In my earliest memories, an American was a small boy with relatives in the war, who hated the Axis and collected newspapers and scrap metal. He hid under his desk at school during air raid drills, ate meat only occasionally, and “picked up his feet” when he walked, to make his shoe soles last longer.
He learned the Pledge of Allegiance, hand over his heart. He perceived that thousands of Americans were fighting and dying for that symbol, and he might someday be, as well. To this day, he often cannot regard the flag but through a mist.
It was 1942. There were parades of recruits from the armory to the railroad station. Right up to the platform they marched, with bands playing and dignitaries following in open touring cars.
We followed, too, in those innocent days when cities were still safe for kids. We watched them hang out the windows until the engine whistled, and the train chuffed away. We wanted to go, too; but none of us thought the war would last long enough.
It didn’t. The boy collected his newspapers and listened while his elders prayed for peace. And at length, with a puzzling catastrophe far away, it came.
We little kids sensed we had experienced epochal events. We had learned that to be an American was an active verb: You fought to protect and defend freedom whenever and wherever it was threatened.
Later, we learned this concept wasn’t as simple as it seemed. Freedom was not only something taken from Poles and Russians by dictators with funny mustaches; freedom was the right of every individual to believe what he wanted, say what he wanted, and do what he wanted. And our sacred obligation to defend it meant that often we fought each other.
We are by nature a contentious lot. We fought the native Americans, the French, England, Mexico, and Spain. We’ve fought Germany, Japan, North Korea, China, and Viet Nam. And the old men whom as a boy I watched ride by in their Union uniforms on the Fourth of July attested that we have hated and fought each other more fiercely than anybody else.
Yet democracy demands and thrives on differences of opinion. They’re the hammers that forge our national consensus. Debate is our privilege, and even our constitutional obligation as free people. We’re at our best when we go after each other’s arguments. But we’re at our worst when we go after each other’s persons. We often seem to forget that.
An American flag flies on our house. That’s to remind us of the blessings of freedom. There’s a facsimile Declaration of Independence on my office wall. That reminds me of the price of freedom. Next to that is a picture of a little kid with a skeptical expression. The caption reads, “Why?” An American kid, no doubt, exercising the most precious of his civil rights.
This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, and I gotta get back to work.
–Willem Lange is a contractor, writer and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire.