Saturday, July 4, 2009

What is American About America

What is American About America?
A school teacher asked her 10th grade students to write a paper describing what is American about America. The young folks were free to interview anyone they wished and a young man asked me.

After I had a chance to think about it, I answered...

America was best captured, for me, the afternoon I stood at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and watched people come and go. They came with a quiet, interested, demeanor and their willingness to respect the family that will never know if their son is alive somewhere, or dead, spoke volumes about their understanding.

I found it again at the Vietnam Memorial Wall, on the mall, in Washington. I went there looking for the name of a young boy that went off to war in 1965 and never came home. I found his name near the middle, on a very tall stone and had to stand on tip-toe to touch it. It was almost midnight, on a wonderfully warm January night, and when my fingers grazed the carved name, I suddenly remembered every detail about young Billy Smith, from New York. Billy Smith will remain, forever, seventeen. His gift to America truly noteworthy, because he gave all he would ever have and America took it and gave him a carved place on a stone in America's capital.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Charlie, I met America again, as I offered communion to relief workers and hurricane victims, alike, in a breezy tent, alongside a shopping mall. Ragged, sad and dirty, they just kept coming. Even after we ran out of the elements and had to make do with that which was at hand, they came for a bit of comfort and to be close to someone else, in their loss.

On top of a lonely mountain, in South Western Virginia, I met America, one other time, when the neighborhood families met to join hands at midnight, and listen, on Christmas Eve, for the sound of Angels singing the birth of Jesus Christ.

America is an idea, not a place. It is a belief in the greater good of mankind and the endless possibilities of freedom.

America is the leather-worn hands of migrant farm workers, eking out a life, riding buses criss crossing the farm states, making almost nothing and having just that. It's the flags flying on Main Street, on July Fourth and Wreaths hanging from street lamps in December. It is found in church basements, where housewives prepare pot-luck dinners and little league fields where ten year olds, pretend they are Ken Griffey Junior and David Ortiz.

America finds you, my friend. You are just along for the ride.

Enjoy the ride. There never will be another like it.


  1. When John Kouwenhoven first posed this question in 1956, he listed 12 things he thought were indisputably American. Here's our effort at an updated list:

    1. American Flag
    2. Constitution
    3. Declaration of Independence
    4. White House
    5. Statue of Liberty
    6. Baseball
    7. Hollywood
    8. Fast Food
    9. Cowboy/girl
    10. American automobiles
    11. Suburbs
    12. Immigrants

    Skidmore College, AM221, Spring 2011

  2. Skidmore Update: February 5, 2015

    1. Disney World
    2. NFL Football
    3. Cowboys
    4. Jazz/Blues/Hip-Hop
    5. Fast Food
    6. Am. Exceptionalism
    7. Superman
    8. Hollywood
    9. Red Solo Cups
    10. Freedom
    11. Statue of Liberty
    12. Pick-up Trucks


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