I know I must have been one of millions who were quite taken aback by Dick Cheney’s “We’ll do it anyway” response to the growing rearguard action against the planned escalation of US troops in Iraq. I refuse to call it a “surge” because it makes our diplomatic ambivalence seem so very menopausal. Ooops, George is having a hot flash, and he’s sending in the marines! But, truly, all joking aside, I found the comment such a sad response, such a demonstration of the arrogance that is creating a chasm between us and our allies, between us and the rest of the world, let alone the effect it’s having on our enemies. It has the ring of adolescent temper, which is wholly inappropriate a response to those who are representing their constituents when they voice such doubt – makes you wonder, yet again, what happened to “We the people.”
I have been wondering exactly when that teenage enthusiasm, that sunny optimism, that legendary generosity - the mythical representation of the can-do county – degenerated into such demonstrations of selfishness. Perhaps I feel this acutely because I am an immigrant, and I know my path to America began with that golden image. So, instead of dwelling on the skin-crawling know-it-all attitude of the Bush-Cheney leadership, or lack thereof, I will tell you a story – an ordinary little story really – because I want to believe that the America dream, that youthful goodness, is alive and well in the people of America, whatever their political or religious stripe.
Imagine London in 1944. The British, especially those in London, Liverpool, Coventry, Glasgow, and other blitz-blasted cities, are garnering every ounce of spirit to get them through who knows how many more years of rationing, of the “Blood, toil, tears and sweat,” promised by Winston Churchill and duly served up by Adolf Hitler’s Luftwaffe. It’s August 7th, and three teenage girls have a day off work (most ordinary kids started work at 12 or 14 in those days) so they go to Hyde Park for a walk in the park on a summer’s day. It’s the 17th birthday of one of those girls, which is why they are walking in the park. Three pretty girls in the park are a bit of a magnet for three young American airmen, who soon follow them, and start chatting them up. Who can blame them. They find out that there’s a birthday girl in the trio, and ask what she had for her birthday. The girls laugh, rolling their eyes. You Americans! They inform the boys that, if they hadn’t already noticed, there’s a war on, and what with rationing and the bombs, you’re lucky if you get a card, let alone a present. The airmen were shocked. No gifts on a birthday? Then they had a talk among themselves and said, “Meet you back here in a couple of hours.” And off they went. The girls rolled their eyes again. Americans! But two hours later they were at the allotted place, and even as they walked towards the boys they could see the bouquet of flowers they carried and the huge box of American chocolates. There may even have been a packet of nylon stockings in there somewhere. The birthday girl hadn’t tasted a chocolate for years, and had certainly never had a box of them. They laughed, joked, and walked together, the boys being boys, jumping on and off benches, arms stretched wide, and yelling, “Watch me, I’m a B29!” Soon it was time for the girls to leave, because you had to be down the air-raid shelter before dark, and there would be trouble if they were late. And the boys had to get back to their base, and they were definitely late already. That evening, when my mother brought her birthday chocolates down into the shelter, people refused her when she offered them to her neighbors, because they jumped to the wrong conclusion regarding the means by which she acquired such bounty. So, as the bombs dropped around them, my mother savored each chocolate one by one, announcing out loud that she was now eating the cherry cream, or the coffee crunch, and here’s a – oh, really lovely – caramel. She wasn’t going to let Hitler or anyone else, for that matter, rain on her parade.
When she told me that story, she said she always wondered about those boys, the fact that they had been so kind, so generous, and whether they had made it through the war. I remember her shrugging and saying, “We were all just kids. And it was wartime.”
That story is part of my journey to America, because it’s part of my American Dream. And I get so hurt, really, when I see these politicians making mincemeat of what America meant to the rest of the world, once. When I see the country’s youthful exuberance, that optimism and willingness to help, take on a dark aura. I, for one, cannot wait for this stage to be over, and some of the gravitas, the measured consideration of adulthood take its place. But I would still like to keep the part of America that gives chocolates to a stranger in Hyde Park, because it’s her birthday.