USE THE CALENDAR. It’s advice I give all the time in my class, and I’m reminded of that advice here, at the holiday weekend, when I remember that my steepest and most efficient learning curve for writing in this genre came when a kind friend called to ask me to be a columnist in his new magazine. Lovely, I thought, until he said the first assignment was patriotism, one of the prickliest topics of our time. And I thought and thought, and shopped online for about four days, and thought some more, until I remembered my husband’s first year as the editor of a newspaper and how much one of us changed during that time.
This was some summers ago in Troy, New York—a scrappy city with all the beauty and history you can get along the mighty Hudson River, and all the issues editors dream about: a nearly devastated economy, civil corruption, and two parades each year in which the newspaper editor gets to ride on a float. The first of these was in June.
Rex couldn’t wait. He grew up in Rapid City, South Dakota. The drum major of his high school band, he loved a parade.
Me, I had to be out of town that day. And anyway, the idea made me very uncomfortable. I grew up in New York City. I don’t float, I said to myself. Don’t ask me. This is what came into focus as I struggled with the piece, and it began to occur to me that real expressions of national pride—much like personal pride—are a comfort we grow into, and that perhaps patriotism is not the love-it-or-leave-it choice we were once told it was, but rather the delicatessen plan that most complex issues reveal themselves to be. Maybe now you vote and you sing the national anthem, though you didn’t do either in college. Maybe right now you won’t float, though maybe some day you will. I started to think that we pick and choose and change as we grow, even on topics
as substantial as patriotism, and our expressions of it.
Now, you might not know this, but Uncle Sam was a Troy man. Sam Wilson, as he was born, was a meatpacker who supplied troops in the War of 1812, and each year there’s a parade in Troy near his birthday, September 13. By the end of our first summer in Troy, my parade comfort level had buoyed to its watershed, and there I was, eyeing a float in South Troy, New York. It was a huge replica of the newspaper my husband edited. We boarded and stood over our names as the pipers, drummers, horn players, fire trucks, clowns, school bands, Girl Scouts,
Boy Scouts, and a city on the brink of bankruptcy roared into the united task of honoring Uncle Sam.
The float lurched. There was a bar to hold with one hand. The other hand was for waving.
“What’s that?” I shouted, looking down at a box between us.
“Candy,” Rex yelled. “We throw it to the crowd.”
“We throw it at them?” I shrieked.
“No, we throw it to them,” he said.
The first gentle toss was delightful. How lovely to watch handfuls of sugary mirth cascade from our perch and to hear the shrieks of children as they scrambled to gather it. How sweet. How like Evita and Imelda and Marie Antoinette all rolled into one.
“I think I’ll just wave,” I yelled.
I’ll float, but I will not toss. I’m not comfortable with it, I remember thinking; it’s just not democratic. And it was there, amid my smug reverie on equality, that the attack was launched. We were being bombarded by incoming candy, pelted with our own ammunition, thrown by a suddenly unruly crowd.
“I’m going over,” I shouted, grabbing the rail. “Let’s go get ’em.”
It wasn’t the first—or last—time that I have felt the protective hook of my husband’s strong fingers in the back of my collar.
Instead, we learned to gauge the crowd block by block—almost person by person—over the three-hour parade route. We figured people on lawn chairs drinking out of paper bags didn’t really need any more sweets, for instance. Kids got candy. And while we misjudged a few, we learned that there was no way that the parade-goers were going to behave in any set way and do any one thing— except to celebrate the holiday of a hometown hero. Each individual was bound to respond in his or her own way to the symbols of the day.
And that’s pretty much the way America started to look to me as I crafted the essay on the topic of patriotism: One nation, indivisible, but comprised of individuals at varying levels of patriotism.