I was born in 1939 in the Midwest. Our house was surrounded by woods, and I well remember the peacefulness and tranquility of my youth.
But even at ages three and four, I was aware that we were at war. I had toy soldiers to play with and knew that real soldiers could get hurt … though I had little idea of what war and death really were.
It was a steep climb up the hill to Mrs. Stevenson’s house next door to us. She had a big porch overlooking the woods and would invite me over to visit. Mrs. Stevenson was a refined lady who wore lipstick—even on Tuesday mornings at home, and was always well-dressed. She said she’d show me how to make stretchers for my injured soldiers. “Bring some twigs from the woods.”
I had a goodly supply of twigs the next time I climbed the steep hill. Mrs. Stevenson cut out rectangular shapes from white cloth and showed me how to tie the corners onto the ends of two twigs to make a stretcher. I could now carry my injured toy soldiers to the Red Cross, or military field hospital.
I wondered why Dad wasn’t coming home from the shop. He and three or four other men repaired electric motors for factories as part of the war effort. Working late at the shop one night — and in the darkness at the rear of the second floor — he fell down an elevator shaft, breaking an arm and a leg. Confined to a hospital bed in traction for weeks, he worried about the shop’s keeping up with demand.
I went off to kindergarten at our small township school three months after the D-Day invasion at Normandy in 1944. There was an American flag with its bright red, white, and blue colors in the corner of the classroom, and we would recite the Pledge of Allegiance. And we regularly sang, “My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty … land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrims’ pride.” But my America was still largely one of Thanksgiving feasts and Christmas presents, not really knowing that fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, were still dying for that sweet liberty.
Only later in life did I begin to understand why Dad hadn’t come home from the shop and why there were row upon row of white crosses above the cliffs of Normandy. I learned that Bedford, Virginia, lost 19 of her sons on the beaches at Normandy, a horrific toll for a tiny town in the foothills of the Alleghenies. I was gradually becoming an American.
In the late summer of 1953, I was about to start my freshman year of high school. I was still awake with the radio on while my sister and parents slept. The Korean conflict was winding down, and my brother was still serving in the Coast Guard. His best buddy Leigh Whitaker was an army medic in Korea. His unit was overrun in an attack south of Seoul. Most were killed, Leigh disappeared, and for 37 months was an MIA, missing in action.
A final list of returning POW’s was being read off on the radio. Suddenly the words came crackling over my radio, “Charles Leigh Whitaker, Cincinnati, Ohio.” I shot out of bed to wake up my sister and parents. “Leigh’s coming home.”
Newly married, my wife and I were living in Boston in 1963 when President Kennedy was assassinated, shocking the nation and particularly his home state where we were. Only later did I see the photo of Leigh Whitaker, his wife, and children with President Kennedy at the White House a few months before the assassination. Leigh and Joyce’s two children were the National Poster Children for Muscular Dystrophy.
Civil rights marches, sit-ins, Martin Luther King Jr.’s stirring “I have a dream” speech. The awareness of the limited liberty that blacks, other minorities, and women had was a disturbing but real echo of those words, “My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty.” Sweeter for some than others.
I now have a fuller understanding of what it means to be an American. All gave some, and some gave all. The boys from Bedford, POWs, army and navy nurses, my Dad’s repair shop were all part of a larger, longer effort to grant a full measure of liberty to all Americans.
What experiences shaped your understanding of being an American? Has it changed with the ebb and flow of world events and personal triumphs and tragedies? Let us all reflect on what American has been, is today, and should be in the future. And God bless America on this 240th celebration of our independence.
James F. Burns is a retired professor at the University of Florida.