The path of one’s life often seems a long and winding road when one pauses to take stock and reflect on where one has been and what one has undergone to arrive where one happens to be at a point in time. What seemed to be only severe trials might appear upon reconsideration as mysteriously bestowed opportunities; setbacks and shortfalls as they viewed in the instance might now reveal themselves as safe harbors?
When one embarks from the City of Destruction and meanders toward the Celestial City, one undergoes a process of growth and development. In this context, where one started and where one is at any given time is not nearly as important as the direction in which one is moving. For me, the journey began in earnest with the premature death of my father when I was scarcely twenty months of age. This left my mother in a state of shocked grief, our household in a precarious financial condition, and me without a male role model. Little did I suspect that this tragic loss would provide time and space for me to choose and begin my life’s course.
The benign neglect of my grieving mother and the straitened situation of my family meant that I had considerable time on my hands and few trinkets and gadgets to distract me from observation, reading, consideration, and imagination. No living male was in my life to show or tell me how to be a man. The few adult women in my life cared for me, but preferred and appreciated my quiet pursuits and encouraged my curiosity about great events and great heroes of our nation’s past. They did what they could to suggest to me how a man worthy of the name would behave toward women and in the world. Noting my ability to and interest in reading, they bought me a set of encyclopedias. I also had a dictionary. Therefore, I learned the word, encyclopedia, suggested either complete instruction or complete knowledge. This fascinated me!
When it grew dark or on days with inclement weather, I could be found inside reading about science, ancient history, American history, the Presidents, animals, and whatever topics caught my eye and interest in the World Book Encyclopedia of 1954.
I was especially enthralled with the articles on the Greek and Roman civilizations as well as those on the American Revolution, the Civil War, World Wars I and II and the Presidents of the United States. I read and reread the Declaration of Independence, The Constitution of the United States, and the Gettysburg Address. In school, we regularly opened the day with The Pledge of Allegiance, Perhaps, unlike many of my classmates I knew what the words meant and meant what the words said. I swore loyalty to the Republic and a nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. Furthermore, I pledged my allegiance 180 days a year for years. The combination of this repetitious ceremony and my own reading imprinted the pledge on my mind and heart in elementary school.
As I grew older, it became apparent that America might be one nation, but that nation was fractured and liberty and justice for all was more hope than reality. Because I was committed by solemn and oft-repeated pledge to an indivisible nation with pervasive liberty and justice, this provoked concern. In this state, I listened raptly to President Kennedy’s brilliant inaugural address. To my adolescent mind, JFK spoke in the tone and tenor of the great patriots of the glory days. “The same revolutionary beliefs for which are forebears fought are still at issue. We dare not forget today that we are heirs to that first revolution . . . . In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty. The graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe. Now the trumpet summons us again …. Will you join in this historic effort? And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
The impact of this speech on an idealistic adolescent in a simpler time was electrifying. It was as though the noble spirits of 1776, 1787, 1863, and 1865 had arisen to walk the earth. My patriotic fervor soared and my determination to be all the honest, just, courageous, and benevolent things I believed an American, properly so called, should be swelled.
A bit more than two years after this mammoth infusion of inspiration, Dr. King, returned to the theme of the inheritance of all Americans – “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.... Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children…. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges….
Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.
Therefore, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."
In thirty-one months, my adolescent spirit had been bathed in some of the most inspiring rhetoric ever spoken by American leaders. My patriotic inclinations were now polished to a gleaming radiance.
The time had come for me to put my burning convictions into action and do something to help my country rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed. This perceived necessity led me to enlist in the United States Army. When I enlisted, along with all other inductees, I took an oath.
“ I solemnly affirm that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States …. “
For me this military oath merely expanded upon the Pledge I had made for years. It substituted “the Constitution of the United States” for “the Republic”, but in my mind, I had always understood the latter to mean the former. The idealistic adolescent was on the brink of a baptism of fire testing whether his convictions pass a rigorous test. In case there was any doubt of the serious nature of this new episode of my life, the U S Military Code of Conduct called on me to remember, first that “I am an American, fighting in the forces which guard my country and our way of life. I am prepared to give my life in their defense. Second, “I will never surrender of my own free will. If in command, I will never surrender the members of my command while they still have the means to resist.” Finally, “I will never forget that I am an American, fighting for freedom, responsible for my actions, and dedicated to the principles which made my country free. I will trust… in the United States of America.”
Therefore, during my formative years and throughout my coming of age experience, words and experiences rained upon me that instilled the idea of a profound personal responsibility to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Republic that makes it operational. Others have had some similar set of experiences and exposures, but few have had the combination of vulnerability, opportunity, incubation, recurrent inculcation, and consolidation that my particular life path provided to me. Despite the dangers and distractions of military service, I went to and returned from war with the deep and enduring conviction that my primary duty in life was to honor the principles, purposes, and promises expressed in the American founding documents and the words of America’s best leaders.
Some years after leaving the army, I still considered the oath unrescinded; I still sought to follow JFK’s imperative. This led me to enter public education and to teach civics. Under the basic Pennsylvania Laws for public education going back to the “Free Public School Act of 1834”, that forms the foundation of today’s school system. The key purpose is educating “children to be useful citizens, loyal to the principles upon which our Republic was founded and aware of their duties as citizens to maintain these ideals.” This purpose carries forward through the Public School Code of 1949. The code directs “. . . teaching and presentation of the principles and ideals of the American republican representative form of government as portrayed and experienced by the acts and policies of the framers of the Declaration of Independence and the framers of the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights.”
The wisdom of these laws is explained by Kofi Annan, “No one is born a good citizen; no nation is born a democracy. Rather, both are processes that continue to evolve over a lifetime. Young people must be included from birth. A society that cuts off from its youth severs its lifeline.” Therefore, my life had come full circle. In childhood, the public school system and a set of encyclopedias exposed me to historic documents, history, and inspirational articles that instilled a patriotic pride. Now, in the public school system, I am a professional responsible for conveying to young people this same information and evoking from them a similar response. What a long, strange trip it has been to go so far and end up in essentially the same place!
As a capstone, the temper of our times has created a situation where the Constitution receives frequent mention and famous people make ritual demonstrations of reverence for it. Angry groups put the Constitution on placards and wave these placards franticly; celebrity political figures pass out pocket-sized copies of the Constitution and the Declaration. Political candidates announce their pursuit of the Presidency with references to both documents. This might seem like the Celestial City except for a few things.
First, our founding documents are not talismanic objects as fragments of the purported true cross were claimed to be in medieval times. Second, their names are not incantations that banish political problems, societal troubles, or evil doers. Third, reverence and reference are useless in the absence of understanding and adherence. America’s founding documents draw their power from the veracity of their principles, the nobility of their purposes, the clarity of our understanding, the ardor of our dedication, and the fidelity of our implementation. Merely reading them in Congress or carrying them in one’s purse or pocket accomplishes nothing.
When one announced candidate for the Republican Presidential nomination believes "If the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery.", this hardly proves his knowledge of or dedication to the Constitution. When another cites the Constitution for the “little section in there that talks about "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, it hardly shows any clarity of comprehension. When a third seems to champion a school of thought that the Constitution says what I want it to and prohibits everything I do not approve this is not encouraging. Finally, when Republican who is now Speaker of the House, declared in a November 2009, addresses to a rally of people who loudly proclaimed their fealty to the Constitution, and while holding up a pocket-sized copy of this document, recited the opening of the Declaration of Independence, this is no cause for confidence.
All of these and many other exhibitions and proclamations of abject ignorance and blatant foolishness in the cause of ritualistic use of our founding documents are not productive and they are not patriotic. If the American electorate does not recognize these charlatans as the imposters, they are. If the American electorate does not renounce them and their chicanery, the Republic is imperiled.
‘These are the times that try our souls. Summer soldiers and sunshine patriots will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but they that stand it now deserve the love and thanks of man and woman.” This is what we must remember. The founding documents were forged in a crisis. They are words on parchment, but they are not just words. On these documents and in these words lie the glow of liberty, equity, and prosperity for all. It is up to those who know about, care about, and resolve to faithfully implement these documents and keep the promises they make to shove the pretenders aside.
I know not what choice others may make, but the oaths I have taken and the pledges I have made, I will fulfill. I will preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Republic that it ordains. I will never forget that I am an American patriot fighting for freedom, fairness, and full opportunity for all. I will never surrender.