Friday, July 06, 2007

The Best Example of What it Means To Be An American

It’s just past the 4th of July as I write this – the 6th of July, to be exact – and I’m listening to a song that has all the good patriotic qualities of a great American rock’n’roll song.

The song is “Stuck Between Stations” by The Hold Steady, and the qualities that make it a great American rock’n’ roll song are that it has those stadium-strummed guitars, and driving drum beat that seems to skip every 7th beat so that it’s somewhat unpredictable, and there’s a piano somewhere in the background, and the singer is sort of singing and sort of talking with a world-weary broken but still strong voice, and he’s telling a story (it's important that great American rock'n'roll songs tell a story, so the story in this song is important, but I’m not sure what this story in this song is just yet; I'm just sure it's a story). It’s the kind of song that makes you picture driving a convertible through the plains of Kansas with your wife at your side, on the way to a wedding for your successful friend from college. Or of a sunrise over the Brooklyn bridge. That kind of song. It has all the qualities that people ascribe to Bruce Springsteen songs without all the annoying Springsteen-isms that keep Bruce Springsteen songs from actually being good.

All of which is by way of saying that I’m feeling… not patriotic. Not jingoistic. The word for what I’m feeling is: American.

With all the quibbling and bickering and sometimes actual debating and once even actual fighting that Americans do, it’s easy to lose track of some basic things. And the most basic of those things, the thing that all Americans could likely agree on if they would stop and think about it and listen to me, is this: That we all know deep down inside what it means to be American.

Before I go on, I should point out that I know that there are a small small number of you who will by now be quite upset with me for not once but twice referring to people who make up the United States of America as “American.” In your mind, and in the emails you’ll want to write but won’t, you will huff that people from Canada could be considered American, as could Venezuelans and Mexicans because they all reside in an America. (North, South, and Central, for those of you who don’t follow my insult to reverse snobbery.) Now, I won’t argue with you about whether Canadians, or Mexicans, or Guatemalans, want to be called Americans. (They don’t, is my guess.) I’ll just say this: You’re wrong. They may be people that live on a continent with the word “America” in its name, but they are not Americans, because American has a very specific meaning to everyone in the world. Yes, even to you, huffy liberal college student who just finished taking Indigenous Peoples 201 and need to make a point to me, even you know that American has a very specific meaning, a certain connotation.

So this entry will explore, and explain, what it means to be an American. Because it does mean something and, as I said, we all know it in our core. Americans know it, and non-Americans know it. They know that there is something that binds Americans together, that makes us the greatest people in history populating the greatest country in history. They know it, and we know it, if we stop to examine ourselves and think about it.

We have to stop and think about it and sometimes even have it pointed out to us because we get all wrapped up in our troubles, all wrapped up in the differences we have, all wrapped up in what are significant debates and what only seem like they are significant debates, and so as we get further and further embroiled in our daily lives and our politics and our work, we mostly forget that there is a kernel of American down deep inside us that binds us together and constitutes our most common core ideal.

This common core ideal is so difficult for me to define that I won’t try to give it a name beyond this: American. It is so difficult for me to define that I can do it best by showing you the example of being American that taught me what it means to be an American.

Back in the 1990s, on a whim, I went on a Spring Break trip. My only Spring Break trip, as it turns out. It was, I believe, 1992, although the year is not important. What is important is where we went. We left Wisconsin late at night in March. It was snowing, and 22 degrees. We drove through the night. By the time we hit Memphis we were putting winter coats in the trunk. We went through the Ozarks – I mostly drowsed—and kept going until we hit east Texas and it grew really warm. We traveled the height of the country and made it to Texas, where it was seventy-five degrees and sunny.

We had made it to our destination: Galveston Island, Texas.

Galveston Island, and Galveston, has some colorful history – pirate island and all – most of which was lost on us, since we were college students who mostly wanted to sit on the beach and/or drink. But one part of Galveston’s history was inescapable. We walked through the town with our host, and as we did I noticed that the curbs were high – almost a foot in some places – and that in some of the older buildings we’d go in at street level only to find that we were said to be on the second floor. I asked our friend who went to college in Texas whether he knew why that was, and he explained it to me: There’d been a hurricane, years ago, that flooded the island, and so to avoid that happening again they’d raised the island.

At first I thought it was bunk, a story he was telling to prove me gullible, but that only lasted a second because he seemed serious and because, somehow, it seemed right. And it was. From the official Galveston website:

Galveston’s prosperity suddenly came to a halt on September 8, 1900, when the deadliest natural disaster in United States history hit Galveston Island. A storm with winds exceeding 120 miles per hour and tidal surge devastated the island and killed more than 6,000 people. At the time of the 1900 Storm, Galveston had a population of 37,000 and was the fourth largest city in Texas following Houston, Dallas and San Antonio and the most sophisticated city in Texas. One-third of the city was completely destroyed, more than 3,600 buildings. The bodies were too numerous for conventional burials. At first, they were weighted and buried at sea; later they washed ashore. From that point on they were burned on funeral pyres all over the city. The dead were uncovered at a rate of 70 per day for at least a month after the storm.

To prevent such a natural disaster from devastating the island again, the city built a seawall seven miles long and 17 feet high and began a tremendous project to raise the level of the island.
Galveston’s seawall now extends 54,790 feet, 10.4 miles, and covers one-third of Galveston’s Gulf side. Total cost of the construction of all parts of the seawall was $14,497,399. The original seawall was 15 feet thick at the base, five feet thick at the top, 17 feet high and weighed 40,000 pounds per foot.

Thousands of structures were jacked up during the grade raising while dredges poured 4 to 6 feet of sand beneath them. In other cases, (such as Ashton Villa) the fill was pumped into the raised basements.
Residents used elevated wooden sidewalks to walk through town. The grade-raising project began in 1902 and was completed in 1910 and included more than 500 city blocks.

So he wasn’t lying, and somehow I knew it. For the rest of the trip, we relaxed and did all the usual spring break things, but inside my mind, inside my heart, something had been awakened, and I know now and knew then what it was. I knew what it meant to be an American.

An American decides in the face of a flood to raise the ground he stands on.

That’s it, pure and simple. Americans were faced with all the fury of nature: storms, sea, land, everything crashing against them. The easy thing to do would be to move, to give way, to abandon the island. We – they were us and we are them now – did not do that. We took nature and made it our own.

Once you think of it that way, you can see examples of what it means to be an American everywhere, from the birth of our country when we challenged the then-greatest superpower history had known, to building the transcontinental railroad right

through the mountains without even power tools, to walking on the moon.

Americans do not shy from a challenge and they do not back down in the face of even the most implacable and unreasoning foe.

Galveston Island was drowned by nature, and we raised it up and made it undrownable. Walking around in those streets, thinking about that, showed me, taught me, what I owe to our forefathers and the spirit I have to pass on to the next generations. For standing up to everything, Galveston Island is The Best Example of What It Means To Be An American.

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