In 1986 it was the 100th birthday of Lady Liberty–the statue given to all Americans by the French in 1886. Celebrations abounded, especially in New York harbor where tall sailing ships from around the world gathered to share the revelry. NEWSWEEK assigned me to cover a special citizenship ceremony for new Americans at Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota. I made a great shot which ran more than half a page in the magazine, but the big story was of a personal nature.
As a Vietnam War vet, I didn’t have a high opinion of the Vietnamese who stole from American forces, fled their country while we foreigners defended it, and generally resented our presence in their country. Many came to the USA and took advantage of our welfare system. In short, my view was bigoted and short sighted.
After the dramatic swearing in at the foot of Mt. Rushmore under the gaze of Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, and Roosevelt I made a picture of a Vietnamese woman proudly displaying her citizenship certificate. I automatically thanked her in Vietnamese. That simple unconscious act ultimately led to an invitation to dinner at the family home in Rapid City.
What I saw was a family of three or four generations who came to the USA for freedom. They worked hard–most at a local electronics factory. These people were here for all the right reasons and were contributing members of society. My bigoted view quickly faded.
I subsequently sent some images to the family–whose name I have shamefully forgotten. But that isn’t the end of the story.
A year later in mid July 1987, my mailbox was stuffed with a crinkled soft package wrapped in a brown paper bag. Inside was a T-shirt from Mt. Rushmore and a simple note: “We go to Mt. Rushmore on July 4 to show sponsor where we become American citizen. We think of you our first American friend.”
Sadly, the shirt–which was always too small–has disappeared, but the fond memory is rekindled every Fourth of July when I think of those nice people who taught me a lesson about what it means to be an American.
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