America provides the ‘Home of the Free’ to the brave

Jim Lee: Local Columnist

Since childhood I have been fascinated with politics.
As a high school sophomore I worked on John Kennedy’s campaign. I was only a kid, of course, and I just did whatever the local organization needed me to do.

I learned a lot. I saw our presidential candidate in person when he made a campaign stop in my home town. I felt part of something really rare, a special group of truly dedicated people working toward a common goal transcending the promotion of self interest.

It was special, and it made me special. I couldn’t vote yet, but I was special. I did something that meant something.
For decades that feeling never happened again. I got to the point where it faded to a vague memory. Oh, I voted. Sometimes I became slightly active during election years. I never felt that magic from 1960, though.

When I finished my time in the Army, I spoke against the Vietnam War but became upset when I saw veterans getting blamed for it and called terrible names — they were victims of those right-wing “hawks,” not perpetrators.

All that joy and hope and positive vitality of the New Frontier died with four bullets. The first one came in Dallas. Another bullet found Malcolm. Then Bobby and Martin just three months apart.

Two years later those unarmed students fell at Kent State. In a very brief period — 1963-70 — the America of ideals and progress gave up without a whimper. Evolution stumbled. A terrible technology killed what it couldn’t seize. The spirit of Thomas Jefferson openly wept. The Land of the Free passed into dust. Apes with machine guns took the Home of the Brave.

Nobody seemed to notice.

I put on my tie and polished my shoes. I had a family to support.

I voted for McCarthy, the write-in peace candidate, in 1968. He lost. So did Humphrey. Enter Nixon with a very loud silent majority. What could I do? Ideals didn’t pay the rent or buy the food.

While death and misery escalated in Southeast Asia, I looked away. After all, it wasn’t my fault. Constitutional rights fell under a fascist ideology calling itself national security. And I still looked away.

Hey, what could I do about it? I wept when no one could see me, wept for the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. Most of the time I put on my tie and polished my shoes.

I grumbled and voted. Nobody listened, and my candidates lost. The years drifted by. My hair turned gray. Aside from an all-too-short and infrequent break here and there, the country steadily edged to the right as the cast of Watergate emerged from their prisons or dropped in their graves. The Soviet Union succumbed to a free market fantasy without experience, without a plan. The sole remaining super power succumbed to “Onward Christian Soldiers” and Enron morality.

My tears for America were all used up. Hey, what could I do about it? I had to work. I did what I could do years ago. It’s somebody else’s turn now. Let the younger ones march for the Land of the Free.

So I put on my tie and polished my shoes.

When my thoughts pay a visit to the New Frontier, I distract myself with practical matters. Then I see a young soldier on CNN with no legs. He has no tie to put on, and no feet to fill his polished shoes. His eyes stare at me from the TV screen, and I see myself nearly a half century ago — but he is more special than I ever was.

Wherever he goes is the Home of the Brave, so we must provide the Land of the Free.