As a child I was fairly proficient at math and strangely fascinated by statistics. One day I was crunching the numbers and discovered that a person had about one chance in twenty-five of being born in The United States. I was thrilled to be one of the elect and no little relieved to have escaped the fate of those other poor saps who weren’t fortunate enough to be Americans. There are times I still feel that way. There are times I don’t.
What is this curious creature, though: the American?
Any time I hear a foreigner hold forth with such confidence on what is characteristic of Americans, I roll my eyes. I tend to do the same when Americans give it a try. I do think that people tend to make one of two contrary mistakes: either they conclude that an American is a sort of monolithic being with a given set of characteristics (i.e., we are all alike); or they conclude that there is no such thing as “American,” that we’re a collection of disparate elements come together haphazardly over the last four centuries and never managing to coalesce. To this I respond, yes, we’re all different, but we’re all American different.
The American I know best is me. I don’t claim I’m representative, but I was born the first year of the baby boom, so I’ve lived through the entirety of the American history that most of us have any first-hand knowledge of. The only way I can describe my Americanness is not through a list of characteristics but through my experiences: what I did, what I saw, what I felt.
To the best of my knowledge, America has never had an equivalent of Nazi Germany’s Hitler youth, but if we’d had one when I was young, I’d have been first in line to join up.
It was hard not to be patriotic back then (the 1950s). In school, we stood to say the Pledge of Allegiance every morning in our homerooms. In Vacation Bible School at my church, I was one morning chosen to carry in the flag for the opening ceremonies—and damn proud of it. We attended 4th of July parades. A statue of a Doughboy striding forth to meet the foe stood on our courthouse lawn. Plaques listing the honored dead from World Wars I and II and Korea were affixed to the base, and I’d gaze at the names with admiration bordering on adoration. (I returned to the old hometown a couple of years ago and saw that a plaque for Vietnam War dead had been added. I was glad my name didn’t appear there. More on Vietnam later.)
All my schoolmates were subjected to the same patriotic displays. Did all buy into it like I did?
When I was a youngster and “The Star-Spangled Banner” was played before a sporting event on TV, I’d often spring up, right there in the living room, and stand at attention. No Hitler Youth ever stood more proudly for the Nazi flag.
In seventh grade I was appointed captain of the “patrol boys.” One of my duties was to take down the flag every day after school and fold it in the American-Legion-approved manner. It was a two-man job, so I had help, but I always exercised my prerogative and carried the flag into the office for safe keeping. When I was in college, I heard that over Christmas break some fools had run a cat up that same flagpole where it froze to death and remained until school reopened. Had that happened when I was a boy, I would have been aghast that the flagpole from which the Stars and Stripes proudly waved had been so disrespected. But by my college years, my attitude had begun to change, and I just thought it was funny. (Today, I wouldn’t give the flag issue a second thought, but I’d be outraged at the abuse of the cat.)
My childhood patriotism was boundless. We had a huge world atlas in the rear of which were pie charts showing the percent of the world’s resources (iron, wheat, etc.) produced by various countries. My heart swelled with pride when the US came in first or at least had a significant wedge of a pie. I was not a fan of tin. Of tin the US had zilch. China had most of it. Who gave a damn anyway? Who wanted anything tinny? Hell with tin!
I got into an argument with a grade school teacher who told the class that London was the world’s largest city. My hand shot up like a Nazi salute. Not so not so, I informed one and all. Perfidious Albion liked to claim suburbs in their London population while denying same for our beloved New York City. Include suburbs in both, and NYC is larger. Included suburbs in neither, and NYC is larger. Ungrateful Limeys. We pull their chestnuts out of the fire in two world wars, and they go and pull this crap.
I didn’t much care for England, to be honest. I recall when I was old enough to be interested in history one day enthusing to my father that the US surely had the most fascinating history of any country; but he said, “Oh, I don’t know. England has a very interesting history.” England!
I worried about my father. There had been signs that he was not always right-thinking even before this. America’s nuclear might was an ongoing source of pride to me, but when I told my dad I’d heard on the radio that we now had a cobalt bomb whose radiation could kill everything within scores of miles, he visibly shuddered. What was wrong with the man? To doubt America was to doubt me, the All-American boy.
I didn’t have much to compare America to, though, outside of books. In grade school I memorized “Man without a Country”—“Breathes there a man with soul so dead . . .” yadda yadda)—and sort of felt that if you weren’t American, you didn’t have a native land, at least not one worth talking about. The poem was quoted in a story by the American writer Edward Everett Hale. I had no idea that it was actually written by a Brit, Sir Walter Scott. Had I known, I would have been nonplussed. But then we Americans often are about such things.
My encounters with non-Americans were few. I vividly recall walking down Ohio Street in my hometown when a couple passed, and the man said something to the woman. I whirled. He was speaking something other than English. I was probably twelve at the time, and it was the first time I’d heard a foreign language spoken.
I went to foreign countries twice in my youth. We visited my sister and her husband at Ft. Bliss in El Paso and one afternoon took a taxi across the river into Juarez. The taxi driver pulled up to the curb before a souvenir shop. My father opened the door, the edge of which immediately struck and broke a large ceramic pot obviously positioned there for just that purpose. My dad of course paid up, or we’d all no doubt have been tossed in a piss-reeking Mexican jail where we’d still be languishing.
On a later vacation we took a drive up through Detroit into Canada, then on across to Niagara Falls. The Canadians were polite, of course, and we never worried about getting our throats cut as we did in our half-hour in Mexico, but I felt uneasy the whole way. We had trouble finding a place to stop for lunch. Not a McDonald’s in sight. Sacre bleu! How did people live that way? I tell you, podna, we were glad to get back to the old US of A.
Other foreign encounters, while not face to face, were more troubling. I couldn’t have been more than four or five. I was playing with some toy down on the linoleum floor of my aunt and uncle’s kitchen. The adults sat at the table above me listening to the radio. Static. I couldn’t hear clearly and was too young to fully grasp it anyway, but there was fighting going on. Something about Korea. The adults wore anxious expressions. If they were worried, I was worried. My mother could remember men shooting shotguns into the air when World War I ended, but I don’t recall anything like that for Korea. But then of course it didn’t end in victory; it hasn’t really ended at all. America was entering a more troubling age. So was I.
Mention to any American my age the year 1957, and one word will likely spring to mind: Sputnik. There it was for all to see (literally; I can remember looking up into the night sky, and if you knew where and when to look, you’d see it), circling the globe every . . . well, I used to know down to the minute how long it took.
We Americans were humiliated, chagrined. Those half-civilized, semi-literate Russians had done it, and we couldn’t. We watched our TVs with dismay as time after time we tried to launch satellites into space only to see the rockets explode on the launchpad; rise twenty feet and then sink back down in a crumpled, blazing heap; rise and do a frenzied somersault before exploding.
We weren’t just humiliated, we were scared. If they could put a satellite up there, they could put a bomb in it, drop it right on us. There was nothing we could do to stop it!
It seemed to take forever, but in a fairly short time we got our own satellite up there, had our own missiles and of course our H-bombs to go with them. And then the race was on. But we could never catch the Commies. Still the little statistics freak, I’d look with consternation at the figure charts in the paper showing the Pinkos’ advantage in missiles and bombs. (No doubt there are still people of my generation who believe that this was true. Let them be advised that the fabled “missile gap” was just that: a fable concocted by our propaganda folks. The US always had a considerable advantage in bombs and missiles. The Soviets knew it and were more scared of us than we were of them.)
I was glued to the tube watching the periodic US-Soviet track meets but saw more to bemoan than cheer. They seemed to be supermen. Their high-jumper jumped higher than ours. Their pole-vaulter vaulted higher. There was even a Russian—a white¬ guy—who could sprint faster than our current Jessie Owens avatars.
I was still American all the way, but America’s confidence had been shaken, and so was mine. The generation of the 50s had let things slip. But it was the 60s now. Time for my generation.
When I was a senior in high school (1963 or ‘64), our teacher, Mr. Lamb, pulled down a wall map of the world and pointed to a country so tiny I couldn’t see it from the back row. “This is Vietnam,” he said. I don’t recall if I’d heard the name before. Certainly, I’d had no idea where it was and didn’t much care. Whatever point he was making eludes me now and probably did then. But Vietnam was to have great impact on my country—our sense of identity, purpose, and stature in the world—and hence on me.
But it’s full effect on me was still some years down the road. I had to get through college
first. And there were other things going on in America, some of more immediate concern than Vietnam. The Civil Rights movement, for instance, became a war in itself, and right here in our own cities. I’d grown up with an ultra-liberal father and considered myself without prejudice. But if I didn’t hate them, it became obvious from what I saw on TV that they hated me. And it was scary. I never gave a thought in those days to our increasing involvement in Vietnam, but I gave many a thought, and shudder, to the war in our streets. Memphis wasn’t that far away. Chicago, where my sister lived, was closer. Kansas City was right up the road.
Shortly after the Martin Luther King assassination, I was walking through the student union at my college and saw a knot of students huddled around a map of Kansas City, where most of them were from. “We’ll let them go here, here, or here,” the ringleader was saying, pointing to the map, “but if they try to cross this street, we’ll blow their asses away.” The “they” obviously were black rioters, and the knot of students were white. If anyone reading this today thinks it was all youthful bravado, idle threats, let me assure you times were different then. Asses would have been blown away. It’s no coincidence that black rioters almost never crossed into the white parts of cities.
Whom did liberal, nonprejudiced me side with? I’m not sure I can answer that definitively. I will declare in all honesty that I would not have had the courage to be a Freedom Rider, nor to have been one of the white people marching with Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama. Not the courage and maybe not the conviction.
But those hate-stoked fires did cause me to re-evaluate my racial attitudes and experiences. Hadn’t I and my other white, mostly-liberal friends grown up calling the area of our hometown north of Main “Niggertown”? Hadn’t we attended a high school that was technically integrated even though I had no black students in my classes and don’t recall seeing one in the hallways or cafeteria? Yes, black parents could send their children there, but few did. Most still attended all-black Hubbard High. The powers-that-be, though, were sharp. They eliminated all sports activities at Hubbard. Black athletes played for “integrated” Smith-Cotton High. Our basketball teams improved immensely, and we cheered for the black athletes with total impartiality.
I still haven’t sorted out my racial attitudes and experiences from those days. America hasn’t, either. We continued to march, America and I, in lockstep.
Speaking of marching . . .
I won’t say I was oblivious to Vietnam in college. One couldn’t be with broadcasts full of it and our newspaper putting a little box dead-center of the front page announcing how many of our boys had died there that week. But it didn’t really touch me. None of my friends had been drafted, and while I’d known a couple of guys who got killed over there, neither had been close enough to me that I felt true grief. Then too I’d always been lucky. I was reclassified 1-A after graduating from college but immediately found a job teaching high school and got another deferment. See, lucky. When teaching deferments began to be eliminated, my luck held again because peace talks in Paris were scheduled to commence. One little detail remained to be ironed out: the shape of the conference table. They proceeded to argue over the shape of that damn table for ten weeks! Not much more than ten weeks after that, I was hollering, “More PT Drill Sergeant!” in Ft. Lost-in-the-Woods, Missouri.
I’m not sure one US citizen can be more American than another, but when you’re in the military, you’re more visibly American. It says so right there for all to see on your uniform, US ARMY on one side and your surname on the other. That’s small potatoes, though. We in the military could be called upon to kill for our country. We could die for our country. Aye, there’s the rub.
When I was that little boy standing at attention for ”The Star-Spangled Banner,” the idea of fighting for my country, killing Japs and Nazis and Gooks by the score, seemed glorious indeed. When I came face to face with that very real possibility . . . gulp.
In basic training we sang, “I’m goin’ down to Cam Rahn Bay, gonna kill me a Charley Cong today”; but we also sang, “Vietnam, Vietnam, nights when you’re sleepin’ Charley Cong comes a creepin’ around, around,” and we didn’t like that one so much. We didn’t have nothin’ against those Cong, after all. We just wanted to go home.
Mostly draftees, we cussed Richard Nixon and Melvin Laird and the whole freaking chain of command. I don’t remember cussing America, but that was implied. Why didn’t I leave it, then, as so many young men my age had, and go to Canada or Sweden? The plain truth is, I didn’t have the courage to. But it’s more complicated than that. If I’d had the courage, would I have left? In my heart I know that I never could have done that.
The week before I was inducted, the theater in my home town began showing Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. I saw it three straight nights. I didn’t want ever to leave that theater, didn’t want to leave “fair Verona.” A month later I lay on my belly on the firing range learning to kill with an M-14, the rifle fire competing in my head with the theme song from Romeo and Juliet. (It was the song my wife and I danced to at our wedding reception.)
One day at the end of basic, we all got our orders for Advanced Individual Training. I was grateful to get MP school. My most vivid memory of that day, though, was of “the old guy” in our platoon (he was twenty-five) getting his orders for infantry school in Ft. Polk, Louisiana. He sat on his bunk and cried.
I dodged a bullet (quite literally, maybe) and instead of Vietnam got sent to West Point for five months, where I was a glorified campus cop, and then on to West Germany, where I spent thirteen months guarding nuclear weapons bunkers. I carried an M-14 (later M-16), ammo pouch, and gas mask. The gas mask came in handy. I’d throw it in the corner of my tower for a pillow, wrap myself in a wool blanket, lie down and catch some Zs. Those nuclear weapons? Whoever wanted them were welcome to them.
My fellow soldiers were no more dutiful than I. My best friend, annoyed at being relieved late at his tower, tossed his M-14 high, high into the air. I don’t remember how many pieces it broke into upon landing. On New Year’s Eve, one whole guard shift abandoned their posts to return to the barracks for the big party.
We didn’t want to be there. We wanted to be home. And this, I admit, is something of a paradox. We—not all but the vast majority, I think—hated the Army and had little love for the government who demanded we give it two or three years of our lives. At the same time, there was nowhere we’d rather be than America.
We never felt ourselves to be more American than when we were out among those foreigners. But of course we were the foreigners, and we were conscious of being identified and pre-judged by our nationality. They didn’t like us. We didn’t always like them.
I cannot formulate a useful generalization from my experience as an American in Europe. I have only a scattering of images and scenes that will not coalesce:
—After I landed in Germany, the very first reference anyone made to our German “hosts” was when on the bus from the airport the driver, an Army sergeant, complained about “all the fucking Lugarheads.”
—A few days later, riding in the back of a deuce-and-a-half on the way to my permanent duty station, I watched a fellow GI stand up and pretend to mow down German pedestrians with a machine gun. Ack-ack-ack-ack-ack-ack. I noticed a couple of them laugh.
—Mostly, the Germans did their best to ignore us, but I did have a few conversations with them. In the very first time in my life that I spoke to a non-American, a German said, “It must be nice to be in Germany and not Vietnam, ja?” He was trying to be friendly, and I should have said something polite in response, but instead I grumbled, “I’d rather be in America.”
—Scattered here and there in the woods surrounding the depot where I was stationed were pillboxes pockmarked with bullet holes from, I assume, American rifle fire. I thought of World War II as being far in the distant past, but it had ended only twenty-five years previously, which must have seemed like yesterday to many of those Germans. What did they think of those earlier American soldiers? One day I talked to a German worker making repairs to our guard shack. In the closest city of any size—Pirmasens, with around 70,000 people—eighty buildings were left standing by the war’s end. “The American planes fly over, bombs come down, buildings fly up,” he said with a laugh.
—Not all Germans laughed. In December 1970, three friends and I used our Christmas leave for a train trip south into Switzerland and Austria. In Bavaria, the train was crowded with German travelers enjoying the season of good cheer, drinking, eating fat sausages out of paper bags, singing. One man, fiftyish, stout, bald headed, red faced, sat glaring at us. He began to mutter. Then shout. Shaking with rage, he stood up and stepped toward us but was intercepted by friends, who got him back into his seat and comforted him. He needed comfort for the memory of Americans.
—Our first stop was Zurich, night. We went looking for a bar but had trouble finding one. We went into a coffee house, much more upscale than we were used to. No booze. We ordered coffee. The bill came. A single cup of Joe cost more than what we were used to paying for a whole round of beers. Outraged, one of my friends, a good ol’ boy from Missouri (I was a good ol’ boy from Missouri, too), bent his spoon into a U. My friend from Massachusetts dumped the remains of his coffee on the table. We got the hell out of there.
—Next stop, Lucerne. Night. A group of young Swiss men, just about our age, approached us on the sidewalk. One of them took exception to my looks, apparently, and got in my face, pantomimed giving me a black eye. I tried to look innocent and conciliatory while preparing to take to my heels. My friend from New York pushed me gently aside and then decked the Swiss guy with one punch. He sat on the sidewalk cupping his hand under his gushing nose as his buddies doubled over, laughing. We sauntered off, triumphant, not just Americans but by God American warriors.
—Our final stop before heading back into Germany was Innsbruck, Austria. We arrived late on a cold Christmas Eve. At the first hotel we tried, we were told they had no vacancies. Same at the second. The third, ditto. At the fourth, the desk clerk looked at us with undisguised disdain and asked, “Are you GIs?” (We didn’t travel in uniform.) One of my friends said that we weren’t, but something stirred within me that I could barely recognize—that little boy standing at attention for “The Star-Spangled Banner”?—and I said, “Hell yes, we’re GIs.” “We have no room for you,” he said. “We have no food for you. We have no drink for you.” We spent the night on the hard wooden benches of the bahnhof waiting room with the other drunks. Periodically, a polizei would come through and whack the end of a bench with his billy club to wake up the sleepers.
Probably if I’d known the devastation wrought on Innsbruck hotels by American GIs, I would have been more sympathetic with that desk clerk. But I’d been gone too long by then. I just wanted to be home.
And then one day the following May, I was.
We flew in to McGuire Air Force Base and mustered out of the Army in lovely Ft. Dix, New Jersey. We took a cab to the airport in Philadelphia to fly to our various hometowns. At an intersection we stopped at a red light. The guy in the car beside us revved his engine and when the light turned green burned rubber for thirty feet. We GIs cheered. We knew we were back in America.
I was damn glad to be home, but did that mean I returned a patriot? Hardly. I think any label you hung on me—on most of us returning GIs—would be inadequate. Half a century later, I’m still not sure what label would work.
The fact is that I love America—aspects of it. I also hate aspects of it. Some of the things I hate, though, I’m sort of fond of, and some of the things I love I really don’t like much.
Take that kid peeling rubber at the intersection outside Ft. Dix. We cheered because it was so American. You never saw a driver do that in Europe. They might have driven a hundred miles an hour on the autobahn, but they did it in little bitty cars that looked like toys to us. They did not drive gas guzzlers and stomp the pedal to the metal just so they could watch the smoke rise from the pavement in their wakes. Wasn’t that pointless, juvenile, not to mention wasteful? Of course! But we Americans did it because we wanted to and were free to and nobody could tell us not to. As for being wasteful, we paid for it ourselves, didn’t we? And after all, we had all that oil in Texas and Oklahoma and a whole lot more in Arabia (yes, that was our by God oil, too). If the rest of the world didn’t have as much, well, that’s what they got for being born over there.
Things really haven’t changed that much. Probably half the population of the country today wouldn’t remember, if they ever knew, that we once had 55 miles per hour speed limits on our interstates. The 70 MPH has gone up to 80 in some states. And if our vehicles are more fuel efficient, we still burn way more gas than we need to because so many of us drive Dodge Rams and Ford 150s, Tahoes and Suburbans and Lincoln Navigators, vehicles bigger than the apartments some people live in in Paris. And many of us who don’t drive those monsters have way too many cars, so many they spill out of our two-car garages down the driveway and into the street. (Full disclosure. I once owned four cars, one for each person living in our house. And we recently traded in our Rav4 SUV for a Highlander with three rows of seats, useful for the very few times a year we need to put car seats in for each of our three grandsons. Lord, how wretched our lives were back in the bad old two-rows-of-seats days.)
We do it because we want to. It’s our right. Call it freedom. Indeed, if there’s one thing that identifies the American more than any other, I think, it’s the embracing of freedom. It’s perhaps the thing I love most about America. It can also get pretty ugly at times.
We roll the windows down on our Dodge Rams and turn the stereo up all the way and blast out our Best of Lynyrd Skynyrd CD loud enough to dislodge the fillings in drivers within a block of us. The streets and highways we do it on are littered with the trash we throw out our windows because, well, we’re finished with it, aren’t we? What else are we supposed to do with it? Not legal to litter, you say? Screw legal! If I want to throw it out the window, I’ll throw it out the window. Going to fine me? Fine away. Freedom always has a price, doesn’t it? (I’m writing this essay in the midst of the Covid 19 pandemic. Americans by the millions refuse to wear masks despite dire warnings and official proclamations because, well, because they want to.)
We’re not only prepared to pay the price for our freedoms with our checkbooks but also to defend them to whatever degree is required. If you don’t believe me, I’m sure your neighbor will be proud to show you the arsenal he keeps in his basement, the rifle under the bed, the .357 Magnum in the nightstand, the .38 snubnose in the shoulder holster he wears into the supermarket, sporting event, church, and McDonald’s because in many states it’s written into law that you can do it. In some states you have the right to “stand your ground,” which means shoot somebody if you even suspect he might mean you harm. And when somebody says, “You can take my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers,” he’s not just whistling “Dixie.” There’s a good chance he lives in Dixie.
Before I get too self-righteous here, time for a little more full disclosure: I have a .25 caliber pistol in my sock drawer and a .22 Browning rifle in my closet, and you can take them from me when you pry them . . .
So, I’m just a full-blown hypocrite, right? Maybe so, but I prefer to say I’m just an American. We’re an ambivalent lot.
It might have been different for me, and America, if not for Vietnam. I came out of the Army bitter for the two years stolen from my life (I’d like someone to explain to me just how the draft differs from slavery) and have never regained my former faith in our politicians and military leaders. Lies lies lies, and over 50,000 of my brothers dead for nothing. Watergate didn’t help matters. Lies lies lies again. A succession of little wars, either fought or financed by us for dubious motives, didn’t help, either. I watched in dismay as our smart bombs pummeled Bagdad, with network anchors leading the cheers. And when things in Iraq started going not so well and cynics said that “Shock and Awe” had turned into “Shock and Awe Shit,” I snickered right along with them.
Did I want us to lose—as a colleague of mine told his class at the university where we taught? I never would have had the courage to say it even if I’d thought it, but the point is I didn’t think it. I can’t conceive of ever wanting America to lose a war, even a bad one. But I didn’t want us to win it, either, because we were in the wrong. And what is winning, anyway? I’m a child of Korea and Vietnam. Wars don’t get won anymore. Why fight them, then? Still, we can’t just let people push us around, can we? Sometimes you have to fight, don’t you? Well, don’t you?
To be American is to be confused.
I do know that I watched in horror as the Twin Towers fell on 9/11 and wanted someone to pay for it, and wanted us to be the ones to make them pay, and I do know I was happy when our Navy Seals finally got that SOB Bin Laden. And I do know that it meant not much at all. After two decades of young men fighting and killing and dying, we fled Afghanistan with about as much dignity as we fled Vietnam; and not many of us would be surprised if tomorrow or the day after we weren't yet again in some little country many of us had never heard of, fighting and not quite losing but not quite winning. Surely there has to be a better way, and it disturbs the hell out of me to think that we haven’t followed the wrong way so much as the American way.
Against that cynicism and near despair, there’s this:
—Not once in my cynical, post-Army life have I ever watched a sporting event—Olympics, World Cup, golf tournament, etc.—and not wanted to see the Americans win.
—When unarmed American soldiers on a train in France took down an armed terrorist, saving who knows how many lives, I was as proud as their daddies.
—I recently watched a wonderful documentary on Apollo 11 and was so thrilled to see what America accomplished—America, by God, America—that I immediately emailed my son and told him to watch it.
—I watched another documentary on the Battle of Midway and was so proud and thrilled when we finally sank those “Jap” aircraft carriers that if they’d played “The Star-Spangled Banner” at that moment, I would have stood at attention.
— We were about to board a tour bus in Florence for a daytrip to Pisa when the young Italian who was checking off names asked where we were from. The US, I said. “Take me back with you, please!” he said, not at all facetiously. There is no city in the US half as beautiful as Florence, but I was glad that in a few days I’d be heading back. Home. America
It’d be nice to end this on such a feel-good thought, but it wouldn’t be honest because there’s also this: A few years after Florence, the autumn after His Ridiculousness, Donald Trump, became president, my wife and I were boarding another tour bus, this time in Zurich. The tour guide welcomed each of us and asked us where we were from. When he came to me, I said Canada.
America, love it or leave it. More than once over the years, when things have gotten bad, I’ve said, “Maybe we should just pack up and move to Canada.” But, as Bill Sykes grumbles to Nancy in the movie Oliver when she asks if he loves her, “I’m still here, ain’t I?”
It’s hard to escape American ambivalence. I’ve taken the title of this essay, of course, from the Bruce Spingsteen song of the same name. When it comes on the radio I pump my fist and boom out, “Born in the USA! Born in the USA! Born in the USA!” right along with millions of other Americans. Listen closely to the lyrics, though. It’s hardly a rousing anthem you’d want to march to war singing. That other great rock anthem, “We’re an American Band,” may have you turn your volume up, too, but it chronicles vandalism, wretched excess, abuse of women, what have you. One of my favorite Richard Hugo poems is “What Though Lovest Well Remains American,” the title a variation on the sublime passage from Pound’s Canto LXXXI. As hopeful as the title seems, the details therein are grim. I suspect, though, that the most profound irony of the title is that for all the negatives of Hugo’s life and Hugo’s America, he truly means that the best remains American. I wouldn’t be surprised if even crazy old Fascist Ezra agreed. See: ambivalence.
One year my wife and I took a vacation to Estes Park, Colorado. We went to a rodeo held on the 4th of July. Between events the MC would note some mineral or energy source followed by the US’s share of same: i.e., “With only 4% of the world’s population, America consumes 35% of the world’s oil output!” The crowd would roar its approval.
Author Dennis Vannatta is a Pushcart and Porter Prize winner, with essays and stories published in many magazines and anthologies, including Offcourse, River Styx, Chariton Review, Boulevard, and Antioch Review. His sixth collection of stories, The Only World You Get¸ was published by Et Alia Press.