Friday, January 26, 2007

The American Dream

from Jacqueline

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.

14 comments:

  1. This is wonderful... and I wish there were some way to Google "nice young man who gave birthday chocolates in Hyde Park" and find out who he was.

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  2. from Jacqueline

    And you know, Cornelia, whenever I see WW! veterans marching, or at an event, I always try to imagine them as young men, and wonder if one of them was with the trio who gave my mum a lovely 17th birthday in the midst of war.

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  3. My dad was in England for at least part of the war. Do you suppose...

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  4. from Jacqueline

    Well, well, well, Patty, stranger things have happened, haven't they?

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  5. from Jacqueline

    Oh, and by the way, in my response to Cornelia's comment, I meant to say WW2 - my mother will kill me, she isn't THAT old!

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  6. A good friend of my family was a navigator for the USA's 8th AF in England during WWII. Burt Frauman was just the sort who would have done that for your mother. He had a long and wonderful life. I remember his laughing smile singing Christmas caroles with my family, even though he was Jewish. His and his wife's favorite was always Silent Night. This past XMAS was the first after he died. So many of those "boys" are now gone.

    On a different note, it always cheers me in times like these to drag out my Tom Lehrer tapes and sing along to his "Send the Marines" written when LBJ thought sending more of them to Viet Nam was a good idea.

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  7. from Jacqueline

    Thanks, Alice, for your comment - and I think that, what with Patty's dad, and your uncle, all we need is one more candidate and we've got our three kind American boys!

    And thanks for reminding us about LBJ's "send in the marines" solution in Viet Nam. Seems like one of those lessons never to be properly learned, the "scatter method" theory of military success - just throw enough young soldiers into the jaws of hell and you're bound to come up smelling of roses. Well, that's not the aroma wafting under my nose right now.

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  8. I'm afraid you left off the willing, supportive and misguided Tony Blair who in his wisdom, was probably thinking about how the Americans saved Britain from the Nazis and that he owed America British support. But hate to tell you "when this period is over" might be after were gone. Hilary Clinton supports the war effort.
    Nice romantic and heartfelt story about your Mom.

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  9. from Jacqueline

    Don't even get me started on Blair (or as they call him over there, "Blare.") There's a man who went to war with (according to reports) over 80% of the country against him, and those that were with him tended to be of that older generation who thought Britain owed America for the help in WW2. Great book written several years ago by Paul Seitz, called, "Over There." He was that rare thing, a career diplomat who became a key ambassador - it's usually a grace and favor role given to a crony - and he wrote with great insight about his tenure as the US Ambassador to Britain under both George B. the First and Clinton. Anyone who wonders about the so-called "special relationship" should read it - it's smart, funny and bang on the money. Mind you, I don't think it was published over here.

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  10. What a lovely story, Jacqueline! I can see where you get your strength of character and joie de vivre from. :-D

    Okay: guilty pleasure - I always enjoyed singing along to my mum's Vera Lynn tapes when I was in my teens.

    I used to get copies of The Best of British magazine when they came into Borders, but they no longer carry it. Ugh. I so looked forward to all of the reminiscing going on in the articles - both war and non-war - because it touched my life in some way. We've got British roots home in Australia - it flavoured so much of our lifestyle back there. :-D And the Brits have such fun recreating events, and dressing up for WW2 re-enactments all over Britain. Sigh. They look like so much fun...

    Marianne

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  11. Jacqueline,
    Thank you for this wonderful story.

    I was a foreign exchange student in France during the Watergate saga. I remember how naive the French thought we Americans were vis a vis our politicians and corruption. They couldn't believe that we'd be scandalized as a nation that our president was so crooked.

    We've lost our virginity as a nation. It's so damn sad.

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  12. What a wonderful story. It's a picture of the America I think all of us, immigrants or native born, would like to remember and hope to see again some day. I am amazed--no, I am horrified--that an administration which claims to want to bring democracy to Iraq, refuses to allow democracy in its own country. Well, they may be the deciders, but we are the voters.

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  13. AH, Jacqueline, once again, you get directly to the heart of the matter -- something the "powers that be" (at the moment) seem to be hopelessly lacking. Thanks for the poignant portrait of humanity at its best!

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  14. God bless your Mom--wonderful story. Too seldom do we get the good stories. With the "public's right to know" we have "lost our virginity"--politics, religion, sports, law and order. Where do our children and grandchildren look for heroes?
    Has any countryever won a war when they were fighting guerillas?

    Tom, T.O.

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