(Ed. note: In light of the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, many Americans are enthralled with the pomp and circumstance. On the other hand, for those not caught up in the British Monarchy, here is a focus about what Americans contributed to the royal cause years ago — our connection overseas. Below is a reprint of an article first written on America’s Independence Day, July 4, 1996, when a group of American singers traveled to Great Britain on a two-week singing tour. Used with permission.) (Copyright Pamela Cosel)
There are spacious skies and amber waves of grain in England.
There are no purple mountains.
Red, white and blue colors fill flower boxes, line stone walkways and drape near wooden gates. They are bright beauty beneath the rainy, billowy clouds.
Americans display these colors on their flags.
The fourth of July appears on the British calendar quietly behind the third, before the fifth, dutifully in line as a regiment of trained soldiers.
When Johnny comes marching home again…hurrah, hurrah.
There is nothing special about this day to the waking English, our cousins across the sea, who live amidst Cambridge academia where great kings and greater minds made some of the greatest discoveries we hold true today.
The apple landed on Sir Isaac Newton’s head here, and scientists for the first time discussed over lunch the makeup of DNA at “The Eagle,” a local restaurant and pub where beer has been served since the 1300s when the Saxons invaded England, according to a local tour guide. Today’s tourist can view signatures on the ceiling written by American soldiers stationed in England during World War II. “The Wild Hair–9th Squadron” and “Bert’s Boys–196th Squadron” left their marks.
First to fight for right to freedom…
As the morning sun rose behind drizzling rain clouds over this North Sea island country, the fact that it was Independence Day at home was on the minds of most members of the Greeley Chorale and their traveling companions as we continued our two-week singing tour of Scotland and England.
Independence Day dawned seven hours earlier than for friends and families in Colorado. While those at home slept peacefully, before the parades and pancake breakfasts, before barbecues smoked and children urged parents to light spitting Roman candles, the singing ambassadors reflected inwardly about being away from home on this significant holiday.
Oh, say can you see by the dawn’s early light.
Many of us awoke in the homes of host families, Cambridge residents who housed one-half of the group for two nights. They welcomed us with open arms, provided meals, attended our concert and shared stories late into the night about their families and lives here.
Observe an English family for a short two days and it appears the family unit in this country is more traditional, the parents very involved with their children, than families the United States might be. But we saw that families are certainly the same no matter which side of the ocean one is on: older sisters argue with younger brothers, teenagers like to spend time with their friends. Parents’ busy work schedules combined with children’s school hours can make life hectic.
We also found that, while many of the families were native Englishmen, some are transplants from other countries, including the United States.
Before rehearsal later in the day, we singers spent the morning seeing the sights of Cambridge. We visited its magnificent halls of education and saintly chapels, many of which date back to the time of 14th century kings. We recalled childhood history lessons as we read genealogical charts of Kings Henry VI, VII and VIII — the latter of wife-beheading fame, his pompous statue positioned high above the streets in many locations at King’s College, which he founded.
We heard the story of the Mathematical Bridge across the Cam River that was assembled with no nails that was one day dismantled by college students who were unable to put it back together. The bridge was later repaired with nails and remains secure.
The river is also a scenic waterway for “punt” boats that carry tourists in the summer and is the site of boat races during the school term.
Cambridge University is actually made up of 31 separate colleges, most of them within walking or biking distance of each other. The colleges each specialize in a particular field of study. Tuition at the “public school” colleges is free, with fees paid by students for room and board. Freshman students must live in dormitories on campus. During summer break, foreign students from around the world come to Cambridge to study the proper use of the English language.
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming.
While stars glimmered in the Colorado sky, it was mid-morning in England on the Fourth of July. It seemed an ordinary day other than nearly 100 of us were across the ocean, far away from the traditions we knew. What should we do ? we wondered. We knew we’d sing patriotic songs at our evening concert: “An American Hymn” and “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor.” But could we make today special in another way, each of us, that made it feel like home, being away?
And the rockets’ red glare…
We were on an adventure, a small group of 10, as we boarded a double-decker tour bus to explore the local sights. With no firm plan in mind, we were led more by the guide, not our spirits, as we settled into our seats. Leaving the city, the bus sped past open green fields in the clearing, sunny air. We rode a few quick miles and listened to the crisp British accent share details about the college and veterinary school that lay beyond the trees.
It wasn’t until the woman with the microphone highlighted our first stop that red flags went up inside our heads — unfurled red, white and blue — and there in the countryside, suddenly imaginary bands began to play. We were at the Cambridge American Cemetery. We were given an unexpected chance to celebrate our Fourth of July.
The bombs bursting in air…
Stretched below us on the hillside were perfect rows of white crosses marking graves of American servicemen and servicewomen buried after the end of World War II. Cambridge University had given free to the United States this prime land in order to bury its brave, dead soldiers who lost their lives fighting to rid the world of enemies in the “War to End All Wars.”
A framed letter from President Dwight D. Eisenhower expressing gratitude to the future Queen Elizabeth and one from her in return are displayed in the cemetery’s reception building. Visitors can sign a guest book and leave a message for those who follow. A 3-ring binder holds photographs of other American cemeteries located in countries around the world.
The last page of the book tells the heroic story of a soldier, John Valdez, Jr., who was awarded the U.S. Medal of Honor for his bravery and actions, including losing his right foot, during the war before his plane disappeared while on his way home.
At the entrance to the grounds, an 82-foot high flagpole that was a gift erected in honor of his son, Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., greets visitors. The name of the eldest child of Joseph, Sr., is engraved on the white stone wall, along with names of the others who are buried there. Valdez’s name is etched in gold.
The towering wall runs from the entryway alongside a rectangular pond overflowing with white and red roses amidst greenery built to reach just short of the steps of the memorial chapel located at the opposite end. The wall is punctuated by larger-than-life-size carved statues of men in soldiers’ uniforms, one for each branch of the American military services.
Inside the chapel, clear window panels to the north overlook the graves, bearing in their centers full-color engraved seals of the individual United States, while the south wall depicts in miniature the operations of WWII. The display portrays the strategic attack paths the American planes and ships followed as they closed in on enemy territory in Germany to end the war.
…gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
And after we in solitude and quiet reviewed the scene presented as an unexpected gift, with somber thoughts of the sacrifices, we honored the dead who gave their lives.
We 10 stood, hands on our hearts, at the base of the flagpole in a foreign land and sang in clear, strong voices:
Oh, say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave — o’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave.