My Great and Troubled American Family
As a young boy The Great American Family embraced me. I now fear I am again a stranger. Yet, I still hope I can find my American home once more.
American soldiers liberated my parents from the Nazi effort to murder them. Their parents, brothers and sisters, as well as grandparents had already been liquidated by the time they were freed in late April 1945 at Dachau Concentration Camp, not far from Munich, West Germany. American soldiers provided food, clothes and housing.
Later, American soldiers were among my parents’ friends and they would sometimes come to our home for dinners when my parents moved from the large displaced persons camp at Feldafing to Munich. My mother and I left West Germany from Bremerhaven in January1952. While waiting our turn to leave, we stayed for some days at an American military base with other displaced persons waiting to embark on a troopship headed for the United States.
The trek across the winter North Atlantic was often very rough. Marked by seasickness, cramped sleeping quarters and cold and misty days on upper decks. I can still sense my awe and sometimes my fright as a young child watching the enormous, slowly undulating waves, appearing like endless mountains, roaring and crashing and changing into fantastic shapes at different times of the day or when the weather changed. It was a magical mix of fluid gray, blue and green.
As I watched through a window on one of the ship’s decks, I saw American servicemen eating and watching a movie. One of them noticed me and waved me in. I went into the dining room and sat down and ate some food offered to me while gazing at the movie screen. The movie had scenes of a wild storm knocking over towers of some kind. It was tame in comparison to the tempest that sometimes caused our plodding ship to move through the turbulent Atlantic in a slow, teeter-totter motion.
After settling down in Philadelphia, my mother and I lived in a changing, ethnically and racially diverse neighborhood. “Changing” was the word often used in those days to describe neighborhoods experiencing shifts from white to black families. An African American Korean War veteran, who lived in the apartment below ours, taught me how to throw a football and avoid being faked-out by runners and receivers.
I went through the process of learning English quickly. I was Americanized in short order. I also recall my naturalization ceremony as my mother and I became American citizens in 1957. I attended both public schools, with a mix of different religions, ethnicities, and races, as well as an orthodox, Jewish day school. I wasn’t taught about diversity. I was thrown into the deep end of the diversity pool from the get-go.
I returned to West Germany in late 1957, where I attended school with U.S. military dependents in Baumholder, a large military base. I developed an affection for the military families. My Little League baseball coach was an army captain, and his sons became close friends of mine. I empathized with the unsettled nature of “military brats” — their frequent changes of residence, their regular loss of friends, and the challenge of constantly making new friends.
For me and for my friends among the U.S. military, change and instability was an expected feature of life. Military families were from every region of the country. By 1958 the military was racially integrated, as were base schools. All the while school integration in the U.S. had exploded as a massively disruptive, often violent, issue. Notwithstanding the continued racial tensions in the military, as well as racial strife back home, I had come to think of the United States as my large, blended family.
You get the picture. My development as a person was immersed in soldiers, flags, celebratory history and patriotism. Even my Bar Mitzvah was on a military base and my ceremony was conducted by an army chaplain with a congregation comprised of mostly Jewish, American soldiers.
Until recently, I derived an inner strength and confidence from being an American. I loved my Great American Family, even as I also became aware of our nation’s duality, its dark side as well as the “shining city on the hill” perspective. At various times I was horrified and then reassured as our nation struggled haltingly to overcome its legacy of racial oppression. My heart ripped apart during the Vietnam War. I had relatives serving in combat. Initially a strong supporter of that war, gradually I came intensely to oppose it. Naively, perhaps, I felt that our nation’s sins and conflicts were temporary or redeemable.
Despite my awareness of its misdeeds as well as its accomplishments, I’ve cherished our nation deeply and expansively: its variety of people; its regional traditions and history; its glorious terrain; its collection of exciting cities; and its many contributions to popular and high culture. Having visited other countries and heard the criticisms directed at my nation, I also noticed that their reservations were also often couched in genuine admiration for it.
While I grew up and developed as a young man, the United States was also locked into the deepest freeze of the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union. The tensions were constant. In West Germany during the Berlin Wall crisis, I experienced the high alert at the military base and listened to the sound of armored vehicles, trucks and mobile artillery positioning themselves for possible military action.
It was a time when the “space race” intensified. There were periods when Soviet satellites and space probes were first “beating” us and the United States was playing catch-up, until “we” got to the moon first on a glorious day in July, 1969. My wife and I were in graduate school at that time, and we didn’t own a television. So we watched the lunar landing at the Rathbuns, our much older apartment neighbors. Mr. Rathbun was nearly 90 years old at the time. He grew up in Hannibal, Missouri and knew the Clemens Family and its most famous member, Mark Twain.
Mr. Rathbun, a retired railroad executive, loved telling me stories. He had grown up and matured witnessing the introduction and diffusion of such technologies as the telephone, radio, airplane, motion pictures, and “the talkies.” He lived through the Spanish-American War, the 1918 Flu Pandemic,World War I, the Roaring 20s, the Great Depression, massive labor unrest and violence, Pearl Harbor,World War II, the Korean War, the Red Scare and the McCarthy Era, as well as the Civil Rights Movement and the strife over our War in Vietnam. And here he was on that warm summer evening watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planting an American flag on the moon.
As a graduate student and young professor working late at night, I listened on the radio to what I considered to be bizarre, if entertaining, shock radio conversations among largely right wing crazies. I tuned in mainly as a way to keep myself from sleeping, while I gazed at reams of computer printout. Angry soliloquies from no-name hosts filled up the early morning air waves. Vicious conversations routinely spewed out about the Middle East, Jews, Arabs, and Communism. Paranoid silliness — about UFO’s, strange illnesses, bizarre snake-oil nostrums for all kinds of medical issues, attacks on immigrants, conspiracy theories about the violence on American streets and the killings of JFK, MLK, and RFK — proliferated like some ghastly mold.
After what first seemed to be aberrant entertainment for a small audience, the “crazies” began more and more to appear on prime time, both on radio and television. Powered by cable communications and the maturing of the Internet, the crazies now have massive numbers of followers and threaten to drive sanity completely from the public square. Partly as a result, we are in a country where virtually all institutions, in both the private and public sectors, are viewed suspiciously, and Americans too often lose friends and alienate relatives disputing all manner of topics.
It has become almost impossible to say, “I don’t talk about politics.” Politics is everything and everything is politics. And it’s not “just politics,” but bitter, polarized, acidic, family and friend-destroying politics. I recommended a movie the other day to a close friend, who refused to watch it because the star of the movie is a critic of our current president. I have other friends who won’t watch movies involving stars who support him. Even some sports are now associated with one political party or the other, and it affects how or whether people will view them.
During my life in the U.S., my nation has become much bigger and richer. To me our people are even more colorful, more diverse, and more interesting than ever. But now we also find that certain issues that were buried deeply are again pushing onto the public agenda. It is as if we have waited the longest to manage the foulest and most difficult of our problems. And for an extra-added attraction, we have a massively deadly pandemic thrown in just to make it all more interesting in that famous Chinese curse sort of way.
The band of hucksters who both exploit and stoke the anger and division that are metastasizing in our nation are paid millions and granted stature for making things even worse. They are the celebrities of social destruction. They are monumentally malevolent because they willfully and cynically stoke anger and disarray to fatten their wallets and feed their vanity. In order to rake in cash, they peddle hate, addicting much of the nation on rancor and delusion and corroding any sense of common purpose.
Since the 2020 presidential election, what I feel more than anything is exhaustion and sadness. The sadness comes from the fear that I might have lost the country I have loved, my Great American Family, which has given me a home, which has been central to my identity and bolstered my spirit.
Is this America thing worth saving? Should I keep trying to love my opponents in this on-going political, social, and economic struggle? Can I forgive them? Can they forgive me? I am broken-hearted by what I might have lost. I am dazed by the horrifying realization that I might have devoted much of my life to something that was a myth and not really worth loving at all.
So here I am, in a tumultuous ocean. The ship that is carrying me is leaky, its machinery outmoded and its crew disputatious and inept. In the middle of the wild sea I turn and look back and once again see an apprehensive boy. I wonder if he will again find a way back to his home.