Collecting bottles, tossing leftovers, taking out the garbage
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When I first began to think about becoming an American citizen, I wondered: Would they quiz me about baseball (like who’d won the World Series in 1961, the year I’d entered the U.S. as an alien)? Would they make me renounce fish and chips, bangers and mash, Yorkshire pudding, treacle tart, Christmas pudding, and everything else quintessentially English? Would they tell me that I could no longer say “garden” for “yard,” or “car park” for “parking lot”?
On my first Halloween in the U.S. I didn’t know what was happening: why were children knocking on doors dressed as goblins and astronauts? I turned off the lights and pretended I wasn’t home. Memorial Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, Presidents’ Day — so many new holidays to digest and understand. And so many poignant memories of holidays no longer celebrated: bonfires on Guy Fawkes Day, Christmas leftovers on Boxing Day, pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, raucous crowds along the Thames on Boat Race Day. I am trying to feel the same about pumpkin pie and Labor Day picnics. I really am.
My swearing-in ceremony took place in the Masonic Auditorium in San Francisco. “There are 103 countries represented here today,” the emcee said. “As I read your country’s name, I want you to stand up and remain standing until all 1,535 of you are standing. Then we will say the oath of citizenship together.” She began reading the names: “Antigua, Armenia, Aruba, Australia, Bermuda, Bosnia . . .” One by one the people around me stood up.
When she said, “China,” it seemed as if half the auditorium rose. “Mexico,” she said, and another large percentage stood. After the Philippines I felt as if I were the only one still sitting, surrounded by standing bodies in their Sunday best. Finally the emcee said, “The United Kingdom,” and I hauled myself up, looking round to see who else was from my homeland: no one that I could tell. The days of the Irish and the English setting sail for the New World in numbers were long past. So why was I doing this? To vote. Forty-six years in the U.S., and I had never voted.
My eyes filled with tears as we sang the national anthem. I realized I’d never sung it before. The images of bombs and rockets had always bothered me. And yet seeing 1,535 people from so many different backgrounds standing to sing it together was an emotional experience.
In childhood I had heard real bombs and rockets going off. There is nothing like growing up under threat of enemy invasion to forge an unshakable sense of patriotism. I used to imagine sitting on the roof of our house with a machine gun, picking off helmeted German soldiers as they came down our driveway. But when we took the oath of citizenship in the Masonic Auditorium, I could not bring myself to say the words “I will bear arms against all enemies.” (Was anyone watching to see if my lips were moving?) I pledged allegiance to the flag, but in truth, it was another red, white, and blue banner that still had my heart.
Where is home now that I am a U.S. citizen? Yesterday on the radio someone spoke of the primaries in Michigan and Florida, and I found myself repeating the names in my head — Michigan and Florida — and I started to cry. This is my country now.
Clare Cooper Marcus
When the U.S. invaded Iraq in March 2003, I took leave from my middle-management job, brought a folding chair and a hand-scrawled sign down to the Federal Building, and fasted for peace for one week.
I wasn’t alone. There were other antiwar protesters on the sidewalk with me, and support-the-troops counterdemonstrators across the street in front of the bank. At first I seethed at our opponents, whom we called the “pro-war people.” Then came John, carrying his three-foot-high sign that read, “Peace,” in neat block letters. John lived in a one-room cabin in the woods and walked into the city every day, two hours each way, to take part in the protests. A Korean War veteran, he visited the protesters across the street, chatting with a fierce-looking man with a beret, mirrored sunglasses, and a chest full of medals.
Following John’s example, I sought out this veteran, whose name was Tim, and I offered to buy him coffee. He declined and offered to buy me a cup instead. I turned him down because of my fast, but an unlikely mutual admiration grew between us, and we crossed the street several times a day to talk.
As the week wore on and tensions rose, Tim came over to read me the poem “The Soldier Fights.” A group of antiwar protesters surrounded him and demanded to know what he was doing on “our” side of the street. Tim snapped back at them, and I had to step in to break up the shouting match. The antiwar protesters walked away while Tim and I shook hands.
Minutes later the opposite sidewalk was wild with shouting and pushing. Tim got in the middle and broke up an argument between his crew and a veteran for peace. Afterward he crossed over and said to me, “I’ve got to go. I can’t take it anymore.” His mouth twisted. “I hate this war. I cry about it every night.” Tears rolled from beneath his sunglasses. He had to do something to support the troops, he said, to keep from going insane, and I held him while he sobbed.
I was raised in Gdańsk, Poland, cradle of Solidarity, the noncommunist trade-union federation. My parents worked in the shipyards, and I grew up surrounded by a spirit of opposition to the government, the ruling Communist Party, and the ominous, controlling presence of the Soviet Union. Strikes and demonstrations were commonplace, but they were often quashed by militarized police. While exports flowed freely across the eastern border into the USSR, the Polish people had to live with food stamps and shoe stamps and even, at times, school-notebook stamps.
When I was seven, my mother and I went for a “walk.” Our real mission was to steal the all-red Communist flags that had been hung for the annual May 1 government-orchestrated demonstrations. (We let the white-and-red Polish flags stay.) At home my mother turned these flaming symbols of communism into kitchen aprons, garage curtains, and frilly tablecloths.
I believe that theft is wrong, but I am proud of my mother’s small and creative method of civil disobedience.
We had just picked up the tuxedos for my wedding when Paul, my soon-to-be father-in-law, turned around to take a look at my best man, Ken, and me in the back seat. After a long pause, he asked if we thought that any of the countries we had visited while in the Peace Corps was better than the United States.
It was a difficult question to answer. Between the two of us, Ken and I had traveled in thirteen countries and experienced their rich customs and hospitality. We’d also seen the U.S. through the eyes of their people.
Paul, on the other hand, had left the U.S. only twice in his entire life: once to spend a day or two in Mexico, and another time to see his daughter (my future wife) in Morocco. Both times he’d longed to return home as soon as possible. It wasn’t that he hated other nationalities or ethnicities — he was kind and welcoming to everyone he met, no matter where they were from or how they looked. He just knew that America was “number one,” and if you didn’t love it, you’d better leave it.
The fact that Ken and I paused to contemplate our answers was enough for Paul. “That’s OK,” he told us. “Your silence says it all.” We tried to explain, but he would have none of it. He was too hurt by our failure to tell him what he needed to hear.
While traveling in southern Spain, my husband and I decided to make an unplanned side trip to Morocco. Because we imagined the Islamic nation to be anti-American, we decided to tell people we were Canadians for the duration of our time there.
On a long train ride to Marrakech, we shared a compartment with a middle-aged Moroccan businessman who politely asked in English where we were from. We replied, “Canada,” in unison. Then he asked which city in Canada.
We hadn’t prepared for this question, so I let my husband answer and learned we were from Vancouver, British Columbia. Our new friend made a few disparaging remarks about Americans, saying that he found Canadians to be more agreeable and less pushy. We nodded and squirmed in our seats. He asked what kind of work we did in Canada. I told him truthfully that I was a mental-health therapist, and my husband, who works as a transportation planner, said that he solved problems involving port negotiations.
To our surprise our talkative seatmate worked in transportation, too, and he was eager to discuss the complexities of trade between Canadian and Moroccan ports. It was a long and agonizing trip full of dumbfounded looks, pleas of ignorance to simple questions, nervous laughter at jokes about our American president, and outright lies about Canadian politics. My husband and I arrived in Marrakech exhausted and agitated, our spirits dampened.
A few days later we told our story to an American of Moroccan descent. He laughed and said we’d misjudged Moroccans. “It’s not Americans they dislike,” he said. “It’s American leaders and their policies. The man you met would have loved to talk to a real American. Moroccans don’t often get the chance.” We haven’t lied about being Americans since.
It’s July Fourth, and I’m sitting in my father’s living room, watching the televised fireworks from the nation’s capital. My elderly father has gone to bed early, and I am relieved to be off duty from caring for him. Then a neighbor sets off some firecrackers, waking my father, who wanders into the living room to watch the finale of the celebration in Washington, D.C.
My father is a veteran of World War II. He has never spoken to my siblings and me about his war experiences, though we have prodded him. We know by the yellowed newspaper reports my mother saved that his infantry division helped liberate a concentration camp.
On TV the citizens of our nation’s capital begin to sing our national anthem, and my father joins them. He even attempts those unreachable high notes. I remain mute, because I’m disgusted with the body count in Iraq, but my damaged, taciturn father sings at the top of his lungs.
Clarksville, New York
In fifth grade I handed my teacher a note from my father that said, “Rebecca won’t be at school tomorrow, because she will be going to Washington, D.C., to protest the Vietnam War.”
Early the next morning my parents, my sister, and I boarded a bus in Red Bank, New Jersey, and made the four-hour trip to our nation’s capital. As we assembled along Pennsylvania Avenue amid hundreds of thousands of protesters, I expressed some concerns about the sign I’d been given to carry. It was painted with the stars and stripes and read, “Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.” The “obedience to God” part gave me pause: couldn’t we keep him out of this? And why did the sign have to have an American flag? Wasn’t that a little too patriotic? We were protesting because we didn’t like what our government was doing.
One of the adults in our group, a kind, bearded Vietnam veteran, took my questions seriously. “I see what you mean,” he said, “but think about the sign’s overall message. It’s a good one. Don’t get hung up on those three words.” After a bit more discussion, I agreed to carry it.
I am now a parent, and my ten-year-old son has attended perhaps a dozen marches with me. At my office I have a picture of him on his dad’s shoulders, marching against the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. He holds a handwritten sign I made that says, “It’s not un-American to be antiwar.” The words are different, but the message is the same as the one I carried when I was ten.
My husband will not stand or salute the flag during the national anthem. He says he saw too many atrocities on the front lines in Vietnam ever to be proud of his country again. When we go to college basketball games, he stays in the concessions area with a few other long-haired Vietnam veterans until after “The Star-Spangled Banner” has been played.
Recently he and I went to a football game, and just as we reached our seats, the announcer asked everyone to stand for the national anthem. My husband rolled his eyes and remained standing, but he didn’t remove his hat. After the anthem was over, someone tapped him on the shoulder. It was John, an acquaintance who was also a Vietnam veteran.
“Hey, man,” John said, “don’t you know it’s disrespectful to leave your hat on during the national anthem? I was about to come over here and take it off your head!”
My husband laughed but said nothing.
Dissatisfied, John said, “I’m not joking.”
My husband just smiled and said, “Sure, man,” and turned back around.
On the way out of the stadium after the game, we ran into John, and my husband tried to explain: “I just don’t get into saluting the flag.” John was astonished that a veteran could fail to honor the flag.
On our way back home, my husband asked me why I always stand; he had heard me rail against our country’s policies many times. I had to think about that for a moment. I told him that, though I had disagreed with our elected officials, I was still thankful for our system of government; that when I stood, I tried to put politics aside and honor our country and all the people who, for better or worse, had died fighting for it. Then I realized that what I’d said sounded noble, but wasn’t true. In reality, I admitted, I stood because I didn’t want to make a scene and alienate people.
Wanting to see the country, I bought a Ford Falcon station wagon for forty dollars and stuffed it with camping gear, clothes, and a twin mattress. Jean-Louis, my Parisian boyfriend, had some money he’d made doing tourists’ portraits on Montmartre. Together we set out to explore the American West.
When the Falcon broke down in Wyoming, a retired rancher overheard me telling Jean-Louis how much a tow would cost. “I hate to see young folks in trouble,” he announced, and we piled into his Jeep and drank beer while he pushed our car to the nearest garage.
Inspired by the rancher’s generosity, Jean-Louis and I started picking up hitchhikers, and we met many fascinating people. Heading east near the end of our adventure, we passed through Kansas, where the flat and featureless landscape had me feeling deflated. We gave a lift to a slender boy with a blond ponytail and a quiet demeanor. He was detached, uncommunicative, and mysterious.
At dusk we stopped at a country gas station. Inside I could see four middle-aged people playing cards, one of the women with her hair in rollers. When the owner emerged to pump our gas, his face was tight with mistrust, and he demanded to see the cash up front. There was anger in his voice. I wasn’t sure what to do.
As we stood there, the young hitchhiker pulled a silver flute out of his backpack and put it to his lips. The notes slipped out clear and slow beneath the rush of a passing car, and the man’s face softened. I heard the words of the song in my head: “O beautiful for spacious skies . . .”
My American-literature professor at the University of Montana was a short, feisty woman with a thick Brooklyn accent. For the first couple of weeks we read the literature of the Puritans, and our professor led lively discussions about the early settlers’ preoccupation with godliness and their habit of judging and condemning others. We all scoffed at the Puritans’ spiritual arrogance and outdated notions of piety.
One day our professor strode into the classroom without greeting us, set her bag down, and stood gazing out the window for a few minutes. Then she crossed to the podium and said, “Tell me, what’s the difference between this,” and she placed her right hand on her heart, as if to pledge allegiance to the flag, “and this?” She shot her right arm out before her in a Nazi salute.
People gasped, and several students picked up their books and stormed out of the room. The professor watched them go with a serene look on her face. After they were gone, she faced the rest of us and pointed out that no one had been offended by our impious and impolite criticism of the colonists’ ideas on God, faith, sin, and morality. But today, simply by making a couple of political gestures, she had offended people enough that they’d felt the need to leave the class.
“What does that say about our priorities in this country?” she continued. “I can make fun of people’s faith and thoughts about God, but I’d better not mess with anyone’s idea of patriotism. This scares me. And it’s something I urge you to watch out for in the coming years, because I fear that patriotism in any country carries with it the potential to go from this” — the hand on the heart — “to this,” the Nazi salute.
Eight years later, political terrorists struck the Twin Towers in New York City. President George W. Bush and his administration exploited our grief, fear, and patriotism by leading us into a war against a country that had had nothing to do with the attack. Those of us who spoke against the war were told we “didn’t love America.” I am now a teacher myself, and every time I place my hand on my heart to lead my students in the Pledge of Allegiance, I want to cry.
A few weeks after my nephew Jordan had joined the army, we got word that he would be deployed to Iraq. My sister Susan was inconsolable. She couldn’t escape the thought that her son might be shot and left to die in the desert.
After learning that the soldiers in Iraq needed items like lip balm, drink mixes, and candy, Susan focused her energy on packing care boxes. She and her husband gathered donations and found volunteers to help them pack. The effort got so big that they started a nonprofit organization.
Five thousand boxes later, Susan received a call from her congressperson alerting her that the president of the United States was coming to town and had asked to meet some local “patriotic supporters” when he landed at the airport. Susan, who hadn’t voted for George W. Bush, was still debating whether to go when she got another call, this one from Iraq: Jordan had been involved in a “serious incident” and had suffered a head injury. Little else was known.
My sister alternated between rage and despair. “I don’t want to meet the president,” she said to me through tears. “I don’t support him. I hate him, and I hate this war.”
On the morning of the president’s visit, I watched a live webcast of his arrival. He went down the line of people who’d been assembled to greet him on the tarmac, shaking hands and speaking a few words to each, until he came to a woman dressed in a business suit. It was Susan. He took her hand, and she started to speak. He leaned in and nodded, then took a pencil and pad out of his jacket pocket and wrote something down. He pulled her into a hug before moving down the line and into a waiting car. The reporters mobbed Susan, and it was several hours before I could reach her on her cellphone.
“What did you say to him?” I asked.
“I told him my son was injured, and I needed information,” she said. “I told him to check on Jordan and to do everything in his power to get our soldiers the tools they need to do their job. He wrote down Jordan’s captain’s name and said he would look into it.”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “You gave a direct order to the president of the United States?”
“I guess I did,” she said. “I mean, he does work for me, right?” And she laughed for the first time in many days.
Alexander, New York
Last year I was deployed to Iraq as an army nurse. Near the end of my tour of duty I was assigned to an air-force evacuation hospital north of Baghdad. I worked the night shift, which was a welcome relief from the 120-degree heat during the day.
Around midnight one night word came to us that an American soldier was coming in, and it didn’t look good. He was brought into the intensive-care unit by a team of people working to keep him alive. The CT-scan results were discouraging: someone said his brain looked like “scrambled eggs.” We started him on palliative care, to make his final moments as painless as possible. The lights were dimmed, and the chaplain came in. The morphine dripping into the soldier’s veins did its job. His respirations decreased; his blood pressure “circled the drain,” as we said; and his pupils were pinpoints floating in a sea of clear blue. Finally I lifted the soldier’s heavy eyelids and flashed a penlight into his eyes: no life. Another casualty to add to the list.
We transferred him to a stretcher on which a body bag had been laid out. I took a last look at his young face, then zipped up the bag. Someone draped a flag over him, and the officer in charge called the unit to attention. We saluted, then let our arms fall to our sides as the soldier’s body was wheeled out.
People may debate whether patriotism is a virtue or a vice. All I know is that, for me, on that early morning in Iraq, patriotism was flesh and blood. It had a name and a face that stills haunts me.
I grew up in an era when most families ate evening meals together. When I was twelve, my parents decided to do something different each night at dinner: my siblings and I would memorize passages from the historic documents of the United States, then recite and discuss the passages at mealtime. I was first, and my assignment was the Preamble to the Constitution. What a jolt that single sentence gave me. Until then, I had not known that “domestic tranquillity” even existed. My father was an alcoholic, and our home was often filled with his rage and my mother’s tears.
After that I memorized the opening of the Declaration of Independence, with its promise of the “pursuit of happiness” — something else I knew nothing about.
In the months it took the four of us kids to learn and discuss all these documents, I experienced a personal transformation. For the first time, I felt hope. I could see that my family was a mess, but my nation was not. I fell in love with America back then, and I still love my country, in spite of everything.
When I was a boy in the early fifties, a salesman came to our house with a collection of patriotic quotations printed in glittering type on blue card stock. My aunt bought one and attached it to the wall in the bedroom where my cousin and I slept. Then she offered each of us a fifty-cent reward if we could memorize the quote and recite it for her. In those days fifty cents was a considerable amount of money to a pair of eleven-year-old boys. We practiced reciting that speech until we were saying it in our sleep.
More than half a century later, I am sitting in a prison cell, and those words, by Patrick Henry, torment me in ways my aunt never intended: “Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God. I know not what course others might take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death.”
I was born in China, and when I was in first grade, I heard adults whispering about someone called “Nixon” coming from the United States to meet with Chairman Mao.
By the time I was in fifth grade, a few major Chinese cities had opened their doors to the Western world. To prepare young students for the possibility of running into a foreigner, the principal of our school called an assembly. She related to us a story about a “patriotic” man in Beijing: The man was out walking one day, empty-handed and dressed in shabby clothes, when he noticed a foreigner following him with a camera. The Chinese man walked into a store and a few minutes later emerged with brand-new clothes, carrying a big bag of flour on his shoulder and holding a bundle of groceries in the other hand. He smiled and invited the foreigner to take his picture. Our principal said we should all learn from this man how to demonstrate our patriotism.
My city was several hundred miles from Beijing, and I never had the chance to show a foreigner how patriotic I was. But I was prepared.
I have been studying and living in the U.S. for almost eighteen years now and have even married an American and started a family here. Recently I had a conversation with an American co-worker who had just returned from a trip to China. She told me there had been construction everywhere in Beijing as the city prepared for the 2008 Olympic games. Behind the fancy new construction, however, she had seen some run-down buildings and a beggar lying on the sidewalk. For a moment, I felt as if I were back in fifth grade, and I tried hard to think of something patriotic to say.
When I was little, the Fourth of July smelled like charred hot dogs and fresh-cut grass. An anonymous neighbor stuck small American flags in every lawn on our block, and my brother, my sister, and I would spend a barefoot day in the backyard, then an early evening scouting a location from which to watch the fireworks on the edge of the elementary-school baseball field.
As I lay on a quilt, “O beautiful for spacious skies . . .” issuing from the speakers in the background, I felt a booming in my heart. I belonged in this country. This must be what patriotism feels like, I thought.
In the summer of 2006 the Fourth of July smelled to me like the sodden belongings of families expelled from their homes and the moldy remains of marginal lives. I was in Katrina-ravaged New Orleans, chaperoning a group of students from the Manhattan high school where I teach. On Independence Day we gutted houses and canvassed for a grass-roots organization that helped those who had lost homes in the storms. Weary-eyed residents sat on sagging porches and told us their stories. They had given up waiting for this great nation, which was supposed to hold them safe in her palm, to restore what they’d lost.
At dark a few halfhearted fireworks filled the southern sky. In the flashes of light, I looked around me at the shabby homes, the empty streets, the skittering rodents, and the piles of soggy, abandoned possessions.
These people, whose lives were so far removed from my own, were Americans. They were savvy and tenacious and kept their spirits up by telling stories, sharing food, and refusing to abandon their hometown and one another. The knowledge that I belonged to them, and they to me, made my heart boom.
Brooklyn, New York
© Margaret Luckey-Helenius
Every summer the White family arrived in our beachside military town for their annual vacation. The Whites’ children were about the same ages as my siblings and I, and our moms were old friends.
The high point of the summer was when General White arrived on Fourth of July weekend. He’d drive us to the beach in his white-and-red Ford Fairlane convertible, flashing his boyish smile. He was a competitive athlete who played tennis as if every point were a matter of life and death, but off the court his demeanor was friendly, and his bushy blond eyebrows would arch in delight at our antics. After a few days, he’d leave, and I wouldn’t see him again for another year. I knew little about him except that he looked sharp in his uniform and that he loved our country. For me he was patriotism personified.
The last time I saw General White was in 1970. I was fresh out of college, free to pursue my dream of surfing in Hawaii. The general’s oldest son and I had taken jobs building a railroad to transport tourists. We were living in a scruffy camp in the cane fields of Maui when General White paid us a visit to see how his boy was doing. He must have had higher aspirations for his son, but his tone was gentle and nonjudgmental. The foreman on the railroad crew, who had spent a few years in Vietnam, was proud to shake General White’s hand, and the general seemed touched and thanked the young man for having served his country. I, the soon-to-be draft dodger, stood by in silence.
Years after the war in Vietnam ended, the general died of a heart attack. Since then I’ve learned that, after he retired from the army, he went to work for a bank that had laundered money from the Southeast Asian heroin trade during the war. The funds were used to finance a covert U.S. program that sent hit men to assassinate Vietnamese officials and village leaders suspected of sympathizing with the Communists. As a result of the program, more than twenty thousand civilians were murdered.
My husband, John, came home from Iraq blustering and invigorated, and he told anyone who would listen how well the war was going. He insisted that the media were showing only the negative side, whereas he’d witnessed firsthand the many positive outcomes.
He’d been there, and I hadn’t, so I respected his opinions and kept my views to myself. Our marriage was contentious enough already. We almost never agreed on politics: he’s a Republican who joined the marines at age seventeen; I was raised by liberal hippies.
For months John would blast Toby Keith’s song “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue,” which made me feel ashamed to be an American. I let our children know that I saw no humor in the lyric “lighting up your ass like it’s the Fourth of July.” John supported me on that, at least. The kids have always known how I feel about the war and our president. They enjoy telling me Bush jokes, though I ask them not to do it around their father, out of respect for his views and his service to our country.
A couple of years have passed since my husband came back, and I’ve noticed that when comedians on TV crack jokes about the war or the president, John laughs with me. He no longer defends the Bush administration or insists that all is well.
Recently I had John take a quiz that claims to tell you which presidential candidate best matches your views. The quiz told him his top two matches were Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. He was surprised, and I joked about luring him over to the “dark side.” He answered that he may indeed be converting. I’m still in shock.
My father was talking into a megaphone. I stood beside him, holding his pant leg. Behind us the La Jolla High School band stood ready to play. Hundreds of townspeople had gathered at the Cove to watch our own United States Marine Corps stage a mock landing on the beach below us.
It was December 7, 1942, the one-year anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. My mom was holding my baby brother, Jimmy. Sitting beside her were my blind grandmother, her eyes closed and a smile on her lips, and Popeye, my father’s father, watching through his thick glasses.
My father led the crowd in singing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” tears streaking his face. My smiling grandmother’s cheeks were wet too. This was the same beach where my parents brought me to splash in the water and watch Popeye play shuffleboard. Today, though, we were sitting on bleachers above the sand, and crowds of people were gathered on the bluffs above us.
A small boat approached the shore; it was painted gray, like the big Navy battleship farther out in the water. My father asked everyone to stand and sing the Marines’ Hymn: “From the halls of Montezuma . . .” The boat’s flat bow door slammed down onto the surf, and out jumped marines with guns, their faces blackened. They struggled at first to find footing in the waves, and then advanced up the beach, as if looking for someone. Guns went off, grenades exploded, and black smoke billowed from the nearby caves. I cried out, and my father picked me up and held me. “It’s OK,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.”
Men came running out of the caves, firing rifles, but the marines prevailed, and these other men fell down and lay still on the sand. I trembled and hugged Dad’s neck tighter.
“It’s OK, Bill,” he said. “We’re just pretending to fight the Japs.”
The high-school band began to play the song about when “those caissons go rolling along.” More soldiers ran out of the caves and onto the rocks, right into the bullets our boys fired at them from their positions on the beach.
“It’s not real,” my dad said to stop me from crying. “They aren’t using real bullets.”
When the firing came to an end, the gulls were all gone, and everything was quiet. My parents’ and grandparents’ faces were tear stained and proud. My dad blew a whistle, long and shrill. “Remember Pearl Harbor!” he yelled. Everyone clapped and cheered.
For years after, my father had to come into my bedroom at night to reassure me that there wasn’t a Japanese soldier in my closet, waiting to kill me with his long, shiny sword.
In the summer of 1983 I spent three days at the Women’s Encampment for a Future of Peace and Justice in Seneca Falls, New York. Ten thousand women had gathered there to protest our government’s nuclear-arms policy through nonviolent action at the gates of the Seneca Army Depot, reputed to be the storage facility for such weapons as the neutron bomb and the Pershing II missile.
Each morning we made our way to the depot gates, singing ourselves hoarse to keep our spirits buoyed. Once, a man stood on the edge of the street and held a sign that proclaimed, “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it!”
At the gates to the army depot, there were a dozen counterprotesters, and emotions ran high. One woman waved an American flag and scorned us, but another beside her looked puzzled as she listened to our chants. The next day, she approached me with questions about the encampment, like how we got our meals (I told her about our giant communal kitchens) and how we kept clean (I explained that I stood at the sink and splashed here and there). I was wearing a bright yellow button that read, “One nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day.” We laughed together about how true the sentiment was. She surprised me by asking if she could have it. I pinned it on her, and we hugged.
Great Barrington, Massachusetts
My second-grade teacher was on a campaign to imbue her students with an unquestioning love for our country. We learned patriotic songs, memorized the presidents, and listened to constant lectures about how great America was.
My parents, on the other hand, were the only radical back-to-the-landers for miles around, and they made no secret of their distaste for anything patriotic. At PTA meetings, they refused to stand to pledge allegiance to the flag or sing the national anthem. “Rah, rah,” my mother would say, wrinkling her nose and turning down her mouth, whenever we witnessed anything that could be construed as flag waving.
I felt torn between the worlds of home and school. I had a crush on George Washington, but I couldn’t help believing deep down that my parents were right.
That was a presidential-election year, and our teacher had us cast mock votes. Afterward she asked, “How many of you voted for Nixon?” Every hand in the class went up, including the teacher’s. Although I had remembered my parents’ distaste for Nixon and voted against him, I didn’t have the courage to be the lone dissenter. My hand went up, too.
My parents were both born in Iowa in 1942, but that’s about all their backgrounds had in common. My mom was raised in the capital city of Des Moines, the pampered daughter of a successful business owner and proud member of the NRA, the John Birch Society, and the Shriners. Her mother quietly managed the household, ironing every piece of laundry, including underwear, and carefully reapplied her makeup each evening before her husband got home from work. He wore a pin of hers behind his lapel every day of their fifty-plus-year marriage.
My dad was a country boy whose father worked for the state agriculture department. His mother was an art teacher who played the piano. If domestic skills were important to her, you couldn’t tell by the clutter in their home or the unidentifiable dishes she’d serve for dinner. In middle age his mother and father traveled to Third World countries to teach farmers how to improve their crop yields, and after retirement they donated significant portions of their pensions to charity.
When I was a girl, we saw my grandparents only once or twice a year. It surprised me, then, when both sets of grandparents arrived for a visit on the same weekend. It was 1972, the year of the heaviest U.S. bombing against North Vietnam, and protests were common. I was six years old.
The visit went smoothly until my parents, desiring some time alone, sent my younger sister and me to the mall with all four grandparents. A photo taken in the aftermath of the excursion tells the story: In the picture, the grandparents wear serious, pinched expressions, while my sister and I are grinning at the camera, delighted with the treasures we have acquired at the mall. We are each holding an American flag in one hand and a helium balloon with a peace sign on it in the other.
For years I yelled at the TV, angry at the throng of mean-spirited politicians who were running our country into the ditch. Then a friend suggested I quit ranting and do something about it, so I joined my county’s Democratic Central Committee. I made phone calls, organized fundraisers, produced newsletters, and eventually became a state central committeewoman.
At a candidate forum I’d helped organize, I surveyed the capacity crowd, which had self-separated into two camps on either side of the aisle. I took a seat on our side behind a friend of mine, an old-school Democrat in a black beret decorated with vintage campaign buttons.
As the debate began, I looked over at the other side of the room, curious to see the people I’d been at war with for some time. Directly across the aisle from us sat a man the same age as my friend. Every time my friend nodded his head to a point well made, the other man shook his head no, and vice versa. He and my friend were virtual twins: they were approximately the same age, and both wore faded bluejeans and hats adorned with political buttons; both sat with crossed arms, looking guarded and angry; both had sweet-looking, bespectacled women at their sides. I knew my friend loved fly-fishing. Did his counterpart like to fish? It was likely these men could have been friends. But they were stalwart patriots with different views of what patriotism meant, and thus they never would be.
Since I’d gotten involved in politics, I had, in truth, become more frustrated and vitriolic than ever. I wondered how many good friends I would never know.
I grew up on U.S. Air Force bases and remember my dad marching in military parades on Flag Day. If we happened to be driving on base when the flag was being lowered at sunset, my mom would stop the car, and I would get out, stand at attention, and put my hand over my heart. My brother, an Eagle Scout, knew the precise, ritualized way to fold the flag. And, of course, every school day started with the Pledge of Allegiance.
As the Vietnam War intensified, we saw more and more casualties come home in flag-draped caskets: young boys the same age as I, their lives cut short, and for what? At the gravesides, widows and grieving mothers received neatly folded flags. I could barely look at the flag anymore, much less pledge allegiance to it.
Many years passed, and my country went to war again, this time in the Persian Gulf. The boys and girls sent to fight were my son’s age. I participated in a demonstration in Los Angeles and threw blood on the Federal Building’s bronze seal. “No Blood for Oil,” our signs read. I was arrested and went before the judge, who asked me when I would like to start serving my sentence. I looked at the flag displayed in the courtroom and said, “The Fourth of July.”
Green Valley Lake, California
As I read the Readers Write on “Patriotism” [June 2008] I thought it is possible that some of those who chose not to sign their name did so because they feared retribution. I grew up in communist Eastern Europe and had the local brand of patriotism drilled into me there. After I came to the U.S., I realized that my childhood suspicions were true: the patriotism I’d grown up with was based on a pack of lies.
It’s dangerous when politicians of any persuasion try to divide the people and control dissent using the idea of patriotism. The citizens of a country need to be informed and allowed to voice their opinions without fear of retribution from their neighbors or government.