A Letter on America

 

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I have always felt a relationship with America. As a child I lived in the USA, as an adult I have holidayed there. As an Englishman living in the United Kingdom, the effect of America culturally and politically has been omnipresent. While living there, and for many years after, we used to listen to Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America radio programme. Contemporaneously my parents would compare his reflections, on our experiences, after our return it was a good way of keeping in touch. Some fifty years after I first arrived to live there, this is my letter on America.

I was only six when we arrived, almost ten when we left. Yet a sense of displacement sharpened my senses. With no extended family, or established friends, around, I found myself eager to soak in everything around me. We arrived  in New York on the Queen Mary, the towering skyscraper skyline even more impressive after five days crossing a grey , grumbling November Atlantic ocean. The quayside was still busy then, a working port, and we were greeted by a brass band on docking, as we had been serenaded from Southampton, streamers, horns and all. The twenty odd tea crates contained all of our worldly possessions, but Customs still insisted on opening a few – because they could. Charmless US customs has not improved over the years.

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My impression of New York was not favourable, dirty, busy, noisy, fume filled, and daylight starved, as the skyscrapers reached upwards. The cavernous, capacious Amtrak train, which dwarfed the boat train we had taken from Waterloo to Southampton, offered welcome relief as we eased into the countryside going south.

We were heading to Arlington, Alexandria, Virginia where we were to live as  my father worked at Arlington Hall, an RAF attache to the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), whose security was ahead of that of Mission Impossible. I went to school at the local Elementary School in Arlington where I was treated with great kindness by staff and pupils alike.

 One instant curiosity was that there was no morning assembly, like I had been used to in London. Instead, each day would start with the national anthem, broadcast over a loudspeaker system from the Principal’s office , to each classroom, followed by the pledge of allegiance which required each pupil to put their right hand over their heart as they declared: “I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” The teachers made it clear that I was not required to pledge the oath, as I was not American. But I was the only non- American in the class so joined in and learned it anyway – I can still recite it today!

I was taught handwriting using a musical stave, a brilliant device to create neat uniform script, we also all had to learn a musical instrument, I chose the violin. Sport I found frustrating. Baseball seemed an unnecessary complication of rounders, but nonetheless I found myself playing  “peewee” baseball ( don’t ask). American football seemed to be ludicrously complicated, but again we were taught the basics of some of the moves. Football really is much easier to learn, and better to play, America.

My childhood there was idyllic. I ill-advisedly explored storm drains with local children that were notoriously inhabited by venomous snakes. It always snowed in winter, proper snow, three feet deep that you could sledge in and down till dusk ,and exasperated parents called you in. The summers were hot and humid, a “crew cut” was pretty much essential. And the long summer break was enlivened by summer camps, residential camps  in the cooler mountains that parents sent their children to in order to give themselves a break and provide some welcome adventure for their children. And of course there was the ubiquitous yellow American school bus which picked us up from the end of the road, a cultural icon every bit as great as the red public double- deckers in London.

Washington DC, or DC, as everyone called it was odd. The centre was small, an administrative district only. The Lincoln memorial was impressive, as was the Washington memorial and Mall, particularly when the cherry blossom was out. On the opposite bank of the Potomac to the Lincoln memorial  lies the Arlington National Cemetery, which was magnificent, and busy, as the war dead from Vietnam waited to be buried.

The Vietnam war dominated the news, with the day’s GI body count on every bulletin. Even as a child, you could not help but be aware, with graphic combat footage regularly shown. The effect was corrosive on US public opinion. I can still recall the protests being broadcast on television with the slogan, “ Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids have you killed today” ringing out. The view amongst my Dad’s co -workers as we relaxed at wonderful Arlington Hall barbecue and picnics , the senior of whom were Korean war veterans, was that the war was lost.

There were no black children in my class. Outside of the DC centre lay the so-called black ghetto, it was a place, a dangerous place, spoken of in hushed terms, but never visited. I did sometimes see black people, mainly packing groceries, in an unusual system at some supermarkets where you shopped, your groceries were bagged up and tagged, then you collected them in your car from a delivery point. I recall being on holiday in Montgomery Alabama at the time of George Wallace and, as a precocious nine year old, asking an American mounted policeman what the bullwhip on his saddle was for? “To whip niggers” came the reply.

We also went to Church in Fairfax, everyone went to Church, and I was struck by how prominent God seemed to be in America, politicians routinely intoned “God bless America”, the pledge of allegiance declared “One nation under God” and God seemed to be on “our” side in Vietnam. I was curious as to how he seemed to have overlooked England. Sunday school was less an opportunity to avoid the main boring service and play and instead was a rigorous exploration of bible stories. The sense that God was on the side of America was very strong. But for me, Sunday was the day that having endured Church service, I was rewarded by a Hershey Bar or Slurpy flavoured ice drink in the summer.

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The best thing about America for an English child in the late 60’s was undoubtedly the television. In England it was black and white transmission  from 4pm to 5.55pm ( Herge’s Adventures of Tin Tin to close), then shut down! In America it was colour TV ! The cartoons I loved were Popeye, Tom and Jerry, Yogi Bear, Road Runner and Top Cat. The TV series I watched were the Beverley Hillbillies, The Munsters, Bewitched ( I adored Elizabeth Montgomery and wanted her to by my mom), Daktari, Flipper, Lassie, Time Tunnel, Batman and the Monkees.

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As a treat we would be taken to the Barnum and Bailey three ringed circus at Christmas. Before modern zoos and safari parks, before colour tv, before wildlife documentaries and specialist nature and geography tv channels it was still a place of wonder, where what you had only seen in Tarzan films was brought before your eyes. I accept that its time has passed. I also accept now  that unnecessary cruelty was central to the show. But at the time, it really was “The greatest show on earth”.

When it was time to come home to England I was sad. It felt like America was home. The material, and emotional, generosity of our American friends resonated, as did their wisdom, although I accept that we were moving in a wholly unrepresentative social bubble. But America seemed to have a fix on God and good, and bad and evil, it also had a “can do” positive outlook, where kindness and good deeds were a virtue, and public duty.  Upon mentioning to our host on stopping at Quantico, the US Marines HQ and Training base that we liked fishing, “Red” insisted on taking the day off and taking us fishing on a lake in what must be the most secure fishing in America! I recall stopping for gas at a gas station in the Everglades Florida. Upon hearing our English accents, the attendant , who also turned out to be the Towns Sheriff and Mayor ( it was a very small town) insisted on taking our family out on a swamp boat into the Everglades there and them closing down his gas station to do so.

That fundamental goodness resurfaced when I returned some thirty years later with my own family to Florida. We arrived late and the seven eleven store was closed, unsurprisingly as it was past eleven. But the owner was inside sorting some stock. He came to the door and asked me what I wanted, I explained that I was a visitor wanting some basic groceries for my family for tomorrow. Not only did he open the door for me to shop, he refused payment as the electronic tills were closed, insisting I pay the next day. You can guess where we shopped for the rest of the holiday!

Yet there is a sting in the tail. On the wall of the 7/11 was a firearms arsenal substantial enough to arm an army platoon, pistols, rifles and semi- automatic rifles. Despite my affection for America, its fatal love affair with guns is such a weakness.

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America fixes its history against guns. An armed militia drove the British out of the Colonies. The Winchester rifle was “the gun that won the west”. Al Capone’s Thompson sub-machine gun enforced his criminal empire. . All of this is part of American folklore. In the first half of the 20th century Hollywood reinforced and glamorised the gun in Westerns, in the latter part of the 20th Century Hollywood glamorised the gun in the hands of police, criminals and vigilantes. For Rambo and Charles Bronson, the gun was an agent of peoples’ justice.

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There can be no justification for legislation which allows an armed population to engage in annual mass slaughter, and forces an embattled Police force to shoot first, and ask questions later. Yet America, via the National Rifle Association remains committed  to confronting the evil that men do with guns by arming the population further. It is a madness from which there is no escape.

A country so rich in resources, can be very introverted and paranoid in its outlook. A country which has dominated world affairs for over half a century now, post WW2, still possesses a homestead mentality. Over half the population has never travelled abroad – they don’t need to, America is a vast continent. They have little interest in world affairs, they don’t need to in a country with five time zones where local news, is the world news. In the UK, America is seen as an urban country, mainly because the news is reported from New York, Washington and LA, and films tack on Boston and Chicago. But beyond the urban centres the majority of America is rural, or semi rural, quiet unassuming towns, with family values and a warmth which is rarely represented in the media. The  friendliness and climate of Florida, and the awesome scenery of the Smokey Mountains is just as emblematic of America as the subway in NYC or the beltway around DC.

But there is one thing that connects my childhood there with the present, American music. My earliest memories are from the radio, in the mid to late sixties, the close harmonies of 5th Dimension’s “Up Up and Away”, the Mama’s and the Papa’s “Monday, Monday”, Nancy Sinatra’s These Boots Were Made for Walking”.

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As I was hitting my teens back in the UK, Jimi Hendrix, Crosby Stills Nash and Young and the Doobie Bros were always on the turntable, as was the black  sound of Motown and Philadelphia. What teenager could not instantly empathise with Alice Cooper’s “Schools Out”? Then, as my late teenage tastes matured, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Bros,, Springsteen, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers found their place- and have never left. Some American Rock is preposterous, see Kiss, Boston, Foreigner, Aerosmith, but the best is amongst the very best of the genre.

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And tomorrow we have the inauguration of Donald Trump, the least qualified man politically to assume the role of President in modern times. My heart tell me that disaster awaits, my head tells me that the Office is so great, that the sheer enormity of the job will curb his worst excesses. I hope so.

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3 Responses to A Letter on America

  1. Al Barz says:

    Great little potted biog. Makes me feel like there’s a great book waiting to unfold.
    Trump may be a presidential chump, who knows yet? But I’m sure he’ll have a battle with Congress, etc.
    Guard bless Amrrka.

  2. jaynestanton says:

    Your childhood experiences make for interesting reading, Gary.
    My daughter and I visited New York in 2007. I was struck by the kindness and good manners of strangers: when my carrier bag split on the concourse at Grand Central, a man appeared from nowhere, produced a bag from his pocket into which he packed my things and handed it back to me; map open and looking lost in midtown Manhattan, businessmen would stop and ask if we needed directions. In that huge,huge city I didn’t feel anonymous like I do in London.
    Can you still play the violin? 🙂

  3. garylongden says:

    Sadly, my violin skills have lapsed!

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