When I was a little kid growing up in the wilds of Canada, occasionally the topic of where you were from would come up. “I’m an American,” I would proudly say, although my only memories of the States were from four and five years old. They were spotty at best, but there’s something built into all of us. The pride of where we’ve come from. Our origin story. It’s important to us. It’s a part of us. It’s basic to our humanity, even as a child there is a pride in that.
I think it was an iron-on that came in a box of cereal. I don’t remember what kind of cereal it was but occasionally, even in Canada, cereal would come with a prize, and we would never wait until the the little treasure rolled out of the box one morning into our bowl. No, of course not. As soon as the cereal boxes came out of the grocery bags at home, we’d tear into them and pull the plastic bag out of the cardboard box. You’d shake the bag around until you could get the thing to come up to the top, tear open the bag, and grab the prize. Then you would have a hell of a time putting the fat bag back into the box. We were not always successful at this part. But this time I was able to return the bag in the box, and my prize was an iron-on of an American flag about the size of an index card.
My eyes got bright at the sight of those stars, and I thought it was the coolest thing since, well since that little plastic scuba diver. The one you would put some baking powder in one end and send down into the bathtub, and then he’d dive back up after sitting on the bottom for awhile. Then he’d do it again. Well, for me, this actually trumped that. I mean, for a little while at least. My Mom had me pick out a shirt that I wanted it put onto, and I selected my orange short sleeve sweat shirt. I watched fascinated as she placed the little decal onto the shirt and scorched it onto the fabric right about chest height, transforming my plain orange sweatshirt into American pride.
You couldn’t get me out of that shirt. It was my favorite from then on. I wore it everywhere, but I especially wore it on a vacation trip to Michigan, in the good ole US of A, where I remember saying the Pledge of Allegiance for the first time at a church gathering. I put my hand over my heart—over the flag—and I said the words. Well, I mouthed them anyway. I’d never heard them before, but I copied them as best I could. It felt good. Proud words. Good words. I didn’t understand them all, but I knew they were important. They sounded right, and I stood proud for something, something I didn’t really know all of yet.
When I was six my parents took us to a motel that had a black and white TV and we spent the weekend watching men land on the moon for the first time. I saw that American flag raised on the lunar surface. That’s what I was part of. I was an American, and that’s what we do. We do the big things, we do the impossible things, we do the great things.
Years later we moved back to Michigan. I was fourteen, and it was 1976. America’s bicentennial celebration. Two hundred years of independence. Flags flew everywhere, and I changed fifty of my beautiful multicolored Canadian dollars in for boring green ones at the customs counter. My Dad got a hold of a Bicentennial Dollar coin there, which he later took and inlaid into the stock of my grandfather’s shotgun, a family heirloom which am now very happy to have ownership of.
A couple of things struck me as amazing coming into the States. Pizza. Pizza was new to me. I mean pizza not made at home with tomato sauce and hotdog slices on dough. Pizza was awesome. I’d never had real pizza in a parlor before. I couldn’t get enough of it. The other thing was when we walked into a shopping mall. I’d been in stores before, but the shopping malls were huge in the States. I remember seeing kids walking by in the summer eating ice cream from a double cone. It was weird. They were selling these dual cone ice-creams. I’d never seen it before, or since. I thought everything must be awesome in the US. Some of it was, and some of it wasn’t.
Fitting in back in the States was a bit different than I had imagined it would be. For one thing, my people didn’t exactly welcome me home with open arms. They thought that I talked funny, and would aggravate and tease me just to get me to say things like “Bloody” this and “Bloody” that. “Shed”ule, and Zed instead of Zee. I did talk funny, now that I look back at it, but at the time it seemed perfectly normal. But for teenagers, fitting in is a priority, and I just didn’t fit for a lot more reasons than my accent and choice of words. My clothes were weird, my hair was weird, and my body was at that awkward gangly stage.
There were other things to adjust to as well. I suddenly realized that the education that I had received in Canada was about two steps ahead of everything in the small town in Michigan. Also the kids there didn’t respect the teachers. In fact, there was fighting everywhere, and I soon found myself in plenty of them, on the bus and in gym class. That just didn’t happen much where I’d come from. For one thing, in Canadian schools you just might find yourself bending over and getting whacked by a paddle or a leather strap if you mouthed off to a teacher or got into a fight with another student. But in this school, that kind of behavior was rampant. Not to mention, I was relearning things over again that I’d already learned. I felt pretty damn put out by that, and felt the need to say so, which didn’t help too much.
I also made the mistake of bringing my biology teacher a notebook that my seventh grade biology teacher in Canada had dictated to us while we made notes and drew diagrams of everything vertebrate and invertebrate as Mr. Quinn walked us through the entire spectrum of biology on walks through the wetlands and hikes through the woods. But this Michigan teacher was fascinated by the notes, and asked if she could borrow the notebook. Months later it had still not been returned to me. When I asked for it back, she said that she had somehow lost it. The excuse didn’t seem sincere. I had the sneaking suspicion that she just didn’t want to give it back to me. This was upsetting because Mr Quinn and his teaching had had a profound impact on me. Especially one time when he caught me secretly reading a book on astronomy in class. Instead of getting on my case, he offered to loan me some astronomy magazines. Best teacher ever.
When I graduated High School I decided that I wanted to join the Air Force. This was a decision based on a couple of things. My early involvement in the Civil Air Patrol, and my love of aircraft. I was also very interested in electronics since an early age. I was always building little gadgets and experimenting with this and that. So one day I ended up being sworn into the military, and as I vowed to protect America from all enemies foreign and domestic, I once again stood proud and said important words. This time I had a little more of an idea of what I was saying and what the words meant, although if had ever had to put my life on the line to protect my country I would have learned even more things about what those words really mean. It seems that my education about what it meant to be an American was constantly growing and would continue to challenge me.
I think one of my favorite moments wearing a uniform was my first time during PT when we walked out onto a drill pad that looked like the size of Texas itself. It was filled with GI’s in uniform all doing the same exercise at the same time and shouting out the count at the top of their lungs. Just as we finished our pushups, two B52’s flew over the top of us, blotting out the sky and our voices. The world shook and I got goose bumps on my goosebumps. I was an American Airman serving my country, and I felt so privileged to be there standing with my peers.
I’ve since grown older, believe it or not. I’ve been married and and raised four children, and I’ve had a lot of time to think about being an American. What does it mean to me now? I’m still proud of my starting place. Michigan will always have a special place in my memories, and though I doubt I’ll ever return to it, it’s my origin. My starting place. The place of my birth and the home of those who came before me. I’m proud of my country, and I feel the need to correct people when they bad mouth it, and bring disrespect on it and those who serve it. Have we topped out? Will this empire end? I don’t know. I can only say that until we give up trying to uphold the ideals for which we stand, we’ll soldier on. We’ll continue to press on and try to make this a better place on the Earth than the others out there. And shame on us if we ever stop trying to help the other countries in the world try to do the same. Shame on us if we ever let evil reign, or turn our backs when it rears it head. Shame on us if we ever stop pressing forward and leading the world in technology and the exploration of science, the world, and space. Because, to me, being an American means to make the most of the freedom most preciously purchased for us by others.
Don’t waste it. Reach for the stars, they’re on the flag for a reason.