Friday, August 03, 2007

Preserving: Home Part I

I am a Christian. I began the process of relinquishing my life to Christ in March of 1968. Thirty-nine years later, the difficult, yet joyful struggle to yield everything to Him, continues.

Recently, I made the decision to join an organization whose mission is to compel our local, elected officials to deal more effectively with the affliction of illegal aliens in our community. Because of my Christianity, my decision to move in this particular direction is not without some controversy. Christ, after all, did teach us to care for the poor and less fortunate. In this posting, and several that will follow, I will attempt to lay out some background history, and some specific reasons behind this difficult choice.

Before I became a Christian, I was an American. I have not always been a Christian. But I have always been an American.

In my heart, Christ is first. My allegiance is to Him.

But I also love my country. I cannot remember any moment when I did not love my country.

Earlier this month, I had the privilege of attending an event launching the campaign of Virginia House Delegate, Jackson Miller. I like Mr. Miller and plan to support him in the fall. But he is not the reason I went. Ron Maxwell, the film director and producer of both Gettysburg and Gods and Generals, gave the keynote address. I was there because of him.

I penned an entire blog posting dedicated to my experience that evening. I mention Mr. Maxwell here, because he spoke some profound words that night. And a significant component of his message focused on the importance of "home." Here is an excerpt:

"When we are aware of the past, it means we respect the past,
respect our parents, our grandparents, our great grandparents,
and the generations all the way back to the beginning of
recorded history. It means we read with exhilaration,
the historical works of Thucydides, or the artistic works
of Aristophanes and Sophocles, reaching back
over the millennia - which informs us, which makes us
who and what we are, and which enlivens us and
which broadens our small world into a world
of infinite space, an infinite space of thinking,
of contemplation, and of realizing our kinship
with the many generations that have gone before us.

"It means as well that we cherish the place where we grew up
and we regard, as you may recall from the
opening credits of Gods and Generals, astronomy;
as belonging to that little lot of stars that we see
hanging over our backyards every night; if we are fortunate enough
to live in a place that is not dulled by light pollution
all night long. It means that we cherish that homeland,
that home place,where we first realized there was such a thing
as trees and grass and wilderness and wildlife, open sky.
We all started off our lives in a place. We are connected
to those places; we are rooted to those places.
They are what make us who we are.
It is what we call home."

My life began in Cincinnati, Ohio. My first breath was of Cincinnati air. And though I have not lived there since 1960, I still consider Cincinnati my home. I visit there less frequently these days, but a piece of my heart still resides in that Queen City on the Ohio River.

Born in 1951, I entered early childhood in the era of Howdy Doody, Roy Rogers, and Rin Tin Tin. Back in those days, Today Show viewers had not yet heard of Matt Lauer, Meredith Viera, Katie Couric, Bryant Gumble, or Jane Pauley. Our Today Show was hosted by a fellow named Dave Garroway, and his chimpanzee sidekick, J. Fred Muggs.

I think the crude weather map hanging on the wall behind Mr. Garroway first clued me in to the idea of America. Sitting there in front of our tiny, black and white television set, I tried to grasp hold of America, wanting to know more.

Sometime in the late '50's, my parents bought me a book. Trails of Adventure, The Friendly Hour published in 1936, soon took hold of my imagination. I loved that book of short stories, illustrated just enough to make me want more. Reading it took me to places I never knew existed, but wanted to see. My heart swelled with wonder. I began to fall in love with America.

We lived on a heavily travelled street, right in front of a very dangerous curve. Accidents occurred frequently. Our house sat at the top of the rise on the grade of our street. Looking out from our front porch I could see a factories and a myriad of industrial smokestacks.

Half a block west, down the hill and across the road, a footbridge carried us over a busy, four-lane expressway. Standing mesmerized on that bridge with my mother, dirty old trucks belching diesel exhaust rolled noisily beneath me. I still love the smell of diesel exhaust.

On the other side of that bridge sat a different town, with more factories and the county fairgrounds. Between the end of the footbridge and that next town, several glistening ribbons of steel tracks guided black, behemoth, steam locomotives. Their trains of freight cars rolled along slowly in their wake, clanking and clacking as their engines ground to a slow stop on the various sidings. Sometimes, their lonely steam whistles split the air with a sound that seemed to pierce my very soul.

Where had those trains been? And where were they headed next? I wanted to know.

By the time I came along at mid-century, the brightly painted diesel locomotive had already delivered a huge, though not-yet-deadly blow to the black, steam-powered giants that built America. For a hundred years those coal-fed monsters had plied the rails as our nation spread west, hauling people and goods to far away places.

The railroads did play an absolutely vital role in the development of our country. The joining of Central Pacific and Union Pacific rails in Promontory, Utah in 1869, greatly eased the long, arduous, overland trip west. Soon, hundreds of thousands would make their way to the Golden State and other west coast Edens.

But the railroad industry has grown less significant in the fifty years since my days on that bridge. No longer is it the cog in our nation's economic machine. Passenger travel is all but gone save the government subsidized Amtrak system. Travel by car and plane have nearly crushed that once, thriving industry. And freight by rail has dwindled as well with the development of our Interstate Highway network, and the big, diesel-guzzling eight-wheelers carrying their loads up, down, and across our great nation.

As a four year-old boy standing on that bridge and watching those noisy steam goliaths riding on iron rails, and those filthy, malodorous configurations of steel supported by rubber rolling on asphalt, I could not visualize the vastness of the rails and roads they traversed. Nor could I even begin to comprehend that our exceptionally great system of free enterprise had set these two giants of industry at odds with one another in a battle for dominance.

The idea of America was still but a tiny seed, freshly planted in my childlike mind.

Traveling east up our street, in the other direction, we passed our local tavern and drugstore. Beyond those familiar landmarks lay a commerical area with shops and stores. We would often travel that road by car, heading to my grandmother's house. I especially loved driving at night along that busy, commercial stretch.

Back in the 1950's, neon washed the night sky with amazing color. Nothing like it exists today. Nothing. Brightly colored flashing lights crafted to look like bowling balls rolling, and pins falling down; Moving arrows pointing the way to a hotel or restaurant; A ferris wheel made of colored neon lights that flashed on and off and moved in a circle; And my favorite was the large, feather-headdressed, neon Indian, his flashing, moving finger pointing the way into a car dealership.

Beyond these sights, even further away from home, we would sometimes drive past an old junkyard. I eyed it as we negotiated a curve in the road, and began to travel down a grade. Off to the right sat acres and acres of old, battered car bodies, mostly black, piled on top of one another. That lot seemed to stretch for miles.

At my young age, I had seen so little. And yet with books, television, and the occasional travels outside of my little world, my yearning to see more deepened every day.


Our house on the curve at the top of the grade still occupied the center of my life. Trains and trucks, neon lights and a vast field of abandoned cars, defined America for me. But with each passing year, the repeat of every familiar sight, and the occasional introduction to something new for my eyes to behold, the boundaries of my world, and of my home, pushed ever outward.

At that tender age, I could not yet grasp the concept of "the way things are" vs. "the way things ought to be." It would be years before that construct would begin to grip me, and later still before it would begin to demand a response.

At the beginning of Ron Maxwell's film, Gods and Generals, folk artist Mary Fahl sings a most beautiful song touching on the love of home. On the screen, as she sings, state flags flap and flutter in the wind, one at a time, setting the stage for the dramatic story that follows. Here are the words to the first stanza of Going Home:

They say there's a place
Where dreams have all gone
They never said where
But I think I know
It's miles through the night
Just over the dawn
On the road that will take me home

Read Part II ...


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