The America I Remember
Two days ago I posted an open letter to President Obama. It came from the heart, and it resonated with an awful lot of folks. The response was overwhelming. I had over 500 hits in a little more than 24 hours.
That response got me thinking. Thinking about this great country and what has happened to her in the short span of my lifetime. I will be fifty years old in exactly two weeks. I was born on September 7, 1963. That’s a blip on the screen in the history of this land. Yet, in those brief fifty years, this country has changed dramatically.
I remember an America where stores did little or no business on Sundays. Almost all were closed. It was a day of rest, and reflection. It was the Sabbath for some, but it was respected by all. It was expected that those who’s faith observed a Sunday Sabbath –most Christian denominations- would attend their services on this day. The rest of the community respected this. Sunday was a quiet day. I was a paper boy from age 11 until age 15. I would begin delivering the Philadelphia Inquirer at 5AM on Sunday mornings. There is a sacredness to an early Sunday morning. A solemn, almost holy feeling. The rest of the world was not yet awake, but I was. I was 11 years old, and it was my job to carefully place that newspaper between the storm door and the entry door...and do so without waking the dog, and disturbing the still-sleeping occupants.
It was a great responsibility for an 11 year old boy. I was, in effect, the town crier in modern form. These were the days before 24 hour cable news channels or the internet. The morning headlines, in print form, were the only means for news, with the lone exception of news radio. I loved how that felt. I loved the importance of delivering the news. I delivered the headlines that proclaimed the end of the Vietnam War. I’ll never forget that.
Sunday’s were for family and faith and reflection. They usually concluded with us on the floor, watching "Wonderful World of Disney." Somewhere in the late 70’s, someone decided that Sunday was an untapped market for retail sales. Stores began to open on Sundays, and before long, Sunday was just another day.
I remember an America where patriotism was the norm. In fact, it was expected ...demanded even. Opening day of little league saw us marching into Stahl Field (the home field complex for Suburban Little League, where I played) in our old-school wool pants with high-stirrup socks and wool ball caps. We came in team-by-team. The announcer would announce each player and then he’d play the National Anthem on a scratchy old vinyl record on that awful one-speaker P.A. system. For us it was like standing at Veteran’s Stadium, and being announced in the Phillies lineup. We immediately pulled our caps off our heads and held them over our hearts and stood like statues. No one had to tell us. We knew to respect our flag and our anthem. We sang along proudly. We were Americans.
I remember finding my grandfather’s Navy manual around this time. I was maybe 9 or 10. He had been a Seabee in the Pacific theater during WWII. The manual was full of all manner of wonderful information for a young boy. The semaphore alphabet. The Morse code alphabet. How to dress properly in your uniform. The Naval oath, and all four stanzas of the National Anthem. I read it for hours and it felt like I had discovered the Dead Sea scrolls. It was like having a little piece of America right there in my hands.
Being an American took priority over whatever else we were. Nobody hyphenated their heritage. We were Americans. We were proud of where we came from, but not nearly as much as we were proud of where we were. I don’t see that now.
I remember an America where people worked hard and truly appreciated the fruit of their labors. I grew up in a very blue collar, working-class neighborhood in New Castle, Delaware, just 15 miles south of my native Philadelphia. Nobody on our street was wealthy. None of our neighbors were social climbers. They were appreciative of even owning a home. They worked hard, bought cheap, and stayed for a lifetime. This gave the neighborhood character and connection. It made it a real community. People stayed in one place and got to know each other. I lived in the same house from age 7 until age 23. Nowadays people move every 3 years. We buy a house, put up a fence, install a security system, hang cameras from the eaves and enter and exit through the garage door. We never see our neighbors.
I grew up in an America where cookouts meant the whole block was invited, and most of them came. The dads cooked real food on mounds of charcoal. These days you only know of a cookout on your block if you catch the faint wisp of smoke from a gas grille. I’m not lamenting technology. But there was a charm to watching our dads carefully shape a pile of charcoal so it created a draft and burned evenly. Seeing them somehow instinctively know how much lighter fluid was just enough. Watching as they flicked a wooden match from a safe distance and hearing the “whoosh” of the ignition.
It takes time for charcoal to light, grow hot, and settle into a proper heap for cooking. In those 30 or 40 minutes, the dads would have a beer, listen to the ball game or throw a ball around, and chat. They slowed down. They told bad jokes. They talked about cars. They enjoyed each other.
Nowadays, even the grilles are in a hurry. Cookouts aren't the morning-until-bedtime affairs they were when I was a kid. They aren't the entire-block parties either. Now it’s by invitation only. We have a grille that’s ready in 7 minutes, we eat some fish that we bought at Whole Foods and we drink white wine. Our dads shaped real hamburgers from really fatty ground beef, with their bare hands (that they may or may not have washed first) and knocked back Piels’ Big Mouth beers that cost $3.56 for a 12-pack. They scraped the grille about once each summer. They swatted a fly and flipped a burger with the same spatula. They laughed loudly at dumb jokes. They talked for hours. They were friends...for life. There was a ballgame on the radio and kids splashing in a pool.
I remember when my friend Kevin’s dad died. Mr. Ferraro who lived up the street, and whose sons were also friends of mine, was talking to me in his garage one evening, a few months after Mr. Messick passed. I was in my early 20’s by then. Hanging out in Mr. Ferraro’s garage was a rite of passage on Monroe Avenue. One night we were talking about the block. Talking about how we’d all grown up there, Mr. Messick’s kids, me and my brother, Mr. Ferraro’s kids. Then Mr. Ferraro got wistful, and quiet and laughed softly at something we remembered about Mr. Messick. He looked up and said “I really miss Bill”. And he had a tear in his eye. These were not men who wept. And so I knew this came from someplace deep inside him. This was a friendship forged over 30 plus years of living in the same place and seeing each other almost every day. You sure don’t see that these days.
This is the America I remember. It’s the America I miss. I think a lot of folks miss it as well. I think that’s why my letter resonated so much with so many people. I think those folks remember the America I do. We remember an America where we hated to see our country taking a beating, either on the battlefield or in public opinion. We hated seeing our country down economically. We hated seeing patriotism lagging.
In the America of my childhood, I wouldn't have had to write an open letter to my President, telling him of my plight. He would have known. He would have cared. He wouldn't have been off on yet another vacation or golf outing, because he would have come from the same heart of America that I did. And he would have a citizenry holding him accountable. My neighbors would have rallied around me and others like me. I know, because I saw it when I was a kid. I saw the dads who knew of good jobs, helping the dads who needed a job, to get one. I saw them putting in a good word, giving a referral, opening a door. America was a community then. And that community demanded that it’s leadership do what they were sent to Washington to do. And because we were united, and because we were patriots, and because we knew the Constitution and knew civics...they could not get away with what they offer up as leadership today.
I remember an America where serving on the local, state, or federal level was a privilege, and an honor, and most of those men and woman would have done it for free. Now, it’s a business. A game. A new level of aristocracy.
I remember a better America. And judging from the amount of response I got to a simple open letter to the President...so do a lot of other folks.
I pray we can get that America back.
(This is the kind of writing I do. I recently wrote a book entitled "Remembering America: Looking Back at the Last Innocent Age" While this is not an excerpt from that book...this is the sort of story that fills those pages. Writing became a haven and a shelter for me as this long winter of homelessness and joblessness has dragged on.)