Tuesday, June 6, 2017

In My America... Remembering When Things Were Better


I want my America back.
I’m 53. I was born in Philadelphia and grew up in the suburbs of New Castle, Delaware, about 20 miles south. I grew up on a lower middle class, dead-end street. From where I live now, it’s about 285 miles, and 6 hours away.
But from where we all live, it might as well be a million miles.
When I was a boy, my friends and I would disappear from eight in the morning until dinner time and our parents never had to worry about us.
When I was a boy, I had a morning paper route. I was 11 years old. 11 years old and out delivering newspapers, door-to-door, at 5:30 a.m., and not only was I completely safe…there were about a half dozen other boys in my neighborhood who had routes as well. We all did it. It was a rite of passage.
I walked to school at 7 years old, about a mile each way. Sometimes with my neighbors and sometimes alone. I never felt scared. My parents never had to be concerned.
I played Little League baseball for 14 years. Sometimes I was good enough to be a starter, and sometimes I wasn’t. Nobody called my coach to pressure him into giving me playing time. There was no “continuous batting order” and no guaranteed innings. If I was good enough, I played. If I wasn’t, I worked harder until I was. This is how life is, and it prepared me for it.
My friends and I played hide and seek behind houses that mostly didn’t have fences…because they didn’t need them. We played tackle football in the public park we lived next too. We played street hockey. We never played anything like “The Knockout Game,” where we randomly punched strangers in the hopes of knocking them out cold. Someone would have all but killed us if we had even tried. But we never would have tried that game, because we never even would have thought about that. We respected our elders, because it was the right thing to do, because we were taught to respect them and, mostly, because we knew them.
We’d grown up in the same neighborhood. These were our friends’ grandparents, not some nameless, worthless blob of humanity that we thought it would be funny to punch.
We knew them, knew their stories, and honored them as one of our own.
We were a community. We didn’t sell our house every four years and move someplace else. Our parents bought a home with the intention of paying it off and living there until they died. Another generation called this “putting down roots.” In today’s America, nobody has roots anymore. We’re a nation of tumbleweeds.
In the America I grew up in, we were bullied. It was painful. But our dads took us outside, laced on the boxing gloves, and taught us how to stand up for ourselves. The next time we got bullied, we tried to make peace first, when that didn’t work, we met the bully in the bathroom, or behind the schoolyard and we straightened him out. We got bloodied in the battle but we set him straight and you know what? Usually we broke the bully of his bullying, and we both gained a friend. I know we gained self-respect.
Girls got bullied too. Girls can be mean and catty, especially in middle school. Fat girls got teased. Girls with pimples got teased. You know what they did? They dieted. They got some skin cream. They turned the bullying into inspiration and they improved and they wound up feeling ten times better about themselves. I know…some of them wound up with eating disorders and emotional scars. That’s tragic. It wasn’t perfect. But most of them found an inner drive and gained confidence., and learned the value of self-improvement.
We weren’t always friends. We had cliques. We didn’t demand that everyone accept everyone. Sometimes you were the new kid or the awkward kid, or the fat kid, or the bad athlete. But I can’t remember any of those kids not eventually gaining acceptance and becoming friends with the others. Because, while they were growing up and out of their awkwardness, the “cool” kids were growing up too. Learning to see the lonely ones and accept them. Nobody shot up the school or committed suicide.
In my America, it was acceptable to disagree with the President. But NEVER acceptable to attack him. Never acceptable to voice your desire to harm him. Even Nixon, who became a reviled figure, still commanded a modicum of respect because the generation of the day was taught to respect the office and our nation.
In my America, cops were respected and just a little feared. They had to be. It was proper. Nobody would have dared put out music calling for cops to be killed. Nobody would have put a “bounty” out on cops. They were there to help us and being a little intimidating was part of that job.
In my America, wherever you were, and whatever you were doing, you paused if the Anthem played, even on a radio, and you stood, hand-over-heart, and sang the words and thought about the meaning.
In my America, you didn’t need to show your patriotism because it was assumed you were a patriot. You were here because you love this place. You wanted her to be the greatest country on earth.
In my America, you were proud of your ancestry and your heritage, but you were an American. You were raised to feel lucky, blessed by God, to be here. Here was better than there, wherever there was. Even if you were poor here, working three jobs, living in a crowded little house…here was still better.
These days we have people whose lives have been kissed by fate. Whose existence is padded and bubble wrapped in what we have come to call “stardom.” Who have a life here they could have no place else on earth…yet they’re threatening to leave America if they don’t get their way politically. Threatening us, as if we’d all break down if they actually did leave. Threatening us as if America needs them in order to still be America. Meanwhile, the people who make them rich, the people who buy the movie tickets and the music downloads, beg them to get over themselves. We’re divided into two groups, it seems: The ones who buy into this faux royalty and “retweet” the latest gibberish from Rob Reiner or Leonardo DiCaprio about how bad America is and look to them as little gods, dispensing wisdom, or the ones –like me and my friends- who know that we are the real America. The ones who live in the middle-class neighborhoods. The ones who see a fabulously wealthy businessman and say “God bless,” not “You’re evil because you’re rich.” The ones holding the door open for those who threaten to leave, looking at hour watch and wondering “what’s taking you so long?”
We’re the ones whose grandfathers used to drive down the street in the “old neighborhood” and point out the houses where they laid the brick, or did the framing. They’d drive by the church and talk about how the parish got together and raised the money to have all that beautiful Italian marble imported, and they did without, and worked overtime, and helped build the cathedral where their families would worship and gather for generations.
In my America, other religions were certainly looked at with a questioning eye, but they were respected. And they respected us. We celebrated Christmas in public schools and nobody took us to court. We Had Easter vacation…not spring break.
In my America there was racism. It was ugly and terrible. But instead of passing laws and creating division, those who were its’ victim, dug down deep, head their heads up and slowly, over time, changed the hearts and minds of a generation. Yes…we looked at other races differently, mostly out of curiosity and ignorance. But once we accepted you, black, white, red or yellow, by God you were one of us, and nobody had better mess with you then. It happened naturally. Over time. It wasn’t forced and phony.
In my America, we stood for what was right, and rejected what was wrong. There was shame associated with lawlessness and with failure. You worked hard for what you had and if you wanted more…you worked harder.
In my America, patriotism was expected.
In my America, even in the disagreement and strife, there was community and peace.
In my America, we loved each other, because underneath it all, under all the politics, and wrangling, and good news and bad news and blaring headlines and quiet Sunday mornings…we all loved this country. Deeply, passionately, with our whole being.
In my America, we saw America as the greater “we.” She was the thing that existed from the sum of her parts, and you were as much a part of her as I was, and it was never about what she owed us…but what we owed her.

I want that America, again.

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