|I was born an American. Unlike my grandparents, I was born in the greatest nation in the history of the world. Being born here didn't make me a real American. That took time.
I became an American, slowly and decisively over my entire life. I learned to be an American, through experiences, and knowledge, and witness. I remember moments in my life that brought me to the realization that being born here, in America, is one of the the greatest blessing I had been given.
As a young boy, I watched as my 92 year old great grandfather (an immigrant from the bowels of depravity in Italy), as he stood in a crowded church basement and took an oath, and recited the Pledge of Allegiance to this beloved country to finally become a citizen of the United States of America. For him, becoming a real member of this wonderful country was the culmination of a lifetime of work, struggle and hope, and prayers.
My great grandfather, bent from hard work, stood tall as he listened closely to my uncle, who whispered everything that was said from the podium. In those days, immigrants had to study and be tested to prove they knew enough about this country, and it's founding, history, and government, to be qualified to contribute to it's greatness.
He had done his homework, and he didn't want to miss a word.
It was that day, in the cold damp basement decorated with flags, flanked with elders and children with his fine and honorable family looking on, that he and a large group gathered to prove that they were worthy. That day this proud man who had overcome language, illiteracy, and poverty, was at last to be rewarded, he was finally a real American.
At the conclusion of the ceremony, he broke down and cried for the first and only time I ever remember in his long and distinguished life. At that moment I remember thinking, it must be special to be an American.
Then one day my 4th grade teacher (the first and only black person, man or woman with courage enough to enter the forbidden confines of my Little Italy neighborhood), called me into the hallway to tell me that I must hurry home because my beloved grandfather had just been rushed to the hospital.
My eyes must have shown my utter horror of that moment. She grabbed me and held me tightly, and did what was the single most important thing that I needed in the whole world. She comforted me in my time of need.
I remember thinking how much I loved this brave woman who found her way into my life, in this great and wonderful land. She had taught us American history, drawing upon her unique perspective. I remember looking back as I hurried away, and seeing the tears running down her cheeks. I remember being thankful this was a country, where we had fought for the rights of everyone, especially Miss Miller, who was there when I needed her. I stayed in close touch with her until her death, many years later . . . she made me proud to be in America.
I remember when my entire family attended a parade held in honor of General Douglas Mac Arthur. We children knew who he was, as we knew the names of all of our conquering war heroes. We had waited for hours to get a glimpse of the living legend, in a real ticker tape spectacular, honoring the great General's retirement. As he passed, and the crowds roared with excitement, he turned and looked directly at ME, and smiled. For that moment I was breathless, and oh so proud to be an American.
I remember another parade, where leaders of the procession, were the last remaining soldiers, surviving the civil war. These 10 or so old men and 1 woman, in their faded uniforms, were from both sides of the conflict. They waved and smiled as they were pushed in wheel chairs as
others walked slowly past a wildly cheering crowd, I broke away from my aunt and uncle (he a vet from WWI) and handed my small flag to one of those wonderful old patriots. When I returned to the sideline, I was cheered by the crowd, and kissed by a total stranger. You can bet I was so very proud to be an American.
I remember being chosen to recite the Preamble to our Constitution at my school assembly, celebrating Memorial Day. We had spent the entire year learning the history of this glorious land in our 5th grade class. All the bravery and struggling it took to scratch this wonderful country into existence. I was taught that the words in our Constitution, where not mere phrases on a piece of paper, they were the foundation of our democracy, the cornerstone of what separated us from all of the others. I learned what was the reason we had to be proud.
As I stood on that stage before my teachers and classmates, I could hardly remember my name let alone my speech. At one point during my oration, I drew a complete blank, and as my young life passed before my eyes, the principle, a stern steely man, a former veteran, leaned over and whispered the forgotten word, and winked at me as he smiled. I finished to an applause, and bowed and looked at our flag and gave thanks the ordeal was over, and that I was so proud to be a good American boy.
There was for me, a not so proud moment when my country's greatness came into my focus.
I and my friends had broken a window playing stick ball in the middle of the street. We ran like the dickens to hide before we were caught. That evening, during dinner, a hugh Irish, Chicago Police officer, came to our door. He asked if I would step out side. My mom told me to hurry and followed me to the stoop where a few of my friends were already waiting.
We were asked if we had done the deed. I looked at my mom in shame, then at my friends who were looking at their shoes, and I answered yes. He took us to the police station, and made us listen to a lecture about the poor old folks that had to scrap their nickels and dimes together to repair the damage we had done. I was crushed to think that we had inflicted so much agony on these poor people. Then we were asked if we were willing to work off the cost of the repairs, instead of the electric chair, which we were sure was the other option. I shouted my answer. . .YES!
My friends and I were given the privilege to scrub the headstones and statues of fallen patriots at our Memorial cemetery. For this act, the local Vets would replace the window. We did it happily and proudly. However, my folks and the parents of the others, made us do it every year from that point forward until we graduated from high school. Each year I read the names, and every year, there were new names added because of the passing of the old-timers, and the incredible losses in the Korean conflict.
Only now, some of those new names were men that we knew. They were the family members of my own friends and neighbors. I recall crying silently over the fresh grave of my best friend's brother, a boy who it seemed only yesterday, had taught us to play baseball. And yes dear God, I was sad, but proud to be an American.
On my 18th birthday, I stood tall at the induction center of the U.S. Air Force, and while reciting my oath, and allegiance to my country, I remembered all those things. That day I left home for the last time. I was finally a real man, and given the opportunity to say to my country, thanks from my grandpa, thanks for my family, thanks for my neighborhood, and thanks to all of those men before me that had given their all, for us to be FREE. I was proud to serve my country, and to this day I thank GOD I have a country like America to give what I could, including my life if necessary.
Yes, I am a proud American.