Long before my husband and I sold our D.C. home to hit the road and embrace an expat life, I’d been conflicted about how to celebrate the Fourth of July.
Even as I waved my miniature Stars and Stripes at small-town parades, slathered mustard on backyard burgers and angled for a prime fireworks view, I worried that what I viewed as core American values of tolerance, diversity and kindness were in danger of being hijacked by bigoted, bristling nationalism.
But not this year…thanks to a reminder from a Founding Father and a gone-but-never-forgotten soldier.
This Independence Day we’re in Northern Italy, where my father, Charles Schmalbach, fought with the 10th Mountain Division during World War II. Like many veterans, he didn’t talk much about the war when I was growing up – and although we’d made plans for a return visit in 1995, his cancer diagnosis and my own cross-country move scuttled them. He died a year later, his new passport never used.
Despite my sketchy grasp of Dad’s whereabouts in those final weeks before the German surrender in early May of 1945, I knew he’d been in Verona. Today, the city is thronged with gelato-slurping tourists, many of them standing in line to scrawl graffiti on the wall of a fictional heroine’s house (Shakespeare set “Romeo and Juliet” here). But 71 years ago, Dad had told me, those throngs were made up of jubilantly grateful locals, greeting the entering jeep loads of soldiers with flowers and wine as they shouted “Vive Americani.”
I don’t remember Dad mentioning Torbole, a town on the mountainous northern shore of Lake Garda that figured prominently in the Germans’ last-gasp efforts as they retreated from Italy. But it was near here, I learned during our recent visit, that 24 members of his 605th Field Artillery battalion drowned when their amphibious vehicle attempted to cross the lake during a storm, and here that German artillery from nearby Monte Brione killed the 10th Mountain Division’s Col. William O. Darby.
Two small marble monuments at the side of Torbole’s Santa Maria al Lago Church mark those deaths, their modest presence overshadowed by the waterfront cafes and slew of brightly colored sails in what has become one of the world’s top windsurfing destinations.
After lighting a candle for my father in the church, I stopped to read a nearby plaque erected last year to mark the 70th anniversary of the war’s end in Italy on May 2, 1945. And the inscription, by fellow expat Benjamin Franklin, resonates as much now as it did when he wrote it: “God grant that not only a love of liberty, but a thorough knowledge of the rights of man may pervade all the nations of the earth, so that a philosopher may set his foot anywhere on its surface and say, ‘This is my country.'”