out.

A group of us from USC drove out of the city to a grove of trees beside a creek near Karaj, a village to the northwest of Tehran. We held our low-key picnic there, out of sight from everyone. We weren’t afraid. We were just being cautious.

We talked a lot about the successful raid on Entebbe Airport in Uganda earlier that day. Israeli commandos freed 102 of the 104 Air France passengers and crew who had been held there since June 27 after their flight from Tel Aviv to Paris was hijacked. The success of the rescue contributed to our sense that we in the West were invulnerable.

Three years after the Bicentennial Independence Day, on November 4, 1979, American employees at the US Embassy in Tehran were taken hostage by Iranian students who wanted to overthrow Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the autocratic ruler they blamed the US for putting into power through a coup in 1953 that removed the democratically elected prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh. The recently released Foreign Relations of the United States 1952-1954 papers prove the students were right about the role of the US and the CIA in removing Mossadegh and returning the Shah to power. We learned we are not invulnerable.

Six months after the students kidnapped US diplomats, our attempt to repeat the success of Entebbe failed spectacularly in the deserts of Iran outside Tehran. Instead of bringing home the 52 hostages, the bodies of eight service members who died were left behind. We learned we are not infallible.

July 4, 1988

The second memorable Independence Day came twelve years later, in 1988, the day after the United States Navy guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes shot down Iran Air Flight 655 over Iran’s territorial waters of the Persian Gulf, killing all 290 people aboard. The plane was on a flight from Bandar Abbas in southwestern Iran to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

I was working then at the US Embassy in Doha, Qatar, directly across the Persian Gulf from Iran and to the northwest of the United Arab Emirates. We spent that July 4th on the phone calling all those we had previously invited to celebrate July 4th with the ambassador to tell them we had canceled the event. We were learning to admit when we are responsible.

In spite of the dark lessons of these two unique observations of Independence Day, I returned from the first committed to celebrate the rights and privileges I have as a citizen, having learned how many people in the world do not have that freedom. I became involved in local politics. I caucused in my precinct. I served as a delegate in my district. I attended state conventions as an observer. I attended district meetings between election cycles.

I encouraged my friends to do the same, even friends whose political viewpoints did not match mine. I knew it is important that we all take part in the system we have in order that we not allow someone to take it away.

The only presidential election I missed voting in was in 2000 when I was in Yemen, dealing with the “new normal” of life in Yemen after the USS Cole had been attacked. I didn’t think it mattered if one person missed voting that year. The outcome of that election made it clear how wrong I was. Every vote counts.

What have you learned from your Independence Day celebrations?

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Happy Independence Day

When my husband’s Time magazine arrived with its headline, “240 Reasons to Celebrate Independence Day,” I was reminded of my most memorable Fourth of July, the one 40 years ago, our country’s bicentennial. But unlike most Americans around in 1976, no fireworks or sparklers featured in my bicentennial celebration.

On July 4, 1976, I was living in Tehran, Iran.

Earlier that week, Ed, the director of the English teaching program I worked for, received a phone call from the US embassy advising him that Americans in Iran should keep a low profile on Independence Day. The embassy suggested that we not gather in a public place or take part in any showy displays.

On the morning of July 4, a group of us headed out of town, in the direction of Karaj Dam. Very few of us had cars; so six or more crowded into the few we had, including one old enough to be classified an antique, the car I chose. Fortunately, Ed assured us that he wouldn’t leave us behind if anything happened to the car. As the director of the program, Ed had been assigned a car and driver, a shiny new car and an accomplished and very competent driver.

We couldn’t resist testing Ed. A few miles out of town, our driver, Dick, pulled over to the side of the road, and we waited. Within ten minutes, we saw Ed’s car coming back on the other side of the road. Dick pulled back onto the road, revving up to top speed (about 50 mph) as quickly as possible with a car full of laughing colleagues.

Ed’s driver caught up with and passed us, and we all waved and smiled, satisfied that we had proved Ed meant what he said, and that we could also have some fun along the hour-long drive.

Like the children in the story of the boy who cried wolf, we just had to try the same the same gag. Again, we saw Ed’s car return, and again, Dick accelerated onto the road, speeding ahead until Ed’s driver caught up with us and zoomed ahead.

Also like the story of the boy who cried wolf, something did go wrong. Dick’s car slowed, in spite of the pressure he kept on the accelerator. It continued to slow. Dick pulled the car over to the side of the road, got out, and popped the hood open. The rest of us in the car speculated whether Ed would return a third time, or would he decide, like the townspeople in the fable, that we were just playing around.

Ed and those with him were better people than fable villagers. They returned a third time. Someone fixed whatever caused the problem. And we continued on our way to a picnic area beside a stream near Karaj Dam.

No fireworks. No sparklers. But plenty of celebration, surrounded by good friends as well as some new ones.

That warning from the embassy foreshadowed much of the rest of my life. Seven years later I joined the US Foreign Service where preparations for Independence Day celebrations took up a lot of my time for many years to come. Sometimes I was even responsible for making warning message calls.

Happy Fourth of July on this, our country’s 240th year of independence.