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  • November 5th, 2017

ONCE AGAIN

I’ve posted this piece several times since I wrote it several years ago. Every day seems to bring new divisions in the country and new animosity among people that used to be United—or at least most of the time. We are a country of immigrants, of diverse religious, political, and social beliefs, and that is our strength. It is, when we forget, that we begin to become unraveled. I’ve submitted this for publication at least two dozen times and no one has seen fit to publish it. Perhaps it’s just no good, perhaps the editors are idiots, perhaps I should retire and listen to Beethoven.

By Joel M. Vance
It was Veteran’s Day and our local symphony orchestra preceded Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with a tribute to the nation’s servicemen and women. “Bring the house lights up,” said the concert master, “and all those who have served in the military stand up.”
Quite a few men stood, mostly bent with age and various infirmities. I didn’t stand, although I spent 13 years in the Reserves and National Guard. But when I was in the Guard we attended weekly drills, and for two weeks each summer we invaded northern Minnesota to keep the nation safe from people named Olson.
I didn’t feel entitled to be showered with the same appreciation given to men who actually did risk taking a bullet for us.
The old men sat and we hunkered down for the musicale. The first number was a medley of patriotic songs. “Over There” echoed from the War to End All Wars (several wars ago) and that morphed into “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” I appreciated the homage to the guys with the long guns in “The Caisson Song,” even though I never saw a caisson during my tenure in the artillery.
And finally they played “American the Beautiful” and I realized that my eyes were wet. This is a beautiful country, not like any other. It offers everyone the chance to be something, just like it promises.
Some citizens choose to be evil, mean, obnoxious, bigoted and awful. Others choose to be saintly. Some go to church, well, religiously, while others just as religiously avoid it. Supposedly Stephen Decatur said, ”… may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!” Since, it has been corrupted to “my country—right or wrong” but if every citizen hewed to that philosophy we still would be paying homage to a queen and eating boiled kidneys.
We are a nation founded on civil disobedience. My immediate response to bumper stickers reading “My country—love it or leave it” is anger because what they really mean is “my country—love it my way or leave it.” And it’s not “my” country. It’s ours, mine too, even when I disagree with the bumper sticker bigots.
We should acknowledge that maybe we aren’t as good as we think we are…and try to do better. It’s not fruitful to talk only of the glories of the mountains and the prairie and the oceans white with foam…and ignore the ghettos and the mountain top strip mining and the many other abscesses on the face of the nation.
But to concentrate on those open sores at the expense of all that’s right with the land is as wrong as refusing to admit them. There is no anthem called “America the Ugly” and I hope there never is. We can’t control the occurrence of hurricanes, ice storms, floods or, most of the time, wildfires, but we can control the ugliness and despair of human life. We just don’t try hard enough.
It sounds Pollyannaish, but the alternative is to grumble and carp and create a sort of national dyspepsia. There is no cosmic Pepto Bismol. I hark back to the Eisenhower Decade, the 1950s when I graduated from high school and college, got married and participated in creating our first child—a momentous time that is accused today of being a national nap.
Maybe so, but it also was the decade when the high speed interstate highways we love today were born, when the Korean War ended and when we enjoyed postwar prosperity, economic growth and that 10-year nap. Conversely, it also was a decade when we overused pesticides, swallowed the family farm with a corporate one, used the mega-machines developed for war to create environmental outrage, and heard the first whispers of Viet Nam and the racial unrest that would plague the 1960s—evil twins that still haunt us today.
We will always be a nation at war with itself specifically because of our freedom to do so. For every mining entrepreneur who would rip the top from a beautiful mountain to get at the precious ores beneath there is someone who will tie himself to a tree to prevent it. For every sodbuster who would upend the last native acre of native prairie with massive plows there is someone who would buy that prairie only to leave it alone to bake in the summer sun and bend beneath winter’s nor-westers.
While diversity can be aggravating, it’s what makes this country the confused whirlwind it is. It’s no great revelation that we live in a country that embraces every form of human behavior that offers vistas from majestic to dismal.
So once in a while it is helpful to the human spirit to hear a local symphony play “America the Beautiful” and really mean it.
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