Ancestry and Ownership
Posted Father's Day, 2013
[A small bit of explanation: I wrote what will become the first ten blog postings (this is the second) back in March as a way of getting myself ready for the emotional commitment of becoming un-committed to house, home, 9-5, and regular routine. I will post these first ten bits of prose one at a time in the next twenty or so days. I hope you like them. Then we will see what follows until we actually hit the road the first week of August.]
| My Three Sons: Theodore, Jacob, and William|
Father's Day 2013
America. I almost snicker when I say I am going to see America. I am thinking of the numerous nutty sites that dot the great vast middle of the country: the largest ball of yarn, the palace made of corn cobs, Big Tex at the State Fair. Maybe it’s the second or third grave you see containing Billy the Kid, or the James Taylor Bridge. I like JT, but really, we are naming bridges after folksingers? Better than after the second wife of the County Commissioner, I guess. Is it innocence or stupidity that blankets the nation? Sticks of fried butter? Corned beef, coleslaw and French fries all crammed inside a bun? A cockroach museum? The world’s largest picnic basket? It is all one great nation of empty mental calories, junk food for the brain. I hear Simon and Garfunkel sing, “All gone to look for America,” and I
think we better pack several bags of irony to snack on as we head out. “I’ve got some Snicker bars here in my bag. . . .”
But I can ignore the idiocies that populate cable television—gator wrestlers, beauty pageant families, hoarders, and fire arms enthusiasts. So if the opportunity arises, I will muster the steely resolve to stare straight ahead as we pass the Giant Cigar Store Indian Statue in Oak Lawn, Illinois. The America I want to see, the America I want my sons to see, is the America that belonged to Woody Guthrie.
From California, to the New York Island
From the redwood forest, to the gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me
This is the America that my grandparents and their grandparents found, stretched out before them. This gigantic beautiful land with its “ribbon of highway,” “endless skyway,” “golden valley,” “sparkling sands of her diamond deserts,” “the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling.” It has been over an hundred and fifty years since the last of my ancestors immigrated to the United States, and most—basically all were of English, Irish, Scot origin—arrived before 1750. None made it past the Mississippi River until my father moved us to Central Texas in the mid-nineteen sixties. Great Great Grandfather Grant shipped himself out of Ireland in the early eighteen hundreds, labored on the railroads in New York, made his way to Western Virginia where he met a nice American girl, then traveled with her, most likely on the National Road, until they settled in Southern Illinois, already with their first child, born on the journey in Indiana. Or on my mother’s side, it was the Vaughans and Jamisons, part of that Scotch-Irish invasion that moved down the Shenandoah Valley crossing over the Appalachians after the Revolutionary War into what would become Tennessee. Imagine the newness, the glistening sheen of the land and rivers, and their sparkling dreams. As we drive across the country, we’ll play “America” by Neil Diamond, one of the greatest rock and roll jingoistic anthems: “Got a dream to take them there / They’re coming to America.”
But before you think I have traded in postmodern kitsch for traditional sentimental patriotism, replete with waving flags and Mitt Romney breaking in with “America, the Beautiful,” let me say that we will also play “This Land Is Your Land” all the way through. Woody Guthrie, that great populist, doesn’t let us relax in the front seat like tourists with a roll of American Express twenties in our pocket. After enticing us into a sweet reverie contemplating the beauties of the American landscape, he makes us choose which side we are on in the Capitalist Wars.
As I was walkin' - I saw a sign there
And that sign said - no tress passin'
But on the other side .... it didn't say nothin!
Now that side was made for you and me!
In the squares of the city - In the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office - I see my people
And some are grumblin' and some are wonderin'
If this land's still made for you and me.
I hope my sons will see this America also, not the displays of Stupid America, but the signs and remnants of Cruel America. Last year, we traveled through the South, our home territory in this nation. My wife and I have Southern roots. I was born in Alabama; my mother and sisters were born in Tennessee; Colleen’s father’s family all live in Georgia. That year, we caught the sites from the Clinton Presidential Library to Mammoth Cave to Gulf Shores, Alabama. Along the way we stopped at Central High School in Little Rock and the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. On a previous trip, we walked through Kelly Ingram Park across from the 16st Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. This coming year we hope to walk the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. The struggle to remove the “No Trespassing” signs in the United States is never ending. People are putting up new ones every day.
The question I hope my family will contemplate while we travel this great nation is who is Woody Guthrie singing this song to? Who is the “you”? This land is my land—that I know, as a middle-class, educated white man. And I suspect my sons know the country belongs to them, also. To whom is Woody singing? To men? To Whites? To men and women? To Whites and Blacks and Hispanics and Asians and Native Americans? To rich and poor? To all of us? This land was made for you and me. And my family and I are taking off to see it.
Soundtrack: Neil Young: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fy-aGEqGwtI