Remember the first time you understood that your parents were human? The situation that led you from the belief that they could do no wrong and into the belief that they are just like everyone else, with struggles and faults and concerns and craziness?
Well, let’s apply that to my understanding of America.
My most patriotic images come from the time before I understood that our country operates from the level of typical human weakness, and not from a higher purpose of building the best nation on earth. Indeed, the images came from a time before I understood that some of the greatest nations on earth rose to rule the world and then crumbled away into the past.
I was eight years old at the bicentennial. I remember the tone of excitement around my tiny old rural elementary school, with the teachers wheeling blurry televisions into the classroom so that we could see the activities leading up to the big 4th of July. Later, I remember the tall ships parading through New York Harbor. I don’t remember a word that was said, but the buzz of celebration was unmistakable. Everything bad that was happening in our country at the time was set aside to focus on the fact that this upstart nation had managed to make a 200-year run at freedom. Even at eight years old, I understood that freedom is a rare and precious gift.
Oddly, National Geographic plays into my ideas of freedom. In 1976, they ran an article full of beautiful concept paintings about our future in space. I was in. Hotels on the moon, space stations revolving in orbit, people living in space… That was a future I could accept without question. Everything was clean, white, and curvilinear, seemingly the natural next step in our success as the nation who put men on the moon. What I didn’t know at the time was that we were already done. We were launching a 40-year decline in our space superiority. Yet, the whole idea is still entwined with patriotism in my head, and I suffer ongoing disappointment that we did not live up to that one idealized article full of shiny paintings of the future.
A man named Lem Parks embodied the ideals of America. He died more than a decade ago, but he was the closest thing I had to a grandfather. To meet him, you would see a simple country man with a hard limp. To know him, you would understand that he had done a great many things that we would consider the American dream. He was a farmer, he ran a restaurant, he served in public office, and he suffered and achieved in the best traditions. He also provided some of my own important lessons.
In my hot rod days, I was trying to break a tie rod loose with a hammer. In the classic example of impatient youth, I would hit it a half dozen times and start thinking of quitting. Then I would try again. Mr. Parks heard the commotion and wandered over. I showed him what I was trying to do and he said, “Let me give it a try.”
The old man slid under with the three pound hammer and started whacking. On and on; I was getting tired just watching. Twenty full minutes later the tie rod popped loose. Mr. Parks slid out from under the car, stood up, and said, “Sometimes you just gotta keep banging.”
This was the same man who told a story of his brand new tractor, back in the fifties. He parked it and sat down on top of a hill to eat his lunch, but he forgot to set the brake in some way. The tractor rolled down the hill, out of control, until it hit a stump in his lower field and broke clean in half. Mr. Parks ran after the tractor, of course. He said that when he reached it and saw the bright new tractor broken in two, he just fell to the ground and cried.
His farm was in the valley of the Duck River (you may recognize the name from Renewal). In the late sixties, the Tennessee Valley Authority set out to build a flood control lake on that land. He eventually moved his house up to the top of the hill where I grew up. I always wondered what it was like to have a beautiful view of the water where his life once stood.
He told me a story of how things were in that community before the lake was built. Periodically, the Duck River would flood and wash away the only bridge for miles. The farming community depended on that wooden bridge for daily survival. They did not wait for the county to fix it. They did not look for anyone to sue over an act of God. They, as a community, simply took a couple of days and rebuilt the bridge. Could you imagine that happening today? Even if it would occur to folks to fix the problem themselves, the government would descend like vultures to squelch the process with a mountain of regulation.
One final Mr. Parks example. He and his wife ran a little cafe in Nashville in the forties. He told me that one day, a man and his young wife came in the door. They were embroiled in a loud argument which was embarrassing everyone in the place. At the high point in the argument, the man began to beat his wife, right there in public. Without hesitation, Mr. Parks stepped from behind the counter, and along with five other men, proceeded to beat the crap out of the angry husband. The police came and arrested the man who beat his wife. It never even occurred to them to question the acts of the men who came to the woman’s defense. It was expected of them in those days. In telling the story, Mr. Parks continued talking for quite some time, pondering the fact that he and those men would all be in jail if the same thing happened today.
My patriotic idea of America is one in which right and wrong are understood and mostly followed simply because we care about those things. It’s one in which we continually strive to improve, innovate, and refine. It’s one in which we understand larger purpose and sacrifice, and are willing to work in the manner our ideals lead us. It’s one in which we understand that the help we give comes back to help us all. And finally, it’s one in which we decide that American culture is more than the sum of its parts, worth preserving as we work to make it better.
This article reminded me that we also need to be a competitive culture. That’s how we got to the top of the heap, and the loss of that value is how we are slowly (some would say rapidly) sliding down the back slope. As we look around and see that our nation has become the parents who are suddenly no better than any random adults in the neighborhood, someone please tell me why we can’t be all of these things, and more.