Every Fourth of July means flag waving and family picnics, parades and fire-works, hot sun and leisure, but for me there was only one truly memorable Independence Day – July 4, 1959, the day the star for the new state of Alaska was added to the American flag, the day I was in the 4th-of-July parade in Anchorage, Alaska, when I was fifteen years old.
Because my father had always wanted to wash his feet in the Yukon River (a metaphor for seeing Alaska), the seven members of my family had left Atlanta, Georgia, a month earlier in a station wagon headed for Fairbanks, camping all the way across the country, through Canada, and up the Alcan. From Fairbanks we had driven south to Anchorage, aiming to be there on the Fourth of July.
We arrived on July third and made camp a short distance outside the city, then all piled into the car to go into town. Our first stop was the tourist information center, where we inquired about 4th-of-July activities.
"There's going to be a grand parade tomorrow,” the woman told us. Then she asked what seemed like a non sequitur: “Where are you from?" When my father said, “Georgia,” her excitement grew.
"Oh, that's wonderful!" she said. "Part of the parade is a line of cars, one from each state. We're only missing four states – and Georgia is one. Would you like to be in the parade?"
And so it happened that I was not only in Alaska for the Fourth of July of the only year Americans waved forty-nine-star flags but in the parade itself. My sisters and I sat on the hood of our station wagon, which had been thoroughly cleaned from its layers of Alcan dust – four girls from Georgia, one of the original thirteen states, waving to the parade-watchers of this newest state we had come so far to see. My father drove the car, his Yukon-clean feet on the pedals. My mother held my brother on her lap in the passenger seat, letting him lean out the window to wave to the crowds.
There was lots of flag-waving that day in Alaska. There was also a picnic, of course, that evening at our campsite, with traditional American Independence Day food. Finally, after waiting in vain for the light to subside enough for us to see them, we set off our fireworks. It was in all ways an ordinary July 4th, but it was also, in all ways, an extraordinary and memorable July 4th for a fifteen-year-old girl from Georgia.