It was the 4th of July just recently concluded. Like so many of my neighbors, I was in the middle of a voluntary four-day weekend and getting ready to kick back and enjoy the fireworks show of choice as in years past.
When I moved into my home years ago, I never gave much thought to the close proximity of one of the local high schools not far from the neighborhood. It wasn’t until the following July that I realized I had lucked into one of the many perks of living where I do. And that particular perk was the benefit of a free fireworks show every July 4th.
The fireworks go up through a gap in the trees from the football field, easily visible from my patio. And I have unashamedly taken advantage of this free pyrotechnic display every summer for the past twelve years.
This year figures to be my last in the old homestead, so I considered it only right to actually go over to the local high school, spend the $6 for a ticket and watch the display as a paying customer from the grandstand. Time to give back to the local community, I reasoned, not to mention share a little patriotic good cheer with a stadium full of the local populace.
I got there early, well before the sun went down. These events tend to be very popular, and the later the arrival, the harder it is to get a seat. So, I arrived a little after 6:00 for a 9:00 fireworks show.
The time figured to be well spent. After all, I live in a small, suburban community. Bedroom communities, they call them out here. One of the many little towns that together add up to the now world-famous Southern California suburban sprawl, home base to an army of bleary-eyed commuters who hit the freeways before sunup every day and wage the never-ending commuter wars endemic to the region. But on this night, as on past July 4th celebrations, small-town America reigned supreme. I figured to run into some of my neighbors, considering the high school was but a scant two blocks or so from my house. So my early arrival was fortuitous.
After entering the stadium through the turnstiles, the first order of business was to fill my then-rumbling stomach. Not to worry, there was row upon row of temporary, fast-food stands, the likes of which you tend to see in county fairs and carnivals all across the country.
I confess to having an educated nose when it comes to Mexican food. One reason I stay in the desert southwest is that the further you live from the border, the worse the Mexican food gets. And I have had occasion to put that axiom to the test, so I know whereof I speak. On this evening, my ever-alert schnoz detected some of the most tantalizing carnitas I have sniffed in many a moon. I absolutely love a good plate of carnitas, cooked in lard, filled with artery-clogging goodness. In fact, it is my fervent hope that when it comes time to depart this world, that I die face down in a plate of carnitas, from a fatal heart attack. If you gotta go, that’s the way to do it. So, suppressing my urge to salivate, I got on line. Turned out, it was the longest line of any of the food stands.
Forty-five minutes later, I was engaged in a bilingual argument with the cashier over something I was clearly not getting, considering I don’t speak a word of Spanish. She was frantically pointing to a sign on the overhead of the booth, again in Spanish, so there was no way I understood what it said. I was patiently informed by one of the customers in line behind me that this food stand served Latinos only, and I would have to get something from one of the other vendors.
As I took my seat in the stands with my char broiled burger, and contemplated the decline of the American French fry, I became convinced that the illegal alien population may indeed be assimilating into American culture much faster than anyone imagined. They certainly have become quick practitioners of the time-honored American right to refuse service to anyone.
As I sat there listening to mariachi music over the loudspeaker, and watching endless groups of teenagers run up and down the field with Mexican flags and Viva la Raza! Banners, my cell phone started vibrating in my pocket.
It was one of my wealthy friends. He was calling to tell me that he and his family were setting up to barbeque at the airport where his private plane is hangared, right outside the hangar door, in fact. And would I like to come by and join them? Considering this private airport is on high ground, and we would have an unobstructed view of not one, but three free fireworks shows in the area, I accepted with thanks and folded my tent, so to speak, at the football stadium. From where I sat, I would rather be in Philadelphia anyway, to paraphrase W. C. Fields. So the prospect of a free barbeque with friends, without the mariachi music, Viva la Raza! Banners, Mexican flags and ethnically pure dinners was definitely a step up from where I was sitting.
My friend – Stan, let’s call him for the sake of this tale – is one of those incredibly gifted super-salesmen, with tremendous personal presence, an all-American smile, instant charisma who can sell anything to anybody. He’s filthy rich now. And by all estimates, he’ll be even filthier rich tomorrow. Still, it hasn’t come easy. There have been struggles and setbacks along the way, both professional and personal. But by all accounts, he’s earned every penny he ever made, and the fruits thereof.
An added bonus was that his oldest son, then stationed at Fort Lewis, Washington might come by on this, his last night at home before reporting to Frankfurt, Germany, and from there, for deployment in the Middle East.
I hadn’t paid much attention to the son over the years. I’m well past the child-rearing phase of my life and didn’t pay too close attention to the trials and joys of watching other people raise theirs. What I did notice of the son in his teen years was nothing remarkable in comparison to other young people his age. He seemed just like any of the vast army of stoop-shouldered, long-haired, taciturn teenaged slackers. Unmotivated. Unambitious. Unfocused. Directionless. A deadbeat.
Note to self: Looks can be deceiving and still waters run deep.
After dinner, and as dusk was descending about fifteen minutes before showtime, the prodigal son returned.
The boy had become a man.
Gone was the slack-shouldered stoop. The man stood erect. Gone was the unfocused stare. The man was clear-eyed and met my gaze. Gone was the chronic shoulder shrug. The man had a grip of iron. Gone was the listless, teenaged slacker. What stood before me was a fighting man of the U.S. Army and a U. S. paratrooper.
It’s amazing how a boy can be transformed by facing a challenge he alone can achieve. Those of us who’ve been through Airborne AIT know those challenges well. We need not chronicle them here. But for the first time in his life, the boy was faced with a challenge he could not abrogate. The boy could not appeal to his father for help. The boy could not quit and go home (and did not want to). The boy enlisted in this rite of passage. He had to shoulder his own responsibility. The man emerged triumphant to earn his jump wings.
In a way, I feel responsible, at least to an extent. What little the boy saw of me during his childhood years reflected my own military service. He saw me in my own faded duty fatigues (those that still fit) on my way to the local target range. He asked about my 101st Airborne Division lapel pin, paratrooper jump wings, CIB badge, and Vietnam campaign ribbon. He saw all those artifacts, until such time that I realized I was vainly attempting to validate my own sense of worth without giving a single thought to the influence I might have on an impressionable young person.
Note to discerning readers: Be careful about the influence you bring, particularly to young people. Be aware of what you say, what you do, how you live, and how you act around them. There’s an old saying – “You can fool a fool, but you can’t kid a kid.” It’s true. They watch your ever move and they drink in everything you say. You influence them, whether you believe it or not. Make sure that influence is a positive one.
But, the cork was out of the bottle and the genie has long since escaped. My duty fatigues and insignia have since been consigned to the closets and desk drawers where they belong. But they’ve done their job for good or ill. My influence over his decision to enlist may have been minimal as his father insists. But it was a factor, however small. And if something happens to him in the defense of his country, I will bear an element of responsibility. That’s just the way life works in the adult world.
The only counsel I offered his parents was to have the conversation about what happens if, God forbid, the worst happens. It was my bitter experience to note that those families that came face to face with the reality of the possibility of tragic loss were much better equipped to deal with it, if the blue star in the window ever turned to gold.
Still, the teenaged slacker had no sense of himself. But the U.S. paratrooper knows who he is. He has the confidence that comes from the accomplishment of something difficult and demanding. He knows his capacity for achieving great things is considerable. He belongs to a select brotherhood of warriors. He is part of the legacy of all U.S. paratroopers who blazed the trail before him, and owns the heritage of that rich history.
All this is a powerful allure for young boys on their journey to manhood in an increasingly feminist-dominated landscape. He stands in the high country of the vitality of youth, in all its strength, passion and simple faith. He is a warrior. And he will shortly be called upon to defend his country.
How do I tell him that his country is an illusion?
How do I explain to him that he is a sentinel of his country, but a few short blocks from his father’s 4th of July barbeque, illegal invaders openly parade up and down an American high school football field with the flags of the country that own their true allegiance on the 4th of July? And nobody was the least bit bothered, or did anything to stop it.
How do I tell him of the significance of his service, when Americans are routinely held in contempt along with their country, by people who have no legal right to be here in the first place?
How can I impart to him the inevitable ambiguity that comes when the very people who hail him as a hero while he wears the uniform, will curse him as a deadbeat when he comes home to make a living? It’s one thing to shoulder a weapon to defend his country. It’s quite another to discover his labors at home are unappreciated, unwelcome, and unwanted.
Goethe once said, “There is no man so dangerous as a disillusioned idealist.” There can hardly be anything more heartrending than the betrayal of a young American defender who faithfully serves in time of war, only to discover that his chosen livelihood, whatever it may be, can be done better, faster, not to mention cheaper, by illegal invaders of the very country he has been sent overseas to protect. In this brave new world of emerging globalist, borderless hegemony, living astride the war on terror, international commerce trumps national sovereignty every time.
When all is said and done, men don’t fight for king, country or causes. They fight for each other. He knows that. I knew it before him. And every American fighting man from Valley Forge to Vietnam and beyond knows it as well. In the final analysis, men fight to keep faith with their brothers.
When all else fails, there is that powerful bond. When the king is corrupt and the country illusory, there remains the brotherhood of the warrior.
And in the absence of a country that keeps faith with its defenders, maybe that brotherhood is enough.
Maybe it will have to be.