It was the “bicentennial.”
I had no idea what that meant. But apparently, it was important – REALLY important.
I was nine-years-old and just starting to emerge from that dream-like state of childhood, where things are mysterious and magical and float in the languid world between reality and fantasy.
The summer of this famous bicentennial, my father had taken our family to Colonial Williamsburg and Jamestown and Yorktown. My brother and I had charged Redoubt Ten, the famous British stronghold captured by the colonists, that essentially won the American Revolution.
My mother made my brother and me these little Colonial outfits to match the three-pointed hats we’d purchased in Williamsburg, complete with ruffled shirts and knee-high knickers.
The movie Rocky had come out that year, as well, and the villain of that movie, Appollo Creed, was in full bicentennial regalia. Everybody was. American flags were everywhere. Red white and blue was everywhere. To my fresh, nine-year-old mind, this was apparently a really positive thing. This was our country’s birthday. 200 hundred years! (which, to me, might as well have been a million) I loved it. And I got squarely on board with it.
When the fall came, I ran right out and got a patriotic lunch box for school, with a cartoon depiction of the three soldiers of the Revolution, marching and playing the drum and fife.
I even went door-to-door, selling replicas of the Declaration of Independence. I guess you’d say I started my life buying in to my country.
As I aged, I travelled the country and visited more historic sites and met more of the nation’s people and read more about where it was I actually lived and discovered more about how we’d all actually gotten here. And as I learned, some of the information I gathered bothered me a great deal.
I learned about western expansion and “Manifest Destiny” and the Trail of Tears and interment camps and segregation and, yes, slavery. I lived in South Dakota for a time, among the Sioux, and saw first-hand what kind of devastation can happen to an entire people group when they are separated out and disenfranchised and stripped of their identity and caught between the notions of clinging to heritage and free assimilation.
As a wrestler in high school, we used to go to the Sioux high school and wrestle their team. And we were always instructed that we were no longer on American soil when we drove past their guard station. We were subject to their laws and customs. And if we were killed on that soil, their justice would be based on tribal laws, not the laws of the United States. So, it was nerve wracking to say the least. And at first, it became hard to befriend those boys. They never smiled at us. They rarely talked to us. To them, we represented everything that was wrong in the world. And for us, they represented extreme danger.
But by the end of the second year, we eventually did talk and get to know each other a bit. And we found out that neither of us were all that dangerous or sinister. We were just boys. If memory serves, a couple of them ended up in the movie, Dances With Wolves. Anyway …
I was teaching a Sunday School lesson one Sunday morning (yes, 16-year-old me was a Sunday School teacher) to a class full of Sioux kids. And they were seriously unruly. I couldn’t settle them down long enough to teach the lesson. And I involuntarily blurted out something I’d heard my grand parents say for years, “you kids are acting like a bunch of wild Indians!”
At that moment, everything stopped. They looked at me as if I’d crushed their souls. And that phrase came crashing down on me and I realized how weird that had to sound to them. And now it even sounded weird to me. I knew “Indians.” I’d wrestled them. And they weren’t “wild.” And that’s the moment I realized that my point of view wasn’t the only point of view in the world.
When taking the tour of Colonial Williamsburg, they show you the “slave quarters.” My nine-year-old eyes almost filled with tears when I saw them. And I can distinctly remember my mother whispering under her breath, “Dear God, those poor people.” And we breathed a sigh of relief that slavery was no longer a part of life in America.
And yet, it wasn’t weird to me that Appollo Creed (a black man) would be celebrating America on screen, even though his ancestors would’ve lived in those quarters (yes, I know Appollo Creed is a fictional character. But that image wasn’t foreign to me).
And later, when I met and befriended British people, I didn’t hate them for being from England. Because I knew that a lot of time had passed since their ancestors had made war on mine. And in that time, we’d all become allies and good friends. And yet, I could still celebrate my country’s independence from their country. And oddly enough, they could even celebrate it too.
And what’s even stranger is they could also be proud of their British heritage, even though it was imperfect. They could acknowledge that they were on the wrong side of some things in their history, and yet were able to rectify those things and move forward with good will toward the people of the earth. And the British flag doesn’t offend me in any way. And God Save The Queen is something I would stand and be reverent for, were I in their country (even though I have a real problem with Monarchies …but that’s another blog).
Our country is coming apart in some ways because we cannot put all of its history neatly in our own American lunchbox. We cannot hold two thoughts in our collective heads at the same time; yes, the constitution was written by slave owners/yes, it’s also the greatest political document in human history.
We protest our own symbols and standards and refuse to take part in traditions that are designed to bring us together. And that tears us apart. We are discounting all the good our country has done in the world, over some of the bad it has done. And none of it fits neatly enough into our lunchbox.
At the same time, we show no mercy toward each other and allow for no one to process their own American lunchbox in their own way.
If you are in a marriage long enough, you begin to discover things about your partner that you don’t want to know. You find out that they are human and frail and can only bear so much. And eventually you will find reasons to hate them or leave them or forget what it was you even liked about them in the first place. And then, you have a choice: do I remove myself from this altogether, or do I press on and offer the same grace I hope they offer me? Because guess what? They’ve discovered the same things about you, you’ve discovered about them.
In many ways, America is like that marriage. It’s fragile and volatile and filled with humans who are processing it in different ways.
Everyday we have the choice to blow it all up and tear it all down or we have the choice to bind it back together and reclaim our symbols and traditions as good things that can move us forward.
For me, my American Lunchbox has taken on many different meanings through the years. Now, when I see those little guys marching, I choose to believe they’re still marching toward something noble and hopeful. I want to believe they’re marching on behalf of everybody who embraces the ideas and ideals of freedom and self-determination. I like to think the flag and the Forth of July still represents “liberty and justice and for all.” And I still celebrate it with a full heart and a salute and maybe even a tear or two.
As beaten up and rusty and outdated as it may be, my American Lunchbox is still a beautiful thing…if you see it in the right light.
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