Teri Orr: Where — exactly — are your loyalties?
God? Bless America. And while you’re at it — could you bless this whole interrelated planet? I know the holiday is silly, selfish and really of so little consequence in the current global crisis but I will miss the trappings deeply. I will miss the fireworks off the pier of my youth in Oceanside, California. My grandparents had the tiniest beach house there filled with love. My grandfather didn’t serve in the war in a traditional sense because of a medical condition, but he worked for Standard Oil at a refinery in the desert outside of Barstow or Bakersfield or some other non-glamorous non-combat location. His wife worked too — as a gun carrying member of the L.A.P.D.
America was their country — right and/or wrong.
My mother’s first husband was a pilot in the Air Force — a handsome man who served proudly. After they divorced my mother married my father who had served in the Korean War. I recently rediscovered a photo taken during his service aboard some ship. All the men in uniforms are smiling and there is a monkey perched on my father’s shoulder. Ironic — for the rest of his life he was a man with a monkey on his back. He earned a Purple Heart in that war.
I was the era of the Vietnam War. We waited around a table in the kitchen to watch the televised announcement — which of our friends had low numbers (or high numbers, which was it?) who were going to be part of a national draft for the war no one understood. Most of those young men came home from the war — but they never came back. It was a jungle there and we were ill-prepared to fight ambush-style combat. All the men I know now who served then — have the most gnarled scars you do not see.
At home — in what should have been my college years there were protests against the war, and in support of racial integration in schools and the workplace. We women were burning our bras and discovering — with advent of The Pill — we were sexual creatures in the middle of our own revolution. We were not — the greatest generation — they had come before us. And when they returned from the wars they created a peaceful economic boom. We were and are The Boomers.
We have seen the world change more rapidly than any generation before us. We adapted to seat belts and not throwing our trash out the window while we puffed on cigarettes. We have become adapt at personal electronics — the likes of which our grandparents could not have imagined. We even watched a man land on the moon. And there hasn’t been a moonshot since.
The war we are living through right now is nothing like those our grandparents/parents faced or even like Vietnam. We understood the enemy in those cases was “over there.” It wasn’t inside our country. My adult children and their children — my teenage grandchildren — are being introduced to a global war that is happening simultaneously. The enemy is illusive and shape-shifting. The Virus -— e have reduced to calling it. A deadly flu-like illness that attacks our ability to breathe.
The convergence of that medical war has collided with 400 years of oppression in this country of people of color who we brought/bought from the continent of Africa to be enslaved to work for white people in America. My parents and grandparents were filled with derogatory names for people of color. I grew up hearing all of them. My people were mostly proud Californians. We did not come from the Deep South but we discriminated as if we did. My teenage rebellion included having black friends. I can’t tell you how much anger that caused in my home. Almost as much as when I purchased my own first car — a VW van. I was still sewing most of my own clothes from Simplicity patterns and wearing smart flats and bows in my short hair, but I was spilling out — wanting to be part of all those things that were taking place just outside the comfort zone — 20 minutes away in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Word of rallies just passed like drumbeats among us — there were no electronic quick ways to communicate. Even though a few miles south from where I grew up there were wonky shortwave radio kids around the Stanford campus working in garages with gadgets and frequencies that would soon birth Silicon Valley. To have lived in this time has been spectacular to watch the world become so connected.
It wasn’t really until after I was in my late 50s I started to travel in the world because of a conference/community I was invited to join. So I saw the Middle East, Africa and more of the United Kingdom. Lots of Canada. And I discovered the secret language of travelers — if you come with an open heart and try really — to learn some words and be game for adventures you will be rewarded … invited in. All that Family of Man stuff — you can discover over a shared meal with laughter.
And this holiday we will be missing that — the sharing with friends and neighbors — the fireworks to unite us for minutes in wonder. We celebrate our good fortune except that seems hollow knowing our good fortune exists while most of the planet doesn’t have our same privileges. And within our own country most of our residents don’t either. And the fact the planet is engulfed in a disease that attacks our ability to breathe isn’t lost on us when we see the signs now that say, “I can’t breathe.” And we are yelling and marching and angry and lighting things on fire to fuel emotional fireworks. Our country is so busy making a global pandemic political we are missing the moment. The Pause. The time to consider how to get it right. How to fix the broken pieces — how to not become anarchists who destroy only and not rebuild. Recognizing we have become more at war at home than we ever were abroad. So will we take all the knowledge and talent and creativity and love and wealth that exists in this country and use it for good? We can all agree we are in need of brave leadership locally/globally to lift us up and give us the will to serve across the planet to fix racial intolerance and climate change and a damned worldwide pandemic. This is not your grandfather’s war. This is ours. We will forever be judged when asked “What did you do in the war?” If your answer is — I posted on Facebook a bunch and went without take-out or restaurant food for weeks — you can expect your children and grandchildren to judge you accordingly. If you marched and carried signs and wrote letters and checks. … If you took walks with those suffering or sat on a porch with a friend who needed an ear or dropped off goods for a food drive — you are fighting the war on the front lines.
I will miss the picnics, the foot races and ice cream melting in the hot July sun. But I don’t want miss this chance — this piece of history where we can fully show up. Where more than 200 years after their radical ideas to form a new country started we ended up here — in the cadence of rap — boldy repeating his name … “Alexander Hamilton.”
God? Bless America … all the Sundays in this Park…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the founder and director emeritus of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.
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