Me with 2 Romanian workers.  July 1976.

Me with 2 Romanian workers. July 1976.

Communist Romania.  July 4th, 1976.

The same year that Nadia Comaneci won the Olympic gold medal for Romania and scored the 1st perfect 10.

I, along with 35 other sweaty college choir members, was singing the National Anthem in the middle of a very warm, unairconditioned hotel lobby in that country.

Tears welling up in my eyes like never before.

It was pretty edgy stuff back then.  An American choir touring a country controlled by a severe Communist regime.

We had been there for almost 2 weeks by that time.  Singing our way all over what was gorgeous countryside.

We were only allowed to travel where officials knew our exact location at all times.  No spontaneous stops.  No visiting with people who might want to talk with us.

Or so they thought.

Memphis, Texas?

Memphis, Texas?

Courageous Romanians would sneak up the back stairs of our hotels late at night.  Just to talk to us.  I spoke French, which was the 2nd language of the country.  So even though most of them could speak only broken English, we could understand each other.  I learned just how miserable most of them were.  How they dreamed of coming to America.  How repressed they felt.

The choir had spent one night with what the officials who were our escorts called “typical Romanian families”.  Cute little cottages.  Gaily decorated with quilts and flowers.

Now we learned that those villages were set up by the government just for tourists like us.  To fool us into thinking that the Romanian people were happy.  Well-fed.  Content with their government.

Quite the opposite was true.

All we could do was listen.  Tell them about another world.  A world where individual rights were respected.

Not a perfect world but a better world.

They also wanted to buy our jeans.  We had been told not to give or sell them. One kid did (of course).  Got in big trouble as I recall.

I never sing the National Anthem now without thinking of that miserably hot day.  When I was singing my guts out.

The First Generation as we were called.  That's me in the shadows.  2nd from the left.

The First Generation as we were called. That’s me in the shadows. 2nd from the left. We wore overalls as costumes.  Only ones I have ever worn!  Nothing against overalls mind you.

I don’t think I had ever been more proud to be an American.  I didn’t care I was hot.  I didn’t care I was eating tomatoes and cheese for breakfast. I didn’t care that all the clothes I had brought were smelly. Or that I was really tired of that one guy in the choir that thought he knew everything.

Romania was beautiful but I could leave.

Come home to an even hotter Arkansas.

They couldn’t.

No wonder there were tears in my eyes.

For me.  For them.

Have a joyous July 4th.  Revel in the warmth of good food.  Friendship.  Fire works.

And freedom.


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