This summer I am traveling overseas with the Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families. This is a traveling USO show that visits and entertains military families around the world. It is not the first time I’ve been overseas with Sesame Street and the USO during the summer, but what always astounds me is how wonderful and exciting these celebrations commemorating the birth of our nation are at military installations hundreds of thousands of miles from home.
In 2013, the tour was at Aviano Air Force Base in Italy over the 4th of July holiday. Just prior to arriving we spent time at Naval Support Activity Naples and U.S. Army Garrison Vicenza where preparations for the celebration were a base wide effort. NSA Naples was preparing for the “Fest” and it was the topic of all conversations amongst base personnel. “When are you headed to Fest? Where are you staying? How are you getting there? Have any room in the car?” were all questions repeated in many overheard conversations. Such commentary always evoked a smile on the faces of colleagues and friends preparing to celebrate an American holiday so far from home. I didn’t get to witness the “Fest,” as our schedule meant that we traveled onto the next stop of our tour. In my mind it seemed as if it would be more fun than the state fair back home.
At USAG Vicenza, most of the post had been taken over so that carnival rides and booths could be brought in as the post prepared for its upcoming celebration. We had a large audience at our show, and all were thrilled to receive a USO bandanna so that they had something festive to wear to the Independence Day celebration. Again, sadly, we had to miss all the festivities to head along to our next tour stop.
When we arrived at Aviano AFB, we had a few days off as the base was in holiday mode for the Fourth. The base seemed emptier than the last two we had been on -- no internal talk of a “Fest,” no rides and no booths? Personnel seemed to be off base, enjoying their down time. I couldn’t help but wonder, “were they on a lake somewhere? Were they looking out at the mountains that lined the horizon?" The base seemed so massive. It reminded me of being in the country visiting my grandparents in the summer, waiting for the rest of my extended family to show up on the 4th of July for our family reunion.
On the morning of the Fourth, as we walked around base, there were lots of families out and about throwing balls on the baseball diamonds, riding bikes around the base and playing catch with their dogs. We could have been anywhere back home. As the sun began to set that evening, a crowd began to assemble on the football field. Families were on blankets, enjoying picnics. There were grills in a nearby cookout area, and they were being used to grill burgers and hot dogs.
Once the sun set, lights came on, and the show began. There was a traveling troupe of German aerialists, and they had an amazing tightrope act. The tightrope was almost the full length of the football field, and the troupe sped up and down the tightrope on a motorcycle, with ladies on a trapeze hanging from the handlebars. It was thrilling and as if Evil Kenevil had made several friends and brought a show just for us. After the grand finale, everyone stood for the National Anthem. Once it was completed, the fireworks began.
The display went on for almost an hour. Most kids were amazed, and there were several large gasps from the crowd. Once the fireworks were over, people began walking from the field to their homes or their cars. Friends called out to each other and children hugged each other goodnight. It seemed as if we were walking down Main Street, U.S.A. even though we were thousands of miles away.
I got back to my room and called my grandparents to visit with them as I have on every Independence Day I can remember. Grandmother was almost done with her potato salad, and grandad was excited to tell me about the Fourth of July he spent in Italy during WWII. He assured me the fireworks I saw were prettier to look at, but he wondered which of us had heard the loudest. We concluded that the ones I witnessed were a mere echo of the ones he did, if not just a repeat.
It felt like I was right at home.
Nicole McClendon is a USO entertainment tour manager for the Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families which is currently traveling overseas.