“I see you don’t have a flag pin,” he’d say, pulling one from his pocket and sticking it on your shirt.
There was never a war he didn’t support, though never quite enough to go himself. He wrote letters to the Danville Gazette urging us to be American, as if we were on the fence and thinking of going over to the Finns. He included in his roster of real Americans only those people who agreed with him, which left out a good bit of the town. He spoke about true Americans, which led one to believe there were false Americans, and that he knew precisely who they were.
For someone who wanted a strong America, he spoke dismissively of everything that contributed to that strength—education, taxes, scientific progress, equal rights, and freedom of the press. When he died, I hoped that outlook would die with him, but it lives on. I thought of him recently when I overheard two men arguing at a local cafe over which of them was more American. One had been born in Mexico, moved to the United States when he was a child, became a citizen, and coached a Little League team. What could be more American than coaching Little League?
The other man had been born in America, and his grandfather had fought in World War II, which sealed the deal as far as he was concerned. He was wearing a T-shirt with the American flag on it, too. If an American flag T-shirt made in China isn’t proof of one’s patriotism, I don’t know what is.
Thankfully, for every crackpot in our community, there are many more thoughtful people trying to improve our corner of the world. A doctor in our town runs a summer program for Russian teens with diabetes, and my wife and I housed a pleasant young man from Moscow a while back. Wanting to be good hosts, we took him to the usual places one takes visiting dignitaries—the county fair, Dairy Queen, Roachdale Hardware. When I asked him what he found most interesting about America, he said, “Your flag is everywhere.”
He wasn’t the first foreigner I’ve heard make this observation. We’ve grown so accustomed to seeing the flag, it has become part of the landscape, like the trees, and we hardly notice it. Driving to Kroger recently, I counted 16 flags in a mile and a half. Living in America these days feels like dating someone who expects us to phone them on the hour to proclaim our love, as if they doubt our commitment and require our unceasing assurance.
That was the feeling I had of our town patriot all those years ago, that America’s continued existence relied solely upon his daily devotion, otherwise the nation’s fabric would unravel. Listening to him talk, our future seemed so tenuous, the ties that bind so gossamer thin, we were at risk of collapse. So my fellow Danville South Elementary school students and I stood at our desks each morning, our hands over our hearts, and pledged allegiance. All of us except Joe Bryant, that is. He was a Jehovah’s Witness, and remained mute—a right granted him by the Constitution. Looking back, I marvel at the courage of a fourth-grade kid who stayed seated and silent, pledging his quiet allegiance to a less popular deity.
It has always taken a special kind of bravery to be a party of one in this country, and especially in this state. We Hoosiers love our freedoms, but tend to think poorly of those who exercise them.
There are two different Americas these days, one I feel a deep affection for, the other I want no part of. There is the America of Donald Trump, the America that despises the different, shoves its way to the head of the line, and boasts of its greatness while systematically dismantling everything that has made it great. I am weary of that America, the bully on the global playground, the one that would insist Joe Bryant stand and pledge his allegiance.
Then there is the America of the open door, its hand extended in friendship. It is the America welcoming the tired, the poor, the huddled masses. The one made wiser by our differences. It is the America that would gladly make room for a schoolchild whose faith carried him down a road less traveled.
This presidential race has allowed us to glimpse these two Americas, and come November, will permit us to choose which one we prefer. I know which America I favor. The people of Indiana are sometimes dismissed as universally regressive, but I am confident that many Hoosiers still keep faith in “the better angels of our nature,” to quote Abraham Lincoln, a former resident of our state. Crackpots might get more publicity, but thoughtfulness has a staying power lunacy doesn’t, which is why we still honor Lincoln and are embarrassed by Trump. I realize, of course, that not everyone is embarrassed by him. But the day will come when supporters will deny their infatuation, just as I have denied ever wearing a polyester leisure suit despite the photographic evidence.
Our town patriot lived in his own little world of hyper-patriotism, huffing and puffing, stoking the flames of fear. I remember sitting on the pop machine at Logan’s Mobil, listening as he ranted about Catholics, hippies, communists, Democrats, unions, blacks (though he didn’t call them that), Arabs, Russians, the Japanese, New Yorkers, Californians, tree huggers, and Hispanics. Though he is gone, his outlook lives on. But it is the dying gasp of a worldview our nation will outgrow—indeed must outgrow—if the promise of America is to endure. If I thought wearing a flag pin would hasten that day, I’d gladly pin one on. But flags, no matter how numerous or vigorously waved, won’t take us where we need to go. We’ll know we’ve reached that promised land when a fourth-grade boy can sit at his desk, paying silent tribute to his god, having nothing and no one to fear.