America before Titanic

Eric Allen

SLLF Curriculum Development and Research

 

I don’t know if you tried being 10, and a boy. When I did it the times seemed gentler, which sounds like something my grandfather would say, and when Granddad was 10 himself, everyone knew how to brush, bridle, and clean up after a horse. McKinley was President. No one had heard of Pershing. Titanic wasn’t even in blueprints. News sped from San Francisco to New York on the telegraph wires. 

But I wander, here. 

When I was 10, we had telephones. You could dial the phone yourself, and if you dialed a “1” first and a three-digit code, you could reach relatives in other states. My dog would come to elementary school when she was bored, and sit outside music class (she liked to sing; the teacher got annoyed.) An Interstate highway reached the town next door; entering it felt like getting on a spaceship. I also remember watermelon. Hot dogs. Miss O’Connor. And once a month or so, wearing my Cub Scout uniform to school. 

Which really is the point. Of all those fifth-gradey things, as much as anything I remember the days we were having a Cub Scout meeting right after school, and were supposed to arrive at the meeting in our blue shirts, and gold-buckled belt, and official neckerchief. I felt a teeny bit self-conscious not wearing regular school-ish clothes, but more thrilled at the adult-endorsed chance to show my membership in something. I think that’s a deep appetite for humans — belonging — and perhaps an especially strong drive for humans of my gender. 

Membership in something, and something big, and powerful. With all respect to ballpark hotdogs, I’ve long thought this drive explains part of our caffeine-like devotion to major-league baseball teams, and to professional football (which nearly owns one day of the week, out of only seven available.) And to the colleges we went to, as dignified as they surely are. We love personal freedom, but crave membership as well, and will give up much to get it or keep it. 

Like so many Americans, my father faced a good deal of danger overseas, during the Second World War. He could make few personal choices, and had only a few possessions. My mother, like so many other Americans, hung on daily news reports to assess whether her husband and other relatives were still living, and bartered for tire coupons to keep in touch with friends. Yet as eager as each was to begin post-War life, I always had the impression they valued the wartime experience, for its sense of community purpose, and shared endeavor. 

For the next four decades, many Americans found it natural to still feel that keen citizenship, as the country remained in existential competition with another superpower. People altered careers, or made other sacrifices, to enhance the strength and safety of their country, and in return felt the satisfaction of belonging deeply to something much more powerful than themselves. 

I say nothing new here.  As humans, we love feeling part of a larger and powerful community. We are nudged into that feeling when our group is threatened from without, or is threatened from within (think of the wonderful things you have seen, as people respond to natural disasters.)  We can even find that feeling when a leader asks us to. Different ones of us find inspiration in different places, but there are many Americans living today, whose days are spent as they are because John Kennedy jabbed the January air with his index finger while saying, “Ask What YOU Can Do for YOUR COUNTRY.”  That speech took less than 15 minutes. It was 56 years ago. 

(He soon called on us to put a person on the moon within the decade, and bring them back safely. That seemed no less extraordinary in 1961 than saying, Take us to Warp Speed, Mr. Sulu.) 

This story nearly began with baseball. Very shortly ago, a dozen middle-aged but fearless Americans were on a baseball field in Alexandria, practicing for a charity game, when gunfire broke into the morning, and high-powered rounds crossed the infield. The intention was to kill U.S. Representatives, out of anger at the course of American politics. 

For years we’ve known that politics was becoming more heated and less civil; that not only was the legislative environment becoming less pleasant, but that the work was getting harder, and less successful. In the wake of this direct assault on our political system, we wonder again: what exactly does it take for Americans — especially those in public service — to feel like one team, more or less, and so work together to get the people’s business done? 

We know we can do it when our existence is threatened from outside. We know we can do it when disaster strikes. We can do it when we are given a worthy challenge, and asked to rise to that challenge. 

Today, our country is falling behind its peers, in infrastructure, in education, in health, in all sorts of indicators of national welfare. Still, we find it difficult to see ourselves as Americans before anything, and to function as one team. 

Somewhere there are Cub Scouts, trying to understand why.  Ten year-olds, asking the grownups to look for a way; sensing that until they are well older, their future lies in others’ hands.

Your hands.

By | 2017-08-24T13:03:23+00:00 June 28th, 2017|Uncategorized|